Administrative boundaries of villages, tehsils, districts and provinces keep shifting, much like the course of rivers and streams, but the administrative shift occurs because of political intervention. It is this much overlooked aspect of modern Indian history that eminent civil servant and litterateur Dr Sanjeev Chopra grapples with in his new book, We, the People of the States of Bharat: The Making and Remaking of India’s Internal Boundaries (HarperCollins). Dr Chopra, a columnist for Pravasi Indians, spoke to Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr about his book that maps state boundaries as it records the contemporary political history of India through its geography. The book delves deep into multiple boundary adjustments for every state and Union Territory in India from 1947 to the 75th year of independence.
‘‘You cannot make a watertight compartment between cultural identity and political assertion. Culture and language are very significant factors in political mobilisation.,,
Excerpts from the interview:
It seems that you were drawn into the subject, based on land surveys and records. Does it go back to your early days as collector/commissioner at the district level where land issues crop up in the dayto- day administration?
Let me say that my visit to the Surveyor General’s office acted as a sort of trigger. Managing land records, adjudicating revenue disputes, initiating and following up on land acquisition is certainly a core part of the job at the district level and for districts like Cooch Behar and Murshidabad where I was posted as ADM and DM, the disputes on the border get an international dimension. I would certainly say that the Teen Bigha dispute and the issue of enclaves were always there at the back of my mind when it came to settling border issues.
What struck you most about the land surveys and records? Are they accurate? Do they reveal the changing patterns of society and agriculture?
We are now adopting technology in a very big way to manage our surveys and our land records. This has made the system far more transparent. I have to admit that the revenue system had become quite opaque and left a lot to discretion at the level of the local revenue officials. It was also very difficult to retrieve any records. There is still one step to g —the integration of revenue and registration records. This integration will make it easier to transact regarding agricultural land. We must also recognise that proper land and revenue records are the precursor to land leasing and partnership farming in agriculture.
At the macro level, when it came to the question of linguistic reorganisation of the states, did the matter of drawing boundaries become an issue of cultural identity or was it just political?
It was both. You cannot make a watertight compartment between cultural identity and political assertion. Culture and language are very significant factors in political mobilisation. Also, there is nothing like ‘just political’. Every demand that is articulated is, has the potential of morphing into a political demand. As I mention in my book, the SRC report, the Shah Commission report and the Mandal Commission report are the three most read reports in the country. In the case of the SRC report, there were so many arguments and counter arguments especially when it came to the reorganisation of the borders of Punjab, West Bengal, Bombay and Andhra Pradesh.
Do you feel confident that, despite all the differences of language and culture, the Indian state is strong and the fear that it will break down is misplaced?
The recognition and celebration of diversity is what will keep the nation together. The counter factual is the breakup of Pakistan for not respecting the cultural and linguistic identity of a major constituency. To me there is no contradiction between being a good Punjabi and a good Bengali as well as a proud and confident Indian. Do we not sing our national anthem with equal fervour? One must also understand that India is not just a nation state … it is also a living civilisational entity. Let’s go to the very first shloka of the Bhagwad Gita in which Sanjaya is asked to describe the armies on the sides of the Pandavas and Kauravas. Does it not, therefore, mean that even in times of war, the basic understanding is that all these are armies from within the larger construct of Bharat? I must end by mentioning that the title of my book is about the states of Bharat, which also means that while the internal boundaries of states within India are amenable to change, Bharat is not!