The Kannada flag, et cetera

A file photo of ‘Kannada’ flags being sold on Karnataka Rajyotsava Day.

A file photo of ‘Kannada’ flags being sold on Karnataka Rajyotsava Day.  

The non-Hindi-speaking regions are coming up with creative ways of fighting for their cultural freedom

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s resolve to look into the legality of having a flag for the State has elicited enthusiasm as well as disbelief (including the utterly boring charges of it being “anti-national” and “seditious”). At bottom, the discussion is really about the cultural freedom of State-regions within India’s federated polity.

The passions on this matter have been building up in recent weeks. For instance, the protests against the use of Hindi signage in Bangalore’s Metro last month. And, more recently, the incredulity towards the complaint that A.R. Rahman should have performed more songs in Hindi at a concert in London.

A longer timeline

Kannada writer B.M. Srikantaiah’s poem, Kannadada Bavuta (The Kannada Flag/Banner, 1938), is perhaps the earliest summoning of the idea of a Kannada flag. Most remembered for his innovative translation of over sixty English poems into Kannada in 1926, Srikantaiah’s idea of a flag aspired for the unification of the Kannada-speaking areas, which were found across the states of Mysore and Hyderabad, the Bombay and Madras Presidencies and Coorg.

Securing the future of Kannada in the face of the scholarly dominance of Sanskrit and the linguistic prestige of English was another of its aspirations.

Ma. Ramamurthy, the secretary of Karnataka Samyukta Ranga (Karnataka United Front), a group founded in 1966 to unite the various Kannada organisations in the State, felt a flag was necessary to symbolise its activist aspirations and mobilise Kannada speakers. Following several deliberations with Kannada groups, he designed a rectangular flag split into two horizontal halves coloured light yellow at the top and red at the bottom. The yellow connoted peace and friendship and symbolised the State as a land of gold, and the red a fighting spirit. It is possible that the red and black-coloured Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) flag served as the model for this two-colour scheme.

The Kannada-Tamil rivalry seen in Bangalore in the initial years after Independence needs careful study. Suffice it to note here that the Kannada activists appear to have been worked up by the perceived linguistic assertiveness of the newer, DMK-inspired Tamil migrants in Bangalore than the older Tamil settlers.

Ramamurthy picked his flag as the party symbol of Kannada Paksha, a political party that he founded in 1966. His party wound down after his death in a farm accident the following year. His flag has come to be freely used by Kannada activists ever since.

A symbolic presence

The proliferation of Kannada activist groups — ranging from organisations with a Statewide presence to street-corner and neighbourhood outfits — over the last two decades has given the yellow-red colour scheme a wide symbolic presence in the State: flags, the posters and maps of Karnataka, the walls of government offices and schools, flagpoles, stickers on buses, cars and autorickshaws, film songs, TV channel logos. Whether granted official status or not, the Kannada flag is likely to endure.

In activist discussions, Kannada identity has rarely been seen outside the framework of a federated India. To take a famous instance: the first line of Kuvempu’s 1928 poem, Jaya He Karnataka Maate, which officially became the State song (nada-geethe) in 2004, declares Karnataka as the daughter of Mother India. The anger about the imposition of Hindi makes sense only within this prior idea of Karnataka’s relation to India.

While Kannada activists have been wary of the Centre’s efforts to “promote” Hindi all along, the recent pro-Hindi moves of the Central government in particular have deepened linguistic anxieties among them (and indeed among many other non-Hindi-language speakers). The External Affairs Ministry’s decision that Indian passports will record details in Hindi alongside English and the Personnel Ministry’s desire that the use of colloquial Hindi in “routine conversations in government offices” goes up continue to offer a privileged status for Hindi.

The Central government of course is not the only culprit in injuring linguistic democracy in India. Prevailing cultural prejudices matter too. The remarks of an ex-Rajya Sabha MP and former editor of the RSS’s Hindi weekly, Panchjanya, denying that the attacks on African students could be racist are illustrative: “If we were racist, why would we have all the entire south… Tamil, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra… why do we live with them? We have black people around us.” Besides presuming that north India was all of India, his remarks offered a dark glimpse of how south Indians might be seen in parts of north India. The issue is clearly more than language.

Perceptions that the new “north Indian” settlers in the State are indifferent to learning Kannada and insist that the others speak in Hindi also underlay the recent protests against the use of Hindi signs in the Bangalore Metro.

Linguistic coexistence

The need for a public discussion of the ethics of linguistic coexistence was never more urgent than now. At a time of large movements of Indians across the country, relations between linguistic communities cannot be expected to get sorted out somehow.

Kannada writers have long argued that migrants from Karnataka ought to learn the language of the State they move to and migrants from outside the State needed to do similarly when they moved here. An imagination of linguistic fairness within a federal polity is here. An imagination of sacrifice is here as well since Indians are to commit to learning the language of the region they settle in, as a gesture of respect for that language as well as a regard for its future well-being. This ethical frame, which shows that settling amidst new communities is a moral gesture, does not ask that the migrants abandon their languages or not work for their nourishment.

Be it flags, or any other symbol, the non-Hindi-speaking regions of India will come up with creative ways of fighting for their cultural freedom. Being sensitive towards their concerns is a precious obligation of a federal polity. Really, the sick project of making India a Hindi nation needs a fast burial.

Chandan Gowda teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 7:46:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-kannada-flag-et-cetera/article19326738.ece

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