Comment

Is linguistic nationalism on the wane?

At this time each year, there are raucous street celebrations of Rajyotsava in Karnataka, a commemoration of the day when the reorganised State came into being in 1956 (though it was known as Mysore until 1973). The red and yellow Karnataka flags fly high, street corners blast off iconic Kannada songs (‘naaniruvude nimagagi! naadiruvudu namagagi....’, among others) and people have the day off to participate in programmes around the city. Celebrations continue for the whole month, in which both the State and society are involved. This year, Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa declared that neither the token day nor month is good enough, and a whole year instead will be dedicated to the promotion of Kannada. But he does no more than echo the laments of the last three decades, which the Kannada Development Authority, set up in 1994, has done little to redress.

This year, the spirit of Rajyotsava is definitely muted. The health terror that stalks our streets accounts only for a part of this lacklustre celebration, which is barely visible and audible. Apart from the Kannada press, English newspapers appear to have given the day a miss. A few red and yellow flags adorned the square in which Reverend Kittel’s statue stands in the heart of the city, an inconspicuous reminder of the missionary role in systematising Kannada grammar and producing a dictionary. A small posse of autorickshaws with flags attempts to infuse some spirit into the event, a 360-foot ‘Kannada bavuta’ is lifted high, but gigantism does not make up for the customary gaiety of the street corner — dominated by men of course — that is definitely missing.

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Instead, there is the annual hand-wringing about the urgency of building a robust contemporary language out of an undoubtedly well-established and hoary literary one, to keep up with science, and now the digital world. Clearly, the fight to declare Kannada as a classical language in 2008 did little to achieve this connect. Even the Kannada University, established in 1991, draws its formidable strength and influence from literary, folklore and cultural studies, rather than human and natural sciences.

Several distractions

Are we then witnessing the exhaustion of regional and linguistic nationalism as political capital? There is a good reason to think so. Distractions abound, not the least of which are the worries posed by a severely damaged economy and two by-elections that are possibly going to change the fate of the current government.

Events in the past year briefly raised spirits and the fervent hope that Karnataka will not become the Uttar Pradesh of the south. The calls for a Claims Commissioner in riots cases, for a law against ‘love jihad’, and for a branch of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in Bengaluru since it has become a “terrorism hub”, are withering that hope.

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The prolonged and creative anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, in different locations, built new and unusual publics; the more recent farmers’ agitation against both the State’s new land reform Act, and the Central Acts transforming the marketing of agricultural produce, which allied with Dalit and other civil society groups, were another silver lining. Now all that has taken second place against the gathering force of the demand for reservations within reservations. Not a day passes when one or the other caste or sub-caste — led by one or another mathadeesharu (head of matha) — raises the demand for (and in some rare cases, against) proportional representation in reservations.

Gone too is the electrifying and unifying presence of a Rajkumar, whose formidable star power rallied the Kannada people — and not just in his famous Mayura (1975) song. He changed the fate of the Gokak Chaluvali, a movement that sought first language status for Kannada in schools, in 1982. Even Rajkumar’s kidnapping by the brigand Veerappan in 2000 mobilised mass empathy and support for the actor, if not the language.

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Today, Gandhinagar’s ‘sandalwood’, as the centre of the Kannada film industry is ironically called, is in disarray, buffeted by the challenges of the box office and emerging OTT platforms, weak and hackneyed story lines (contrast contemporary Kannada cinema with its old-style villains and heroes, and the vibrant experiments being undertaken in Malayalam and Tamil cinema), and now a full-fledged drug scandal, in which many actors and associates are being clapped in irons.

Class divide

Kannada remains a beleaguered language in the State capital, Bengaluru, to which people from the entire country have flocked for jobs, education and opportunity. But it is not just the recent migrant over whom the language is unable to exert its hegemony. Its inferiorised status in everyday life stems from the long-held belief that the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of the city has freed middle-class migrants of any obligation of learning the local language (the working-class migrant can afford no such luxury). Thus, Bengaluru must be the only city in the country where people thrive as academics, business people, journalists, teachers, and salespersons, without acquiring even a smattering of Kannada. “How come you read Kannada!” is the oddly rhetorical question that many, including friends for decades, ask when they spot a book or newspaper in the language in my house, asserting its furtive presence in the middle-class home. No government action or programme can compensate for this profound diffidence.

Bengaluru also must be the only city in the country where the local (again largely working-class) takes pride in speaking several languages, including those of most of its immigrants. It is the only Indian city — and I have lived in many — where even those who know the language feel offended if you spoke to them in Kannada, doing their best to reply in English.

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Grievously damaged by the widespread desire for, and market in, English, and the inability to counter that tsunami with just a few ritual offerings per year, hopes of Kannada gaining self-confidence, even dominance, will be realised only when it sheds some of its addictions to symbolism alone.

The Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (and other Kannada organisations and even Opposition leaders) have taken umbrage at the significant absence of the Karnataka flag at the official functions on November 1 — to them, this is a sign of federal courtesies being violated.

But is this, or the long-lasting damage that the GST fiasco has foisted on States, the more alarming sign of federal protocols being undermined? Is it better jobs for all, refurbished and reliable health care, and improved primary education, that States should take pride in, or symbolic bike rallies, that will rebuild some of the developmental achievements for which Karnataka was once justly known?

Janaki Nair retired as professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 3:22:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/is-linguistic-nationalism-on-the-wane/article33025335.ece

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