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Karnataka textbooks revision and the caste boomerang

Veteran politician S.M. Krishna, recipient of Kempegowda International Award, with Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, at Vidhana Soudha, in Bengaluru.

Veteran politician S.M. Krishna, recipient of Kempegowda International Award, with Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, at Vidhana Soudha, in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Murali Kumar K.

A year ahead of the Karnataka Assembly elections, the exercise to revise school textbooks appears to have pushed the ruling BJP into an uncomfortable spot, after complaints were raised that cultural and religious icons of specific castes were being “insulted” in revised lessons. The party is feeling the heat particularly in the Old Mysore region, where the land-owning Vokkaligas dominate the political narrative, after the opposition Congress and JD(S) upped the ante on this issue. The BJP’s perceived gain after its efforts at polarisation through the hijab, halal and azaan issues seems to have been overtaken by the controversy over the “insults” to Vokkaliga icon Nadaprabhu Kempegowda, the founder of Bengaluru, and Jnanpith award-winning writer Kuvempu.

The timing of the controversy has put the BJP on the back foot as it has been attempting to make inroads into the Vokkaliga heartland in recent times. The party, which relies on Lingayat support in north Karnataka and is confident in polarised coastal Karnataka, realises that it is hard to secure a majority in the 224-member House without considerable gains in the Old Mysore region. The Vokkaligas constitute about 12% of the State population, as per the leaked caste Census. They are said to be electorally significant in87 Assembly constituencies across 11 districts in Old Mysore region.

The BJP won the bypoll at K.R. Pet in Mandya district in 2019 and hoped to replicate this success in at least a few more Vokkaliga-dominated constituencies in the next Assembly elections. While the urban-based Vokkaliga leaders of the BJP have made no dent in the hinterland so far, the party is also said to be toying with the idea of having a Vokkaliga as the State president though there are other caste interests to contend with. Party insiders believe that the “unwanted controversy” over textbooks has hindered the party’s plans in the region.

Triggering angry reactions were allegedly truncated lessons related to Kempegowda and Kuvempu, and an insult to the State anthem penned by Kuvempu by the committee chairman Rohith Chakrathirtha in 2017. Though Kuvempu commands State-wide respect, political and religious leaders of the Vokkaliga community see this also as an insult to the caste. The Congress and JD(S), traditional rivals in Old Mysore region, have kept the issue centre stage.

While the textbook controversy began in the academic circles, with questions being raised over saffronisation of textbook content at the behest of the RSS, it took a different hue after KPCC President D.K. Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga leader, and JD(S) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy, both of whom are jockeying for the Vokkaliga votes, also foregrounded the caste angle. JD(S) supremo H.D. Deve Gowda also threw his weight behind the protests.

Stung by the community reaction, the BJP went into damage control mode. It asked Education Minister B.C. Nagesh to meet the powerful Adichunchanagiri mutt seer, Nirmalananda Swamy, to convince him that the community had not been insulted. It chose Kannada actor Jaggesh, a Vokkaliga, for the Rajya Sabha seat, ignoring claims of many seniors. The government even fielded Revenue Minister R. Ashok, a Bengaluru-based Vokkaliga leader, to counter the Opposition. It also instituted the Kempegowda International Award and announced that a statue of Kempegowda would be installed in front of Vidhan Soudha in Bengaluru.

Part of the reason for a vocal Vokkaliga assertion is said to be that the community believes that it was “targeted” during Congress rule and is now again being targeted by the Lingayat-dominated BJP government. With Congress and JD(S) helmed by Vokkaligas, the turn taken by the textbook controversy is a tough battle at the moment for the BJP.

sharath.srivatsa@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Aug 4, 2022 6:22:42 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/karnataka-textbooks-revision-and-the-caste-boomerang/article65582548.ece