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Are Kannadigas a National Blindspot?



Lalu 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 chauvinism.

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) agenda.

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 own 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 fact.

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 threatening, KRV?

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 South-Indian-ness.  

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 mind.

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: Bangalore's 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.