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A politician hungry for change in India

Here’s an interesting hypothetical question: If someone went on a hunger strike in India, where roughly 27 percent of the world’s undernourished population lives, how would anyone know?

The reason I ask is because K Chandrasekara Rao, a politician in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, has been on a hunger strike for 13 days now and shows no signs of letting up. Presumably, most of the people Rao represents would probably consider 13 days without food a typical fortnight, but we should not let that detract at all from the urgency of his protest.

A member of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti party, Rao has vowed to continue his fast until the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh is granted separate statehood. Unlike similar separatist movements in places like East Timor and Quebec, however, the Telangana separatist movement is not about forming a new country; the Telanganists just don’t want to be in the same state as the rest of Andhra Pradesh.

An American equivalent would be if the people of Kansas City decided they’d had enough of St. Louis and tried to form the state of West Missouri. As you can imagine, there would be much bloodshed and bitter debate over which Missouri got to keep Branson, and Columbia, smack dab in the middle of the state and home to the University of Missouri, would likely be split down the middle much like Berlin was following World War II.

Of course, Telangana, described by BBC News as “underdeveloped and drought-prone,” likely doesn’t have anything as exciting as Branson to fight over, but that has not dampened the enthusiasm of Telangana secessionists one iota. It’s a cause worth dying for, and they are prepared to do just that to get their way.

“Either a victory procession will come out, or my funeral procession will come out,” said Rao. “The decision will have to be taken by the government.”

The government will have to be forgiven, though, if they appear to not be taking Rao’s threat seriously. You see, he launched a similar hunger strike in 2006 that resulted in neither Telangana statehood nor his own demise, so there seems to be some question as to his commitment. Granted, I’d have a hard time making it 13 hours without food, but I’m an American and thus not used to going more than a few minutes without cramming something in my piehole.

Serious threat or not, however, Rao’s fast has served to spur his fellow separatists to action. In the last two weeks, government offices, public transportation hubs and private property in the state capital of Hyderabad and nine other districts have been attacked by Telangana Rashtra Samiti party workers. Likewise, students at two major universities in the region have launched Telangana statehood movements, prompting the local government to close schools and colleges for two weeks to keep the protests from escalating.

So what are the chances that Rao’s hunger strike and the student and party-worker protests will have the intended effect and lead to Telangana being declared a separate state? Well, if history is any guide, the chances are pretty slim indeed.

The calls for a Telangana state started more than 50 years ago, and in 1969 more than 400 people died as a result of violence stemming from the secessionist movement. I’m guessing that if they weren’t moved by 400 civilians being killed, Indian government officials are unlikely to care too much about one unimportant politician starving himself.

Besides which, Telangana is just one of about 18 different districts in India that are currently demanding their own statehood. With so many separatist movements, including one in the national capital region of Delhi, Telangana probably doesn’t merit much debate on the floor of Parliament.

So Rao will likely become just another statistic, joining the more than 230 million Indians currently considered undernourished. Sure, he’s probably lost a lot of weight already and looks unhealthily skinny, but I assume that’s pretty much par for the course in India.

My advice to Rao would be this: Eat something. Starving yourself is unlikely to accomplish your goals regardless of how many times you do it. If Telangana hasn’t become a state despite 50 years of protests, it probably isn’t going to become one anytime soon.

And yes, I realize it might seem embarrassing for you to cave in and end your strike without dying, but that shouldn’t concern you too much. You chickened out three years ago, and nobody cared. You can do it again.


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Todd Hartley

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