Kannadigas a National Blindspot?
Prasad, it is reported, made some remarks recently about 'dirty
Kannadigas'. This was followed a few weeks later by tense days and vandalism in Mumbai, Nashik and Pune around Raj and Bal Thackerey's
utterances about 'unwanted North
Indians'. Both episodes force us to revisit the perennially alive (if
sometimes dormant) and disturbing issue of linguistic and regional
The reasonable mind, we hope, will immediately reject the characterization
by the Thackerays, as an obviously false
generalization motivated by a pernicious (and therefore far from honest)
But what about the former?
It is different in a very basic way. It is an allegation made
against a language group by someone outside of it and is therefore not
quite the same as an attempt by a group to assert or delineate its
collective identity, from the inside. One can think of three possible
motives for his comment, if indeed it was actually made. It could have been a deliberate attempt to
denigrate a language group (should we now say ethnic group?) It could
have been an angry outburst, made in a moment of temporary insanity, one
that most often ends up creating a scapegoat, in this case, the Kannadigas (we are, after all, told that he was served a poor replica of
Bihari food, was made to wait like an ordinary citizen at a railway
crossing and that it was a hot day - all good reasons, we are to
suppose, for a union minister to trash his subjects) But worst of all,
it could be some sort of perceived and claimed statement of the truth, a
What is important is how the wider public appears to have responded to these two
recent examples of 'hate' speech.
Among unsolicited opinions about these events that we collected, we have
seen the following kinds of responses from those who might consider themselves Kannadigas, in whatever ways:
a. Outright condemnation of Lalu's remarks and behaviour as being
patently unworthy of anyone, leave along someone in public office. Such
condemnation was however accompanied by pleas to ignore the comment and
let it pass without further attention.
b. Angry protests in Bangalore and Delhi by the Kannada Rakshana Vedike
(KRV) - a self proclaimed Kannada rights and Kannada pride group
c. Immediate and unequivocal criticism of the anti-North-Indian
demagoguery of the Thackerays for being nativist, purely political in
motive, patently unfair and so on
And this is what we heard from those who might consider themselves, non-Kannadigas:
a. Criticism of the KRV for being a bunch of hooligans and of its
methods of protesting
b. Immediate and unequivocal criticism of the anti-North-Indian
demagoguery of the Thackerays as being fascist, nativist, purely
populist-political in motive, and so on
But, in this case, not a squeak about Lalu's remarks.
It is this asymmetrical response that we find both intriguing and
revealing and is also, we suspect, what is at the heart of the identity
crises felt so acutely in rapidly populating and growing cities like Bangalore.
There has truly been a conspicuous absence of the non-Kannadiga voice in
condemning Lalu's mischievous remark. Why is it that it is easy to
condemn one (Thackeray) and not the other (Lalu)? Is there really an
anti-Kannadiga sentiment in the air? Or perhaps more realistically, an
indignation-neutral, aKannadiga sentiment? We have to suspect that this
is the case.
Something about the Kannadiga makes everyone else (and perhaps, on
occasion, the Kannadiga herself and himself?) a little unsure about what
Kannada-ness is. This also means that no one is sure if it is a good or
bad thing (given that we live in such evaluative times) or whether it is even worthy or worthless.
What is Kannada-ness? Is it its much celebrated literature ? Of Kuvempu,
Karanth, Bendre, Masti, Gokak, Ananthamurthy, Karnad, Kambara, Tejasvi
et al? Is it its impressive folk arts? Or does it lie in its monuments - Kadamba, Rashtrakuta, Chalukya, Hoysala, Vijayanagara, Adil Shahi, Barid
Shahi, Wodeyar? Is it Visweswaraya and the "progressive" Mysore era? Is it late 20th century Bangalore and its IT ? Or life in
its coastal districts? Or Malenadu and the western ghats? Is it that
crucible of Hindustani music, Dharwad, that gave us Bhimsen Joshi,
Basavaraj Rajguru, Gangubai Hangal, Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur?
Is it its impressive and original thinkers, from Basavanna to AK
Ramanujan and DR Nagaraj? Is it its living theatre (from KV Subbanna to
Rangashankara)? Is it Raj Kumar? Is it insufferable auto drivers? Or
Vatal Nagaraj and the Kannada chauvinists? Or, indeed, is it the newly
The simple answer is that it is all these things and vastly more.
However, what it lacks is quick averaging in the contemporary Indian
mind. There is no average yet of 'Kannada-ness' in the way that there is
an averaging of 'Tamil-ness' or 'Bengali-ness' or perhaps
'Gujarati-ness' in the wider public eye. Averaging is of course an
incomplete measure of anything, leave alone a vast body of people or a
culture, but that is what gets used to judge in a short mental second.
(And what we seek to inquire about here is not the truth of what it is -
but how Kannada-ness is at first glance perceived)
By way of analogy, we will hazard a guess of what 'Tamil-ness'
translates to, in the contemporary Indian mind (again, no suggestion is
being made here that this is the reality, but merely an attempt to state
the perception) It would be something like the following: highly
self-respecting culture, strong anti-Hindi sentiment (so better watch
out), ancient language and culture, fabulous temple architecture,
crucible and sole owner-creator of idly-dosai-sambar, Carnatic music,
Bharatanatyam, huge film-actor-politicians and perhaps in a more recent
and relative context, efficient governance. Tamil-ness is further, among some sections
of us, equated to Madrasi-ness and that is equated, in turn, to
One could take a similar stab at perceptions of Bengali-ness or
Gujarati-ness, which we will not attempt to do. The long and short of it
is that there is an assessment of these cultures and largely, these
examples turn out to have a strong, distinctive flavour.
No such luck for Kannada-ness. What the contemporary Indian eye sees, is
extremely little of it. Just by way of example, in a recent Khushwant Singh piece, on the issue of the language divide, he
makes the following statement: "we failed to make Hindi acceptable to
all Indians, and regional languages - Oriya, Bengali, Assamese,
Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Punjabi have more than
held their own ...". That sums it up. There is not even a mention of
Kannada here, in a fairly extensive list of linguistic regions. There is
a blindness. Oversight, of course. But out of sight would suggest out of
What is seen as Kannada-ness are only its most limited and 'problematic'
faces. Such as Deve Gowda and Bangalore's woes - bad traffic, bad
infrastructure, bad city management and some chauvinism. And this is
what, very unfortunately, is used to assess it. When it comes to
Bangalore's growth (favourite fodder for those fascinated with the 10%
India growth story) it is most often attributed to immigrants (and
undoubtedly they are great contributors to that growth as immigrants
anywhere in the world are), or its cosmopolitanism, in some peculiar
sense of that word. There has even been an accompanying discourse over
the years, about the lack of initiative and passivity of the locals (for
related perspectives, see:
Changing Urban Culture, Our
Chauvinism). Yet when it comes to its growth
problems, it is the locals' (the word used almost always in a pejorative
sense by English speaking, "cosmopolitan" Indians) inability to cope with
it that is stated to be the root cause of the problem.
Either way, this warped discourse tells us, it's the locals -
non-contributors to its growth and the reason for all the city's
problems. And they even lack any sort of a noticeable flavour.
Unfortunate chaps that happen to be from here. Should we shut them out,
as one industry titan - a Kannadiga himself - once suggested, and
declare this a union territory?
Meanwhile, the growth and mayhem will continue. We can all expect more
Thackerays, with Kannada accents. And of course they will be wrong.