Home » There Is No North-South Divide in India

There Is No North-South Divide in India


Some recent analyses of India have pointed to an increasing north-south divide in the country on the basis of politics, economics, and social mores. Politics in North India — much of which is Hindi-speaking — has been dominated in recent decades by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and reflected many of the Hindu nationalist concerns of the party, including the recent consecration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Meanwhile, society in South India is said to be less communal and more focused on human development, which has led to higher literacy rates there. South India also contributes to a greater proportion of India’s gross domestic product (GDP) relative to its population.

According to this line of argument, these regional cultural and social differences have also divided the country on political lines, with the BJP failing to make major inroads into the south. This, in turn, the argument goes, could sharpen divisions between the north and south.

While it is true that — except for Karnataka — the BJP has failed to make major inroads into the five states of South India, this does not indicate a major north-south divide so great that it could threaten to split India.

India’s other national party, the Indian National Congress, is a major player throughout most of South India. It is in power in Telangana and Karnataka. In Tamil Nadu, a close ally is in power while in Kerala it is the main opposition party. Meanwhile, a party that is allied to the BJP is the main opposition party in Andhra Pradesh.

On other fronts, India’s states present a mixed bag. Several South Indian states, such as Kerala, for example, perform well on socioeconomic indicators. But northern states like Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, and Haryana are more literate than the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Meanwhile, India’s largest state economy is Maharashtra’s, with the economy of Uttar Pradesh — the quintessential North Indian state — recently overtaking that of Tamil Nadu.

The political and social indicators of South India therefore do not necessarily form a common, differentiated cluster that sets them apart from North India as a region, particularly as literacy and GDP have grown rapidly in North India over the past two decades.

The problem with many analyses of the politics of the north-south divide in India is that they approach the issue through the politics of Tamil Nadu — one single state — and extrapolate those politics onto the rest of South India. Political life in Tamil Nadu, is in fact, an outlier in many ways compared to all of the rest of India.

Both main parties in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), are rooted in the local Dravidian Movement, which has few takers outside of Tamil Nadu. The movement posits that the Dravidian peoples of South India — those who speak a language from the language family that includes Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam — are a separate and distinct nation that needed to be drawn away from northern influence, whether in the form of Brahmins or the Sanskrit and Hindi languages, all of which were seen as impositions on a pristine Dravidian society, especially the original culture of the Tamils.

These concerns and ideas, however, failed to find much of an audience outside of Tamil Nadu, and are not mainstream positions in other South Indian states. It was primarily in Tamil Nadu where there is sometimes talk of secession and where agitations against Hindi occur.

The other states of South India are more integrated into the whole, but are certainly also proud of their non-Tamil, non-Hindi languages and cultures. Telugus and Kannadigas have their own distinct histories, and indeed by the time the British arrived in India, most Tamils had come under Telugu rule. Today, Telugu has more speakers than Tamil.

Nor have politics been harmonious between the various South Indian states. For example, there is recurring tension between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over water. With all this in mind, the idea of a divide — especially a hypothetical future political division — between the north and south of India becomes much less evident.

It may well be that there is another, emerging divide in India, between the western and eastern halves of the country. While the states of the Hindi-speaking belt are usually grouped together in analyses, sometimes under the insulting acronym BIMARU — which resembles the Hindi adjective bimar, meaning “sick,” this obscures the differences between them. The western Hindi-speaking states and regions — Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttarakhand, and western Uttar Pradesh — are doing much better economically and socially than eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Many of India’s centers of industrialization and drivers of growth — from sectors as varied as agriculture in Punjab to semiconductors in Gujarat to tourism in Rajasthan — are in North India, specifically the western part of it. Furthermore, western India, particularly the area between Delhi and Mumbai, is where new projects, including industrial corridors and bullet trains, are first implemented.

Meanwhile, many states in eastern India, whether in the north or south, are lagging behind. The state of Bihar is a well-known basket case of underdevelopment, but other states in the east are also lagging. Andhra Pradesh has fallen behind its less-populous, Telugu-speaking sister state of Telangana in generating revenues. The state of West Bengal, formerly an economic and cultural powerhouse, has failed to industrialize, and the average income per capita there has fallen behind many poorer, landlocked states whose economies depend on resource extraction. Meanwhile, the state of Odisha, despite its long coastline and political stability, remains poor.

Eastern India’s coastal states are well-placed to take advantage of trade with some of the most dynamic regions of the world to their east in Asia, but most of India’s major ports, oceanic trade, and people-to-people movement are oriented to its west, toward the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. There is no single cause for eastern India’s underperformance, as different political parties and ethnic dynamics predominate in different states, but better governance and more investment in infrastructure and industry can always help.

India does have regional differences and distinctions, but these are not as deep or prominent as believed. While it may seem that there is a divide between North and South India, many northern and southern states also cluster together on a variety of social and economic factors, and national parties are major political players in the states of the South. Moreover, it could also be argued that India has many such apparent regional differences based on economic performance and social indicators, such as between its east and west. Nonetheless, these do not necessitate a conclusion that these differences are the source of major regional and political divisions.

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