Symbolic acts can build great practical value. By installing the statue of Tamil poet-saint Thiruvalluvar in Bangalore on August 9 and that of Kannada savant Sarvajna in Chennai on August 13, the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have gone beyond cultural symbolism. They have begun a process of good neighbourly engagement that can be helpful towards a resolution of inter-State issues, notably the Cauvery river waters dispute, on just and sustainable lines. For 18 long years, those who claimed to be partisans of Kannadiga interests erected roadblocks against the unveiling of the Thiruvalluvar statue in Bangalore — not because they had any dislike for his celebrated couplets on ethics and practical living, but because they saw him as a Tamil icon, and therefore as a symbol of the interests of Tamil Nadu. At a time when the Cauvery water dispute was raising political temperatures in both States, Thiruvalluvar, the beloved master of Tamil ethical poetry, became a subject of political contestation. Later, Kannada partisans linked the issue to the installation of a statue of Sarvajna, who was known for his pithy tripadis or three-line sayings on various aspects of human life. What links the two poetic voices is their open-mindedness, humanism, practical wisdom, and equanimity; their non-sectarianism; their opposition to obscurantism and the pursuit of unreason; their gentle humour; and the clear-glass felicitousness and accessibility of their ethical messages.

To the credit of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, they showed the political will to break free from the trappings of the past and go for reciprocal installations at a congenial time. The step was proposed nine years ago but held up because the political atmosphere, which was dominated by the river water disputes, was not right. Now that the symbolic gestures are over, the time is ripe for addressing the inter-State issues with the fairness, balance, and good-natured give-and-take practicality that both Thiruvalluvar and Sarvajna favoured. The real significance of the statue installation functions in Bangalore and Chennai will lie in the success of such a conciliatory process, and not in the satiation of literary-cultural pride on both sides. As they did on the issue of the statues, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka should build seriously on the value of reciprocity and find common ground on more challenging issues. Whenever hurdles come in the way of sensible and sustainable solutions based on give-and-take, when ‘to-do-or-not-to-do’ vacillations arise, political leaders in the two States need look no further than the Kural and the Tripadis for sage ethical and practical guidance.

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