Karnataka is probably the only state of India to have not had an identity as such in the British period. It was constituted by the 1956 States Reorganization Commission around the core of the old princely state of Mysore by pulling in Kannada-speaking areas of Madras province (Tamil Nadu/Andhra Pradesh), Bombay province (Maharashtra), the Nizam's Hyderabad, and the erstwhile princely state of Coorg. Consolidating these disparate regions into a composite state, held together principally by the linguistic bond of a common language - Kannada - was the daunting task faced by the founders of the new state.
An early battle they had to fight was the demand for Belgaum to be detached from Karnataka and integrated with Maharashtra. It took the best part of three decades following its foundation for Karnataka to douse simmering discontent that often broke out in fierce flames in its north-western reaches adjacent to Maharashtra. Till today, different parts of Karnataka are often referred to as "Bombay" Karnataka and "Hyderabad" Karnataka, while a struggle continues to preserve the capital, which is just a whisker away from the Tamil Nadu border, from a linguistic take-over by the not inconsiderable number of Tamil-speakers who, for generations, have made Bengaluru their home.
Karnataka's successive statesmen have made a remarkable success of emotionally integrating these different regions of the state on the basis of language, and giving Karnataka a cultural identity uniquely its own. But this unique identity continues to face old challenges from linguistically different neighbours while trying to cope with the new challenges to identity emanating from the increasingly "all-India" and "international" consequences of transforming Bengaluru from a sleepy garden city in the days of the British to the dynamic economic engine it has now become. Demographic changes wrought by the relative ease of doing business in the state and, above all, by the IT revolution, have raised dramatic challenges to the cultural and linguistic identity of the city. Outside investment has certainly brought unprecedented prosperity to the city. At the same time, it has created such a Tower of Babel that far too many Kannadigas feel they can navigate their way only if they pick up at least a smattering of English and Hindi.
This breeds resentment at not finding Kannada as the lingua franca in public spaces such as railway stations, banks, malls, post offices, hotels, restaurants and numerous commercial establishments and factories, let alone the bewildering "foreignness" of the cyber-city enclaves. Bengaluru is such an attractive destination that many of those manning these public spaces are Hindi-speaking North Indians. The question, therefore, arises: why can these outside settlers not learn Kannada; why do we have to learn Hindi to get even the most elementary communication going?
The contrast with, say, London, Paris or New York - cities that are host, like Bengaluru, to very large outsider populations - is striking. In all those cities, the outsider desperately picks up at least something of the local language, English or French, to survive. There is no expectation that the native-born Londoner would have to learn even a few words of the scores of languages brought with them by non-British immigrants, who now, like Bengaluru's settlers, constitute a majority of UK's capital city. But in Bengaluru, the expectation of long-time residents who were born elsewhere is that the native Bengalurian will have to learn the settlers' tongue - particularly Hindi - and not the other way round. Free Kannada classes are offered to the outsider by NGOs proud of their language, and several outsiders do enroll themselves, but basically the social contract works like this: we'll bring you employment and prosperity, but you learn our language.
For a state still engaged after six decades in consolidating its identity, this breeds resentment - not always overt, but sufficiently deeply felt to spark an immediate adverse reaction to any "imposition" of an outside language, particularly Hindi. At its most extreme, Tamilians, by and large, are convinced that the promotion of Hindi undermines their linguistic and cultural identity. The Dravidian movement therefore drew political strength from relentlessly opposing Hindi while campaigning to secure "classical" status for Tamil. It took them four decades to achieve that. In Karnataka, and especially open-hearted Bengaluru, the opposition is not so much to Hindi as such, but to the "imposition" of Hindi. Thus a salience is built between protecting and nurturing the Kannada language and opposing the "imposition" of Hindi.
The proximate cause of the current outburst is Hindi signage in the brand-new Bengaluru Metro. I asked why Hindi signage at railway stations was not being defaced (as in Tamil Nadu) and only the metro was being targeted. Pat came the reply: the railways are a central undertaking, the property of the Government of India, so they could do what they wanted with it. But the metro is largely state-funded, so why should Karnataka kowtow to the linguistic fancies of the Union Government? After all, they added, if the Chennai Metro could limit its signage to Tamil and English, and the Kochi Metro to Malayalam and English, to the exclusion, in both cases, of Hindi, why should the Bengaluru Metro be burdened with Hindi?
This grievance is then quickly linked to the three-language formula that Indira Gandhi devised to calm things down in Tamil Nadu in 1965. Why, they ask, is no south Indian language being taught in any Hindi-speaking state, while the central government does its damnedest to promote Hindi among non-Hindi people? Hence too Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's suggestion to the Centre that if a third language must be brought in, why not Tamil or Telugu?
Then what about English, I ask. The reply is somewhat shaky but it boils down essentially to what was clearly articulated by CN Annadurai in his renowned clashes over language with Atal Behari Vajpayee: that English being foreign to us all, it equally disadvantages all of us; but Hindi, being the mother-tongue of "Northerners", advantages those whose mother-tongue is Hindi over everyone else.
This leads my interlocutors to claim that while the south Indian languages are endowed with a rich heritage, even linguistic tributaries of Hindi, such as Brajbhasha, Avadhi, Maithili and Marwari have a more ancient lineage than a Johnny-come-lately like Hindi. Why then should they bow to Hindi?
In this light, they claim to have already established fraternal ties with the MNS and the DMK and hope soon to expand their embrace to take in Mamata's Trinamool. Indeed, their ambitions have crossed the Vindhyas and they say they are in touch with Marwari-speakers in Rajasthan who share their resentment at the downgrading of their languages to push the dominance of Hindi, and hope to tie up with other champions of North Indian languages other than Hindi that are being forced to yield to Hindi despite their own very valuable and superior literary traditions. Their idea is to restrict Hindi to Hindi-speaking areas to give space for all the other languages of India to flourish.
The representative of the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, who has been deputed by their leader to meet me, readily agrees that their role model is the Shiva Sena, but insists that they are neither violent nor anti-Muslim. Nor do they imitate slogans like "Maharashtra for the Maharashtrians". They welcome outsiders - but not at the expense of the Kannada language.
With pride, he points to the 90s agitation launched non-violently against a Director of the Bangalore station of All India Radio who had started an Urdu news service in addition to the usual Kannada news service. The argument against this move was that all Kannadigas, even in "Hyderabad" Karnataka and Muslim-dominated sections of Bengaluru and other cities, fluently spoke and understood Kannada; so, supplementing Kannada news with an Urdu bulletin was a subtle way of undermining the predominance of Kannada in a state founded for Kannadigas of all religious persuasions on specifically linguistic grounds. They are not going so far as the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu who have successfully stalled all AIR/Doordarshan Hindi bulletins for half a century, but only emphasizing that where Kannada is understood, only Kannada should be used.
Then what about English? I ask. English, they say, with some regret, is "different". It is a fait accompli. It has been in use since the Raj. It is voluntarily accepted by aspiring youngsters. It is not being imposed from outside. Hindi is. So although in an ideal Karnataka, there should be no English either, the agitators distinguish between a foreign language voluntarily accepted and an Indian tongue forcibly "imposed" on them. My mind wanders to the international Ambedkar conclave for which I have been invited to Bengaluru where the doyen of the South's Dalit intellectuals, Kanchi Iliah, thundered: "English is Indian/ No Hindi in South India"!
I return to a Delhi where Dina Nath Batra is being paraded by the BJP as the exemplar of all the Sangh Parivar stands for. They just do not understand that our unity is endangered by uniformity and engendered by the celebration of diversity. They do not understand the full import of Siddaramaiah's gentle suggestion to Central Minister Tomar that "it is better to follow a persuasive than a mandatory approach to the use of Hindi".
They view, as The Hindu's main editorial of 26 July says, "all strains of sub-nationalism with suspicion as variants of anti-nationalism". For all their talk of "cooperative federalism", they do not understand that cultural federalism demands that states be encouraged to cherish their own identities, failing which the emotional integration of the nation will suffer. As another brilliant Kannadiga academic, Chandan Gowda of the Aziz Premji University, has put it: "the sick project of making India a Hindi nation needs a fast burial."
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)
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