INDIA

Separatist who burnt himself to death for 29th Indian state

This gruesome poster shows an IT student burning to death after setting himself alight at his university in the central region of Telangana, which he believed should be autonomous from Andhra Pradesh (AP), the state in which it lies. The young martyr is not the only one from the disaffected area, where more than 200 people are thought to have committed suicide in a desperate plea for autonomy. Read more...

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Photo by Jessica Bachman.

This gruesome poster shows an IT student burning to death after setting himself alight at his university in the central region of Telangana, which he believed should be autonomous from Andhra Pradesh (AP), the state in which it lies. The young martyr is not the only one from the disaffected area, where more than 200 people are thought to have committed suicide in a desperate plea for autonomy.

Twenty-three-year-old K. Venugopal Reddy, who was in his final year of his master of computer applications degree at Osmania University, Hyderabad, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight on 20 January 2010. A note found nearby his charred body demanded the immediate amputation of Telangana from AP, India's fifth largest state.

According to Telangana independence activists like Reddy, the province remains an underdog in the area, deprived of water and public service jobs. Telangana is generally considered the most backward of the state's three provinces. It is home to one third of AP's 80 million residents. While regional Telangana political parties have been lobbying the central and state governments for a separate Telangana state since the 1950s, the movement has only become violent in the past six months.

It's believed that in that time, between 100 and 200 people — most of them young — have committed suicide for the cause. The suicides come as part of wider unrest, which has seen continued clashes between activist university students and the police in Hyderabad, the local capital and flashpoint of the Telangana state crusade.

Telangana is not the only province fighting for an autonomous state in India. Neighbouring Greater Rayalaseema also wants to count itself out of AP, and in the north of the country, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha movement is fighting to create another separate state called Ghorkaland, while in Pakistani-bordering Jammu and Kashmir, fierce campaigns to leave India altogether have been raging for decades.

The central powers fear that giving autonomy to one state could create a domino effect across the country.

“The main benefit of separate statehood lies in the completion of irrigation projects and just allocation of water resources”

Siddartha Pamulaparty, 27, grew up and went to university in the Warangal district of Telangana. He is currently on a temporary work assignment in Boston and has participated in many Telangana demonstrations in the US through the Telangana NRI (Non-Resident Indian) Association.

Telangana students have taken to the streets, putting their education and careers on the line for Telangana. But when police began arresting students earlier this year, the politicians who claim to represent the agitators stayed out of the fray, refusing to support the activists on the ground. Many student activists have been deeply emotionally disturbed by this perceived abandonment. It is most unfortunate that some them arrived at the conclusion that only an act as extreme as suicide could pressure the politicians into action. 

The main benefit of separate statehood lies in the completion of irrigation projects and just allocation of water resources. In my hometown of Warangal, there is no regular supply of drinking water. Telanganites have fought to no avail for a fare share of AP's water resources for six decades. If Telangana becomes its own state, rural parts of the district will finally get irrigation.

This scenario would also dramatically improve the region's dismal farming situation. Hardly a day goes by when you don't read in the paper about a farmer suicide in Telangana. During the dry season thousands of Telangana farmers fall into despair; the land is their only source of income and they have no way to irrigate it.

A separate Telangana will also mean more development for the region, which lags well behind other AP provinces in terms of infrastructure, industry, commerce, health care, agriculture and education. We are also confident it will put an end to the discrimination against Telanganites in the regional market for state jobs. As it stands now, Telangana youth get passed up for jobs in favour of applicants from the state's Andhra region. This is because Andhra bureaucrats fill high level positions in the Telangana region."

“Telangana politicians see the morbid publicity of youth suicides as a way to coerce the central government into yielding to their demands”

Jessica Bachman is a journalist and blogger who is based in Bangalore. She visited Hyderabad the day after K. Venugopal Reddy killed himself. All photos are by Jessica.

Shops and roadside vendors were closed for business. Classes were cancelled in schools and institutes of higher education. Women and children were nowhere to be seen. And the streets, normally abuzz with bullock carts, motorbikes, lorries and pushcart vendors, were conspicuously mum.

Paramilitaries taking a break.

I waited on the street for a half an hour before finding a rickshaw driver willing to take me to Osmania's main gates. He charged me triple the normal fare to compensate for the danger posed by the route.

A police checkpoint at Osmania university.

During pro-Telangana bandhs [strikes] marauding groups of young male students have the streets to themselves. Toppling three-wheeler rickshaws, smashing cars and burning buses are their preferred protest manifestations.

On campus I was greeted by several groups of rioters shouting 'Jai Telangana', or 'Victory to Telangana', and other protest slogans in Telugu, the main language in AP. An hour before, the groups had set fire to a truck parked on the side of the main campus street.

Morbid photos of Reddy burning to death decorated college building facades. Others hung ominously above pedestrian walkways on campus billboards. Reddy's death scene was also depicted in a colourful sand painting on the ground outside the university's Arts College.

Reddy's tragic death is one in a string of recent politically motivated suicides being highly publicized by the pro-Telangana parties. Most recently, on March 9, Sai Kumar Meegada, a 20-year-old Osmania student, hung himself from his dorm-room ceiling fan. His suicide note read: 'I am sacrificing my life for Telangana.'

But while Telangana politicians may see the morbid publicity of youth suicides as a way to coerce the central government into yielding to their demands for the creation of a new state, the latter has come out strongly against such extreme behaviour.

The home minister, P. Chidambaram, the key central government figure involved in statehood negotiations, has entreated pro-Telangana activists, parents and teachers to refrain from encouraging extreme and violent behaviour in Telangana since such actions will bring nothing but harm to their cause."