INDIA: The Forces of Babel

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"Strong disruptive forces are at work," Jawaharlal Nehru told admiring throngs as he toured South India last week. "But India, from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, is going to remain one solid, united entity in spite of everything and everybody." Among the forces Nehru had in mind were the forces of Babel, for India is a nation of 14 major tongues and hundreds of dialects. He hoped, by recognizing India's diversity, to unify it.

Purpose of Nehru's speechmaking was to ask for calm and reasonable response to the implications of a report of his States Reorganization Commission, which has toiled for two years at redrawing India's map. The 29 states which now make up India are an administrative jumble whose boundaries bear little relation to the languages of their people or administrative needs of government. Some states have strong local governments, others are virtually run from New Delhi; some were shaped by the British, others by old princely fiefs and tribal conflicts.

Fissiparous Trend. Two years ago Nehru created the first language-based state, Andhra, under pressure from Telegu-speaking people of Madras, whose rioting was sparked by Communist agitators. The example of Andhra inspired language groups all over India to cultivate what Nehru branded as "fissiparous tendencies" and to demand their own states. The Babel-like hue and cry would have seemed ominous, indeed, but for a happy outcome in Andhra. There, in the first state election, with language no longer an issue, the Communists could no longer whip up hatreds, and were themselves soundly whipped. Thus encouraged, Nehru saw advantages in giving as many people as possible a government which spoke their own language.

The commission's plan (see map) is to reduce India's 29 states to 16, all of them with a full measure of local government: four northern Hindustani-speaking states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan), two southern Telegu-speaking states (Andhra, Hyderabad), one state each for eight other languages, and two bilingual states (Punjab, Bombay). New Delhi fears harsh reaction to any changes, particularly in Punjab, with its proud Sikhs. Reduced to a minority (32%) among Hindi-speakers in an enlarged Punjab, the Punjabi-speaking Sikhs may turn their resentment into violence when the map-changers go to work.

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