Language and urban discontent - Hindustan Times
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Language and urban discontent

Jan 04, 2024 02:31 AM IST

Bursts of aggressive Kannada activism seen in Bengaluru emerge from a sense of alienation in the local population over governance failures

The intensity of sporadic bursts of Kannada activism in Karnataka often takes onlookers by surprise. There is little in mainstream Karnataka politics that suggests a prominent place for local language activism. Unlike some of its neighbours, Karnataka has never had an avowedly regional party head as its government. Even the Janata Dal (Secular), whose influence has been confined to Karnataka for a while, likes to keep up the pretence of being a national party. And yet it would be facile to treat the spurts of aggressive activism, like the recent attacks on non-Kannada signboards in Bengaluru, as just the acts of a few vagrants. These bursts of aggressive Kannada activism tend to rise when there is a sense of alienation in the local population over a specific issue.

Bengaluru: Activists of the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (Narayana Gowda faction) during a rally over the 60 per cent Kannada sign board rules, in Bengaluru, Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023. The organisation on Wednesday targeted business establishments in Bengaluru and damaged their signboards and name plates which did not use Kannada. (PTI Photo) (PTI12_27_2023_000190B)(PTI) PREMIUM
Bengaluru: Activists of the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (Narayana Gowda faction) during a rally over the 60 per cent Kannada sign board rules, in Bengaluru, Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023. The organisation on Wednesday targeted business establishments in Bengaluru and damaged their signboards and name plates which did not use Kannada. (PTI Photo) (PTI12_27_2023_000190B)(PTI)

Kannada activism first made its presence felt in the 1980s with the Gokak agitation for the primacy of Kannada in Karnataka. As Karnataka brought together regions with diverse histories, from being part of presidencies to being princely states, Kannada was what held the state together. The 1980s was also the time when the state’s dependence on what was then Bangalore began to grow. It did not help that Bangalore was, in that decade, in the final stages of integrating its cantonment with its city. Bangalore cantonment had been set up to protect the interests of the British crown at a time when the rest of India was still under the East India Company. It was set up in a princely state, Mysore, rather than a presidency area directly ruled by the Company. To further insulate the cantonment from the territories around it, the population was brought in from outside Mysore, and the language of its streets was English and Tamil. The Cantonment, being ruled directly by the British, outgrew the city of Bengaluru which was under princely Mysore.

The coming of Independence meant these arrangements no longer had any meaning, but changing the language on the streets took longer. As the city spread to engulf Kannada-speaking villages, there was a growing demand to emphasise the Kannada element of its culture. This took a variety of forms, culminating in changing the name from Bangalore to Bengaluru. Once the official dominance of Kannada was established, the city soon realised it had little reason to keep English out. The information technology boom and the coming of call centres made the access to English education the city provided to the poor an asset that was not to be cast away lightly. Kannada activism receded into the background, but it had demonstrated its potential to intervene aggressively on issues where the local population felt aggrieved.

The potency of Kannada activists as stormtroopers on specific issues was heightened a decade later when they effectively converted the dispute over the sharing of Cauvery river water with Tamil Nadu into a mobilisation around Kannada. Since then, there have been sporadic bouts of Kannada activism prompted by concerns of the local population, which are not reflected in the socio-political discourse. And the current spurt is no exception.

This round of dissatisfaction emerges from the specifics of Karnataka’s growth. The state’s economy has become increasingly dependent on Bengaluru, and the political class seems keen to further strengthen this dichotomy. While there are periodic statements about developing other cities in the state, the approach is entirely capital intensive with little hope of the local population taking an active part in the process. While landowners get a one-time benefit from the sale of land, they are not the main beneficiaries in terms of jobs. And the local population is typically priced out of secondary benefits like education and health facilities.

The political insensitivity to this reality cuts across all political parties. State governments have been voted out consistently for nearly four decades, but that is dismissed through meaningless jargon like anti-incumbency. New state governments lose no time in reinforcing the practice of spending on expensive projects in Bengaluru. The current deputy chief minister sought 50,000 crore for a tunnel in Bengaluru, without even waiting for technical evaluations. Those on the periphery of the city do not see how they will benefit from this long hole in the ground, creating a sense of dissatisfaction and helplessness. Kannada activism thrives in such a mood. As the state government spends tens of thousands of crores on world-class infrastructure for Bengaluru, it generates dissatisfaction bordering on anger among those on the periphery who cannot see themselves benefiting from these projects. Kannada activists are adept at diverting this anger to one against “outsiders”. It may not be entirely accidental that much of the destruction in the recent round of Kannada activism was on the road leading to the newly opened world-class Terminal 2 of the Bengaluru airport.

The political class is not unduly bothered by these rounds of Kannada activism. Individual political leaders have developed, often clandestine, alliances with one set of activists or another. This allows politicians to make deals with individual activists, usually in ways that meet the interests of the activists rather than the underlying source of public dissatisfaction. To facilitate such arrangements, the activists confine themselves to superficial demands, like the current one of increasing the share of Kannada in name boards of shops and companies from 50% to 60%.

The political management of Kannada activism may maintain a semblance of order in the city, but it does little to address the underlying dissatisfaction. And voters do not have to wait for five years to express their disapproval. They can vote differently in assembly and parliamentary elections. A year after the Congress came to power in 2013, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the parliamentary elections. Again, a Congress-JD(S) government was in power in 2019 when the BJP swept the parliamentary elections.

As political parties continue to turn a blind eye to the dissatisfaction with Karnataka’s economic strategy, the state’s policies can be expected to continue as they are. Kannada activists will periodically divert this dissatisfaction into issues of language, and the attention-getting targeting of the “outsider”.

Narendar Pani is professor and dean, School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. The views expressed are personal

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