The story of river-water sharing between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is as winding as the Cauvery’s path. It is no surprise then that an easy solution has evaded the two states, and the Supreme Court-appointed water disputes tribunal.
But is the ongoing violence in Bengaluru really a water riot as some have dubbed it, or is it more because of Kannada pride?
The answer isn’t easy to arrive at.
Consider the violence so far. On Monday, a fleet of buses owned by a Tamil businessman was torched at a depot in Bengaluru, and vehicles with Tamil Nadu registrations were targeted.
The whole cycle is eerily reminiscent of the 1991 riots in Bengaluru. Then, as now, the targets of the violence in which 23 people were killed were Tamils – and the violence began after the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal ordered the release of water to Tamil Nadu.
Then, as now, it was clear that the violence was not so much about water as it was about something else: Kannada identity.
The scholar Janaki Nair, who has studied these convulsions in detail, has noted that the attacks were about “securing the identity of Kannada through attacks on linguistic minorities.” Further, the attacks were characterised by an envy of Tamil Nadu’s “political and cultural solidarity”.
The Kannada activist stereotype
Take your average Kannada activist in Bengaluru: he (and it very often is a male) feels that he has a legitimate grievance. As Nair and others have noted, in administrative matters, Kannada has given way to English. In entertainment, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi films dominate the city. This leaves few public spheres for Kannada. Literature, where Kannada writers have for decades produced world-class writing, is one such sphere, but it hardly has mass appeal.
Broadly speaking, scholars identify two streams in Kannada nationalism, which flowered in the early 20th century: a spiritual nationalism and a fear-centred one (there are other ideological strands too). The former, spearheaded by Alura Venkat Rao, was gentler, yet it ignored the contribution of Tulu, Kodava and Muslim cultures. The latter, led by Chidananda Murthy, has proved to be more enduring and attractive. As the name suggests, fear-centred nationalism thrives on confrontation, antagonism and violence. It is this strand that has endured as Bengaluru has undergone yet more demographic upheaval in the last few decades.
Kannada activists may claim the whole of Bengaluru, but the city has for decades, even centuries, been home to people from all parts of the South. The area known as Bengaluru was under the control of the Western Gangas, Cholas, Hoysalas, Marathas, even briefly, the Mughals; then Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, before passing to the Wodeyars under the British. In fact, even the so-called recent Tamils settled here decades ago in the British Cantonment part of the city. It was only in 1949 that all parts of Bengaluru were brought under a common municipal administration.
Geographically speaking, Bengaluru is, as the scholar J Heitzman put it, “a morning’s drive away from Tamil-speaking Tamil Nadu, Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh, and Malayalam-speaking Kerala”. Small wonder then, that the city can rival any other Indian city for cosmopolitanism. The expansion in the last two decades has only added to this mix.
The bottomline is that this fear-centred Kannada nationalism coupled with demographic change makes for a volatile mix, ready for exploitation by politicians.
But the 15,000 cusecs question then is: how different are things this time round?
Not anti-Tamil, not really
Professor AR Vasavi, a social anthropologist who has studied this phenomenon, has a different view.
“The riots are really a manifestation of two really large problems,” she said. “One, it is misgovernance. The political system has not been able to handle issues such as natural resource management and the growth of the city. Two, it’s rooted in the excessive attention that has been paid to the global economy of Bengaluru, and the neglect of other economies in the city.”
“These other economies have lumpen elements," she continued, "and for these people, these disruptions are an opportunity.”
Kannada writer Vasant Shetty said, “things changed in the last 10 years. Do you know that the number one community which wants to learn Kannada in Bengaluru is the Tamil community? The new generation of Kannada activism – even for most people in the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike – is characterised by maturity and understanding.”
A key aspect of the violence, said Shetty, is the media’s fondness of reducing every incident into a binary. “TV news channel camerapersons sometimes choreograph these incidents, asking rioters to perform acts for the camera,” he said.
So clearly there is more than meets the eye here.
Yes, the violence is rooted in the need for river water. For example, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal has only considered one-third of the city has part of the river basin, and allocated very little to the city’s water needs.
Yes, demographic changes in the last two decades have resulted in increased tensions.
But it also true that a more nuanced approach is needed from all stakeholders, from the people of Bengaluru, the government and lastly, the media. “To read it all as Kannada vs Tamil, insider vs outsider, as Vasavi points out, "is very inadequate.”
HR Venkatesh is Founder-Editor of NetaData, an independent and non-partisan news service focused on Indian politics.