India is a country of 16% of world population in the sub-continental dimension of 2% of world area in size having large geographical regions and sub-regions within it. The large spread out regions are marked by distinct diversity of culture like languages, social customs, ways of life and they are also at different stages of socio-economic development. The phenomenon of regionalism is basically a product of diversity in India. Regionalism is a phenomenon in which people’s loyalties become focused upon a regional identity. It also implies people’s love of a particular region in preference to the country and in certain cases, in preference to the state of which the region is a part. Therefore, the issue of regionalism is centered around the concept of region.
Regionalism in India is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. It has its varied bases in the history of post-independence India. India has witnessed the phenomenon of linguistic regionalism, communal regionalism, caste-based regionalism and economic regionalism.
The process of regionalism becomes deadly when it is combined with the issue of language and religion. As we saw in the past, when a string of demands surfaced for the creation of separate states based on linguistic regionalism, which resulted in the formation of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Haryana etc. Again, the communal regionalism had taken shape in the states of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir under the garb of language.
But above all, it is the phenomenon of economic regionalism which has assumed greater significance in the context of contemporary Indian politics, as it forms the crux of regional politics. Economic regionalism should be seen in the overall context of the Indian economy and planning. India is still a developing nation where the resources are limited, while the demand for distribution of these resources for the development of several regions is disportionate to it. Therefore, the economic planning of the country has led to regional imbalances and wide economic disparities among various regions resulting in corresponding discontentment among them. The prominent example of this is the fact that most of the demands for constituting new states were mainly based on allegedly unfair and unequal distribution of the fruits of development and expenditure. For example, Telengana in Andhra Pradesh, Vidarbha in Maharashtra, Saurashtra in Gujarat, Gorkhaland in West Bengal and Bodoland in Assam etc. The erstwhile movements for Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Chhatisgarh were primarily of this nature. The demand for separate states in these cases are mainly on the premises that these regions have been economically deprived and exploited by their respective states. Thus, economic factors assume prime importance in the politics of regionalism in India.
One of the dangerous trends of regionalism in contemporary Indian politics can be seen in the form of political and populist basis of this phenomenon. It would be relevant here to point out that politics itself does not create regionalism. Whenever and wherever, there arises a situation of regional discontentment, unrest and grievances, the politicians take advantage of the situation by giving the issue a political and populist shape and colour, so that it touches the emotion of the people for their regional interests. In reality, they convert it gradually into a movement for strengthening their individual and factional support bases. In this respect, it is an open secret that the fighting within the congress gave rise to Telengana agitation, anti non-Maharashtrian movement of Shiv Sena was able to grow in strength due to the support of top congress leaders; regional political parties like TDP, DMK, Akali Dal, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Assom Gon Parishad etc. are in existence because of the persisting regional sentiments. Again, border disputes between Maharashtra and Karnataka and Cauvery Water disputes between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, which had caused lots of agitation in the recent past, are based on regional sentiments of the people.
From the above explanation, it can be easily inferred that the phenomenon of regionalism is a concrete reality in Indian politics and is unavoidable in a country so vast and diverse as India. But what is really important in this context is its different aspects. Regionalism is really unhealthy and impedes the process of national integration, if it is based on populist and parochial issues for narrow political gains and takes the violent form against the people and purpose of other regions. It is malfunctional when it goes to the extreme and runs in a wrong direction by giving rise to secessionist forces and fissiparous tendencies, as witnessed in Punjab (1980’s) and many North-eastern States and in Jammu & Kashmir. Since it offers serious challenge to the unity and integrity of nation, the Union Government, therefore, takes strong action which sometimes incurs resentment of the local people. Hence viewed in above perspective, the phenomenon of regionalism or subnationalism is not at all desirable as it blinds the people of a particular state or any region of its part to the extent that they have no moral compunctions or rational considerations in staking their claim to what even goes against the interest of the country as a whole.
However, there is a positive aspect of regionalism also which is usually ignored by its critics. Looking at the growth of regionalism and mushrooming of regional parties always as a threat to national unity and integrity is misleading and illogical. Regionalism and regional parties do not necessarily believe in secessionism, they in fact, only want to protect the interest of their respective regions. Hence, regionalism (except few instances of sessionism or in extremely violent form) is not always opposed to national unity, interests and integrity. Both of them can co-exist together in a creative partnership. In fact, both stand for the cause of development but the difference lies in their emphasis and priority. While regionalism stresses the development of a particular region, national unity and integration emphasises on the development of the nation as a whole. Therefore, what is needed is to reconcile the competing claims of regionalism and national integration under the overall framework of real federalism and true democracy in India. Nationalism does not mean the bundling together of diverse regional and sub-regional elements; instead it requires reconciliation between the two set of forces.
Further, regionalism has led to the growth of co-operative and bargaining federalism in India and has the potential to bring out true federalism, if states are given more financial autonomy and free hand in the development process. The dominant role of regional parties in the formation of central government is a point in favour of them to contribute towards the national political stability. Thus, it plays its part in political development as well. While it encourages the people to agitate for their claims, it also aspires them to establish a reconciliation between regional and national interests.
In sum, for a healthy political growth the solution to all regional problems lies in increasing the pace of industrialisation coupled with providing adequate physical and human infrastructure equally to the people of all regions of India. The accelerated and balanced economic development of all regions could be achieved in the atmosphere only of peace, co-operation, compromise, amity, understanding, accommodation and adjustment of competing claims of regions and national interest.