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'We will be satisfied if 29,000 farmers stop committing suicide'

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf
April 04, 2016 09:16 IST
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Shreehari Aney

IMAGE: Shreehari Aney submits his resignation as Maharashtra's advocate general to Governor C Vidyasagar Rao. Photograph: Sahil Salvi


'All that Maharashtra can give someone whose husband has died is a piece of cloth. That was extremely tragic for me.'

'If you go back historically there is no reference to Maharashtra whereas there is complete reference to Vidarbha.'

'If you think Vidarbha will look like Mumbai, then that will not happen. We don't expect it too.'

Shreehari Aney was compelled to resign as Maharashtra's advocate general after he told a public meeting in Marathwada that the demands for a separate state for Vidarbha and Marathwada were justified.

Aney tells Syed Firdaus Ashraf/ why Vidarbha needs statehood.

Did you expect your comment would create this big a ruckus in Maharashtra?

I expected there would be a reaction, but I did not think it would be of this magnitude.

Why did you raise this issue?

The occasion was the distribution of saris to the widows of farmers (who committed suicide). I was moved to tears as a representative of the state. All that Maharashtra can give someone whose husband has died is a piece of cloth. That was extremely tragic for me.

Two speakers spoke before me. One said the Marathwada situation needs to be attended to and too much of attention is paid to Vidarbha. A second said Marathwada's freedom movement needs Vidarbha's support. And since we are asking for the creation of a state of Vidarbha, therefore the creation of a state of Marathwada should also be there.

In response, I said, It is true that the Marathwada situation is bad and in fact worse than Vidarbha. I also said that Marathwada does need a state because without a state you cannot solve some of these problems (farmer suicides).

I said they need their own leadership and they do not have an evolution of the statehood demand the way Vidarbha has. We have been fighting for the last 40 years (for separate statehood).

The kind of philosophy that is needed to support this demand and the kind of economic socio-political thesis that goes with it has not yet been attempted by the leaders/people of Marathwada. Therefore, it is not a demand whose time has come.

However, Vidarbha will certainly stand by Marathwada. But don't expect that the Vidarbha leadership to lead Marathwada to freedom/statehood because even if Vidarbha gets statehood it does not follow that Marathwada will also get it. You will have to struggle on your own. This is what I said and I was wrongly quoted.

Didn't you feel as the advocate general you should not say such things? Did you just get carried away?

I did not get carried away. This has been my stance for a very long time. I think the state of Maharashtra has disregarded and neglected its peripheral areas, particularly Vidarbha, because I come from there.

I have been championing the cause of Vidarbha's freedom for a long time. I was consciously speaking about this.

As far as Marathwada is concerned, I was answering a question. I said you need it, but you have not created a demand for it. Now whether I was speaking as AG, the answer is no.

As AG, I speak in a court room. Outside the court I have my own opinion about various things. And I am free to express it. How can you say that I have no right to express my opinion?

Having said that inside the court room I have been critical of the Maharashtra government like water distribution to Marathwada. I have been bitterly fighting about non-completion of irrigation projects in Vidarbha and Marathwada.

When was the first time you felt Vidarbha should be a separate state?

I started practicing as a lawyer 40 years ago. I was practicing mainly in the rich jurisdiction of the Nagpur bench of the high court. Over time it became increasingly clear that there was a pattern of great neglect by the government of Maharashtra towards the problems of the citizens of Vidarbha.

When I got into the movement I was in my late 30s though my family was involved always.

My formative years as a lawyer led me to believe that there was a great regional imbalance that was not being attended to by the government.

Was this a deliberate move by political leaders from western Maharashtra to take the state's resources to their region?

I won't say it was done deliberately because it mustn't have begun that way initially. But over a period of time they found that there was little or no resistance to their diverting funds from Vidarbha to western Maharashtra.

And added to that was the weak leadership of Vidarbha which could not do anything about what was happening. Therefore, it fell into a kind of a habit and a pattern as though it was permitted administrative practice.

But we have the winter session of the Maharashtra assembly in Nagpur which is in Vidarbha.

Lawmakers come, sit there and go home. Our elected members have now reduced their functions to disrupting the work of the assembly. Our assemblies no longer make laws. They don't attend to public welfare.

I don't think that merely having an assembly in Nagpur is a solution to why farmers are committing suicide or why canalisation is not complete despite 40 years of building of dams.

Why has Chandrapur district been converted into a huge ashtray?

Why is the tribal population neglected?

These things are symptomatic of a larger malaise. It is not something to do with whether the assembly sits in Nagpur or not.

Historically, is there any difference between Marathwada, Vidarbha vis-a-vis the rest of Maharashtra?

Yes, there is a great deal of difference. Vidarbha was a state and was always a state and Nagpur was the capital. Vidarbha had a historic existence as a state right from British times.

Marathwada was a territory under the Nizam of Hyderabad and was not a state. Marathwada came into Maharashtra much later whereas Vidarbha was forced into the then Bombay state in 1956.

We also had a totally different culture. We were central Indians.

You know popular sentimental statements that the Shiv Sena makes -- Marathi lokancha ekach rajya (one state for Marathi people). That kind of thing does not make any sense to us because Hindi is spoken as much as Marathi is in this region.

To give you an example, my grandfather's law degree is from Calcutta University and we didn't come to Bombay or Pune for our education. My uncle is from Benares Hindu University. Before Nagpur University was established our university used to be Allahabad.

As a central Indian culture, we were always trading with the east. The British put up the Bengal-Nagpur railway in order to make sure that our cotton was taken to Calcutta and shipped to Manchester.

Our trade, commerce, cultural ethos and our socio-political make up is definitely central Indian before the Bhonsales became the lieutenants of Chhatrapati Shivaji and came as kings of Vidarbha. That is about the same time when the Gaikwads from Maharashtra went to Baroda, the Holkars went to Indore and the Scindias went to Gwalior.

All Marathi speaking people raised kingdoms in central India at that time. Vidarbha had a king from the Maharashtrian area. Earlier to that, we didn't. Our king was the Gond Raja, a tribal. The Gonds were ruling that area.

In that sense, it was a totally different state having nothing to do with Maharashtra.

Even today there is no cultural integration. We speak a different brand of Marathi. Our food is different. Our clothes are different and our association with literature, culture and art is entirely central Indian.

Why did the people of Vidarbha not oppose the inclusion of their region in Maharashtra state when it was formed in 1960?

It was bitterly opposed. 117 of our MLAs went to the House with their resignations demanding a separate state. That was the time when Gujarat was being created. Gujarat was a part of Bombay state like Vidarbha.

Gujarat walked out of Bombay state in 1960. Vidarbha wanted to walk out.

So we were promised under the Nagpur pact (which later went on to become Article 374 of the Constitution) jobs, monies and education in proportion to our population -- which meant that 22 per cent of jobs, budget, educational resources would be made available to Vidarbha.

That is something that never happened in the last 60 years.

You had leaders like then chief minister Sudhakarrao Naik and then powerful Congress leader Ranjit Deshmukh from the region...

It goes back to Vasantrao Naik who was chief minister for 11 years (1963 to 1975) who was from Vidarbha. We had a strong leader like Nasikrao Tirpude. We had leaders undoubtedly. The problem is that the need to politically control the city of Mumbai has overwhelmed Vidarbha's demand for statehood.

Whoever is in power -- whether the Congress then or the Bharatiya Janata Party now -- have not fulfilled this demand.

It cannot happen because neither the Congress nor the BJP are confident that they will continue to rule Maharashtra because they have huge affection for Mumbai. 40 percent of the revenue of the country is generated by Mumbai.

The experiment with small states has not been particularly successful. How do you expect Vidarbha to succeed?

It depends on your point of view. If you think Vidarbha will look like Mumbai, then that will not happen. We don't expect it too.

We will be satisfied if 29,000 farmers who are committing suicide stop doing so.

We will be satisfied if our tribals who are 80 per cent of our population are in a better condition than they were before.

Now to say will we be successful or not is anybody's guess. Do we need an international airport, of course we don't. Do we need a sea link like Mumbai city? Certainly not. Does the city of Nagpur have to look like Mumbai city, no.

We don't look at success in the same way. Our norms are entirely different. We have no need to measure success in the way western Maharashtra measures it.

You think farmer suicides will stop once you create a new state.

Yes, because our prioritisation undergoes a change. The highest priority will be to agriculture projects -- finishing of canals which are incomplete and making sure water reaches the farmers. Making sure Naxalism does not take over the rest of Vidarbha.

If you ask me is this progress? I will say yes it is. If you ask somebody sitting in Mantralaya then they might have a different idea about what progress is.

Marathi comes from Maharashtri Prakrit. Do you feel that this language was not spoken ever in Vidarbha and therefore they had no link with ancient Maharashtra?

Vidarbha is certainly Marathi speaking, but it is also Hindi speaking. Vidarbha's link in ancient India is that of a whole state.

You find references to Vidarbha in the Ramayan. When Ram fly backs with Sita from Lanka he points out to Vidarbha and says that the land is the birth place of Goddess Saraswati. Lord Krishna takes Rukmini as his wife by eloping with her from Amravati, which is in Vidarbha.

If you go back historically there is no reference to Maharashtra whereas there is complete reference to Vidarbha.

The state of Vidarbha's existence is known to Indian history and Indian ethos. You might not be aware that the largest archaeological sites in India are in Vidarbha. In my book Vidarbha Gatha I have written all this.

Vidarbha's history for statehood goes back to 1800. Lord Montagu recommended to the crown that Central Province and Berar ought to become a separate state. In 1938, there is a Madhya Pradesh state resolution stating that there ought to be a separate state carved out for Vidarbha and Berar.

We had a state of Central Province and Berar at a time when Maharashtra did not exist. You had the city of Bombay which was owned by the British. You had a bunch of smaller and larger principalities of kings which was called Deccan and on the other side you had the Nizam of Hyderabad to whom Marathwada belonged.

At that point of time Vidarbha was an independent, self existing, state and Nagpur, its capital, had a high court. It had a Vidhan Bhavan. It wasn't created by the Maharashtra government. Nagpur is the only town in India which lost its status as a capital city. These are, of course, emotional issues.

The Vidarbha movement today is based on an economic pitch. We don't think the state of Maharashtra is financially viable. We don't think the state of Maharashtra can afford to sustain us.

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf /