The Cantonization of India

The word canton, as a noun referring to a district of a nation, is best-known in the context of the Swiss cantons, which form the basis of the Swiss Confederation to this day. A complicated and organic history of these areas has led to the splitting of states based on religious and linguistic and cultural grounds, so that local separatism does not lead to dangerously high tensions within the nation as a whole. The relevance of this particular design to allow division of smaller provinces within a larger nation as a way of seeking greater overall unity is a model that has particular relevance to the nation of India.

As some people may be aware of, India recently held its general elections for the Lok Sabha (India’s Parliament), and those elections were won by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, which took 336 of the 545 seats, giving the outgoing government a crushing defeat. The new leading party (which also led India from 1998-2004) has a reputation for being Hindu nationalist and happens to be neoliberal (largely free trade) and social conservative in nature, making it look like a fairly ordinary center-right party with some distinctive Indian cultural roots. However, the size and complexity of Indian society has led to the importance of regional political parties (although the current government has enough seats to govern apart from its coalition, which ought to make it a stable one for this five-year period (as the next election is scheduled for 2014).

Although this particular blog is not generally focused on the affairs of India, as it is a nation I have never visited, India is one of the most popular nations in terms of the readership of this blog and from time to time I have dealt with issues more specific to India here [1]. The contemporary importance of India’s state identity makes the idea of cantonization with its goals of decreasing internal tensions of particular relevance given the size and importance of India, even if its affairs do not tend to receive much information in the United States.

One of the more important issues of the recent Indian election [2] was the creation of the state of Telengana as the 29th state of India, which occurred as almost the last order of business in the last session of India’s Parliament before the recent election. Telengana contains about 40% of the population of the state it was a part of (Andhra Pradesh) as well as its largest and most important city, Hyderabad, which will be the capital of both states for the next ten years until Andhra Pradeseh has to choose a new capital within its new state borders. The law was promoted by the outgoing government led by the Congress Party (most famous for its domination by the Nehru and Ghandi families throughout India’s history), and the incoming government has taken a rather agnostic view of the state, taking a wait and see attitude to see if it is a successful solution to at least some of India’s internal problems. It is rather striking that a nation the size of India has only 29 states even with this new division, given the linguistic and religious and cultural diversity of that nation.

Given the internal tensions within India, it is remarkable that more divisions to form new states are not more common. For most of India’s history, after all, India has been divided into a wide variety of mostly small petty kingdoms that held sway over cities and their surrounding areas. It is only strong leadership among empires like the British Raj, the Mughals under their stronger leaders, or the Maurya Empire, where the area we consider India was united under one government. Rather like Germany and Italy, and unlike China, for example, disunity has been the norm in India’s history rather than unity, which makes the stability of the modern Republic of India a matter of considerable importance in nation-building.

After all, it is not as if Telengana is the only major state-level separatist movement within India. In fact, it is not even the only state-level separatist movement within Andhra Pradesh, as part of the residual portion of that state, Rayalaseema [3], has longstanding concerns about the lack of interest in infrastructure development among the government of Andhra Pradesh in their specific area, and the loss of the area of Telangana may only make these separatist pressures more immense as the proportion of Rayalaseema within Andhra Pradesh goes up from about 17% to something in the area of 30%. The success of session efforts tends to inspire others with similar grievances to seek the same solution to their own problems in uneven expenditures and development within areas.

Nor is Andhra Pradesh the only part of India where separatist pressures are heavy. Not by a long shot [4]. Given that the division and union of states is very uncommon in the United States (where the separation of part of a state requires the consent of the state that is being separated from, which makes it a very rare thing in the United States, limited to rare examples like Maine and West Virginia), it is worth examining that the authority to create new states and territories is reserved to the Parliament of India alone, which can act without the permission of the states themselves. It would stand to reason, though, as occurred in the case of Telengana, that the separation of a state would have political consequences in the areas that are left behind for the party and leaders responsible for that separation, which would tend to counteract tendencies to overuse cantonization as a solution to local political drama.

In some cases, it is not so much a matter of desiring to divide a state but to promote a union territory (which is administered at least partly by the central government) to the level of full statehood, as is the case with Delhi, which like the District of Columbia is an area under central government authority (as the capital district) and not a fully responsible state of its own. Of course, Dehli is an area with nine districts totaling about 22 million residents, making it larger than all but a couple of the states of the United States on its own, and it already possesses its own legislature and courts in the fashion of India’s states. In other occasions, the concerns are over ethnic differences as well as chronic underdevelopment that lead some areas to think that they would be better off as their own states able to spend their own development money rather than receiving a less than just share of the funds given to a larger state. Even with the possible loss of efficiency that results from splitting states, the issue of corruption is sufficiently serious to warrant cantonization as a serious solution to India’s numerous issues.

In no case does the issue of cultural and religious difference make a more glaring case for cantonization than in the division of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The area of Dogradesh/Jammu was only connected with Kashmir in the first place because of a sale of the land from the British to the Raja of Kashmir. Jammu is mostly Hindu (while Kashmir is mostly Muslim, except for Ladakh which is Buddhist). A tripartite split of this particular area would give each of the major faiths of the area their own domain, which ought to decrease tensions in an area that is full of them, and that ought to give the major faith communities a chance to avoid marginalization in elected government and in state services. Again, a lack of trust between different communities makes cantonization a viable solution to serious internal dissension. There are plenty of other examples of this, where areas like Mithila and Tulu Nadu seek their own states to ensure that their populations receive a fair share of infrastructure and government services.

These common concerns reflect the fact that trust is at the basis of effective civil government. This trust is somewhat complicated in many cases, because it does not only mean trust in the highest levels of authority in a given state or institution, but trust along every step of the way. Wherever that trust breaks down, there will be a desire for autonomy or separation from those authorities that are not trusted. Even where a national authority (like that of India) has broad legitimacy, states may not have that same level of trust, which may lead to fragmentation within those states, as a way of demonstrating lack of trust. Those states that are divided into smaller ones would lose influence relative to larger and more coherent ones, which would mean that influence on a national level would be at least somewhat dependent on a state’s ability to deal with its varied population in ways that are viewed as just and fair. All of this makes India’s cantonization a social experiment in democracy not unlike that of Switzerland centuries ago, even if considerably larger in scope. What the results of that experiment are is as of yet impossible to say, and worthy of our notice and attention.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:,_2014,_2014



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to The Cantonization of India

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