The Big Story: Asserting identity
Ahead of every Assembly election in Karnataka, groups which claim to be “pro-Kannada” rake up an issue that is over three decades old. On Saturday, the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike took out a massive rally in Bengaluru demanding reservation in employment for Kannadigas in the State. In particular, they wanted the government to implement the Sarojini Mahishi Committee report of 1984, which recommended, among other things, 100% reservation for Kannadigas in state government jobs.
The issues that these organisations raise are sensitive and could have some resonance with the voters. Politicians, who are otherwise indifferent to such groups, wake up during elections so that they do not antagonise any section of the electorate.
However, it seems to be a little different this time. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who has embarked on a campaign of “Kannada Asmita” or Kannada Pride over the last two months, sent his Housing Minister M Krishnappa to receive a memorandum from the Vedike. He has promised to look into their demands, though successive Congress governments since 1984 have done hardly anything to get the committee recommendations implemented. There was also competitive politics behind Siddaramaiah’s move. The chief minister looks at Kannada politics as a possible counter to the Hindutva of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Language, he hopes, would trump religious feelings in Karnataka and help bring his party back to power.
Groups such as the Vedike have also been accused of using Kannada politics just before elections to extract all sorts of benefits from the political parties. However, the scale of the Saturday protests show that the underlying emotion is turning stronger.
Part of the problem has been the attitude of the Centre under the Bharatiya Janata Party. Over the last 12 months, language activists in Karnataka have taken up several campaigns against the policy of Hindi imposition by the Union government. They had removed Hindi signboards in Metro stations in Bengaluru and even raised a demand for a separate official state flag to hold Kannada pride high. The BJP’s double game of hailing Kannada in Karnataka but prioritising Hindi in the Centre has not gone down well with these groups, which see Hindi as a hegemony force, both culturally and linguistically.
The problem is also economic. As those who spoke at the protest on Saturday made it clear, they want reservation for Kannadigas in the private sector too. The Information Technology sector is a big employer in Karnataka, and a feeling has set in that outsiders have benefited more out of the IT boom than locals. This was the direct result of the governments ignoring Kannada and promoting Hindi and English. Essentially, these groups want the primacy of Kannada reestablished in all spheres in the state.
However, this narrative of outsiders claiming all employment could quickly take a violent turn, especially in a situation where groups think political parties are supportive of whatever they do keeping elections in mind. The same Karnataka Rakshana Vedike has in the past taken to violence and some highly regressive politics. The latest of these were the protests it organised against actor Sunny Leone performing in Bengaluru. In 2016, its activists were alleged to be involved in burning hundreds of buses during the Cauvery protests. Some of these organisations are also sympathisers of an extreme form of Hindutva.
While there is much sympathy for their cause as they demand a fair share for locals in the economic prosperity the state has witnessed over the last two decades, the government in Karnataka should also remember that the line between language pride and outright parochialism is a very thin one.
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“As a consequence, the usually rambunctious Christmas celebrations have been sombre this year. There were no illuminated stars, carols, firecrackers or men in jolly Santa Claus costumes darting through the streets. While residents of these predominantly Christian villages attended midnight mass on Christmas day and others went to early services on Monday, there were no other signs of festivity. Neither St Thomas Church in Poonthura nor Our Lady of Good Voyage Church in Vizhinjam had put up any decorations. Francis said that it would have been grossly inappropriate to do so with so many missing. If they had been alive, they would have made their way home by now, he said.”