Were Gauri Lankesh in our midst today, she would have found enough happening in and about her beloved state to make her equally exult, gnash her teeth in frustration or cackle in true Surpanakha fashion. For there is no doubt that a region which was a bit of a black hole as far as the rest of the country was concerned, with the notable exception of a disemplaced Bengaluru, has been thrust into the limelight. All roads from the Indo-Gangetic heartland are leading to the “discovery” of that enigmatic region called Karnataka. Lankesh’s murder, the struggle for recognising a caste as a “separate religion”, and the opening of the election season have raised curiosity levels to historic heights.

Lankesh would have been overjoyed that a region, and a language that is second only to Tamil in antiquity (existing since at least the 5th century CE), has finally found some recognition. She would have been pleased that this comes at a time when two languages have been promoted over all others – Sanskrit as the language shared between gods and a chosen few, and Hindi as an officious intrusion. Time was when people stumbled on the name of Karnataka’s language: is it Karnataki or Kannadi? No more. However, it will take some time for Kannada’s status as a classical language and its literary achievements (eight Jnanpeeth awards!) since the 9th century Kavirajamarga to filter into the national consciousness, at least the social revolution of the 12th century, even as the prodigious outpourings in the vernacular by the subaltern vachanakaras – composers of the philosophical treatises called vachanas – has been dimly perceived. Even Bengaluru’s “cosmopolitanism”, which has usually meant that migrants to that booming economy need not learn the local language, may come to a timely end.

Lankesh may have been a bit more troubled by the new visibility acquired by Karnataka’s mathaadhipathis – leaders of mathas – during the recent “separate religion” agitations. But I am sure she would have exulted in the fact that the Karnataka orange surge has actually more seriously challenged the impoverished saffron ambitions of the Hindutvawadis than the collective anguish of left-liberals. Maybe she would even have revised her views on the place of Lingayat mathas in the public life of Karnataka, particularly over the last 100 years. She may have acknowledged, reluctantly no doubt, that Lingayat mathas have long engaged in a wide range of “secular activities”, from educational institution-building and conflict resolution to patronising theatre arts and water harvesting, building reservoirs of self-confidence even among non-Lingayats.

Could it be that Karnataka’s mathas have so closely paralleled the activities of the state, especially since independence, that they have become intertwined in governance? Is that why the mathaadhipathis have not succumbed to the attractions of elected office as their counterparts in the Indo-Gangetic heartland have?

Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah offer prayers at Sringeri matha in Chikmagalur. Photo credit: PTI
Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah offer prayers at Sringeri matha in Chikmagalur. Photo credit: PTI

Alternative path

Lankesh would have gnashed her teeth, however, at the luxurious homegrown variants of the hate-filled propaganda that has struck root elsewhere, in the shrill calls to change the Constitution, to make this election a war between Hindus and Muslims, or to put women in their place. She would have employed the sharpest weapons permissible in her vocabulary for the likes of Anant Kumar Hegde, Pratap Simha and Shobha Karandlaje. She would have seethed at the presumption of Adityanath to “teach” Kannadigas about the place of Hanuman in the religious life of the region. She would have raged against the warm embrace of the robber barons of Bellary by the Bharatiya Janata Party in its desperate race to power. Had she not tirelessly exposed the ravages that they had wrought on the economy and the countryside?

But she would have laughed out loud at the ways in which the legacy of Basavanna is being annexed by those who have little knowledge of and even less interest in the Sharana movement and its reverberations across nine centuries. By deifying the “elder brother” (anna), calling him Bhagwan Basveswar, or hailing the 12th century Anubhava Mantapa as the “country’s first democratic assembly”, Lankesh would have insisted, leaders from the Indo-Gangetic region were only flaunting their ignorance. As a cautionary measure against time misspent in discovering Karnataka, I am sure Lankesh would have arranged an Alternative Tour, taking Amit Shah and the Yogi, as well as Rahul Gandhi, away from the craven pilgrimage route of the influential mathas and temples.

She would have insisted that the Yogi, Shah and Gandhi visit Devanur Mahadeva, one of Kannada’s most forceful writers, or Rahamath Tarikere, one of Karnataka’s most insightful critics and commentators, and hear them out. She would have liked them to appreciate the tireless educationist KT Margaret at Raichur, or the work of writer and activist Du Saraswathi among street sweepers of Bengaluru. She would have taken them to Heggodu, where rural folk assemble to watch Akira Kurosawa movies on the large screen. She would have insisted on their participation in the Manteswamy or Kodekal Basavanna jatres or Tinthini Mouneswara/Moinuddin just to learn how the vachanas of Basavanna and his followers have sedimented in the popular – read also lower caste – consciousness.

She would have cackled with unconcealed pleasure at the BJP president’s Freudian slips in calling his own partyman BS Yeddyyurappa the most corrupt politician. As well as the not so Freudian twists he has got into over Karnataka’s history. By referring to the pet hate of the BJP, Tipu Sultan, in the battle royale between the North and the South, he clearly cannot distinguish between two sets of quintessential Mysoreans: those who died opposing the British and those, like the Wodeyars, who made their peace with them. Perhaps Lankesh would have sat the deluded men in a corner to take a 101 class on the Karnataka model of development as well, which from Tipu’s time has seen an interventionist role for the state in both economy and society. Shah and Adityanath must learn that there is a good deal to government interventions that ensure inclusion, democracy and equality of opportunity that the Mysore state has long been pioneering.

Once the dust of the election had settled and battles had been won, Lankesh would have taken up her pen again to ensure no party was allowed to use its temporary place at the top against the people of Karnataka whom she held most dear.

Janaki Nair teaches history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.