Celebrating Karnataka


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WELL before the formation of the state of Karnataka, the ‘idea of India’ had already entrenched itself in the subconscious of its people. The dominant imaginary was of a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-everything state glorying in its ‘unity in diversity’. Much has been written about this, from Sunil Khilnani to Ramachandra Guha. Modern Karnataka too is clearly part of this idea. Unlike Jammu and Kashmir there is no dispute about it. We do not have to keep repeating that Karnataka is an integral part of India. But little has been written about the idea of Karnataka. I wonder why.

What is the idea of Karnataka? Is the state really a tanujate (little sister) of Bharata Mate, as the poet Kuvempu describes her? Or is that simply poetic licence? What is it about Karnataka that distinguishes it from other states? What is its unique contribution to the idea – and substance – of India? On what was the success of the Samyukta Karnataka movement based– bringing together distinct regions, with different histories, into one integrated ‘state’? Was it language alone? Was there not a popular demand in Kolar, which is largely Telugu speaking, to stay as part of Mysore rather than be merged with Andhra Pradesh? What are the factors intrinsic to Karnataka that help explain the ‘state’ of the state today? These are complex questions to which there are probably no easy answers. A little loud thinking may set the stage for debate. This issue of Seminar provides an apt occasion.

What I find fascinating about my adopted state – I was born in Andhra Pradesh and grew up in Delhi – is that it mirrors India in essential ways. I consider myself an Indian and a Karnatakan. I came here because of a job in the mid-1970s and stayed on because I married a Kannadiga. My children grew up speaking Kannada. I am part of a wide network as ‘son-in-law’ of Karnataka! It is an essential part of my identity. I am no less ‘Indian’ because of this. If anything, it gives my ‘Indian-ness’ roots.

I exercise some of my rights of Indian citizenship by voting in Karnataka. But I am also a Stephanian, a student of economics, and an itinerant lecturer. Without being an American, I am a Gator from the University of Florida. I am also a cricket fan, a speaker of Telugu and Spanish and a would-be writer of science fiction. One can be all these without being a Kannadiga, which is a linguistic identity, one I do not own. I am Karnatakan but not Kannadiga. I am sure there are many like me here in Karnataka – especially post the recent years of Bengaluru’s incredible growth. And, there must be Kannadigas who are not Karnatakan. That is what diversity is all about.


If the key characteristic of India is diversity, then so is it with Karnataka. The key elements of the idea of India are present in the state. In a country where a state’s identity is based in language, Karnataka is linguistically diverse. The state has a Kannada speaking ‘majority’, in the same way as India has a Hindi speaking ‘majority’ – a large number that is nevertheless less than 50% of the population. Those who speak other languages together number more than 50%. And the Kannada of Mysore differs from that of Dharwad, which in turns differs from that of Dakshin Kannada. Diversity within Unity! Kannada here is a janabhashe or a deshabhashe, one that resides on top of one’s matrubhashe.

The mother tongue of many in the North is Marathi. In the West we have Tulu and Konkani. In the South, Tamil is widely spoken. In the East, Telugu is spoken by considerable numbers of people. Urdu has a large number of speakers across the state. All are born Karnatakans. Karnataka is unique among the Indian states in this regard. Just consider the contrast with our neighbour, Tamil Nadu, so quintessentially and unidimensionally Tamil in matters of language and culture. I tend to think of this as one of the defining characteristics of this state. I may, of course, be wrong.

What is remarkable is that many of these language groups are bi- or multi-lingual; we are Marathi and Kannada, Telugu and Kannada and so on. It has nothing to do with literacy; it is an attitude to life. It is not just Kannada, but it is Kannada plus. The shopkeeper, the autorickshaw driver, the vegetable seller, keen to do business, will (try to) speak to the visitor in her own language. The ordinary people here reach out to the world outside. English theatre thrives in Bangalore (remember Bangalore Little Theatre?) with many actors and writers flitting back and forth between Kannada and English. (Many of the well-known Kannada writers were professors of English.) All this reflects in the richness of Kannada literature. Many who speak other languages at home have enriched Kannada literature; think of Bendre or Masti. This is fundamental cosmopolitanism: something to cherish and nurture. I do not think this is true of any other Indian (or other) state. Is it any wonder that R.K. Narayan wrote so eloquently in English about Malgudi? This cosmopolitanism is a unique feature of Karnataka and I for one celebrate the difference for it opens up a wider world to us.


Look at the diversity in food. From the kardantu of Gokak, the jolada roti and shenga pudi of the northern areas, the Dharwad peda, the sanna of Mangalore, the rave idli of Bangalore and the Mysore pak, to the traditional handimeenu curry in Kodagu – there is both diversity and variety. The dry rain shadow areas of the North have a great food tradition, which can still be experienced in the local khanavallis. Eating is an art in Old Mysore; I hazard the guess that only the French can be as picky as the Mysoreans in matters of lunch. I can continue elaborating the idea of Karnataka. What explains the primacy of Dharwad in Hindustani music? Of Udipi when it comes to the vegetarian eateries that dot the countryside? Why have so many banks originated from Dakshin Kannada? And so on. Each district of Karnataka seems to have an idea of its own. And each is awaiting its muse.


One can ask if nature has been kind to this region. The state has the most arid regions in India after Rajasthan. While on the West Coast, there is a problem of preserving monsoon water, in the East there is hardly any water to preserve. The forested Malnad is an ecological world of its own. The land in the plateau is of average quality. But on the other hand, the region is not subject to periodic earthquakes, floods and cyclones like our neighbours. Yes, nature has been kind indeed!

Historically, there was no zamindari tenure here. Land is owned in small plots. The state has among the smallest percentage of landless labourers in the country. The land to population ratio is lower than in neighbouring states. In economic terms, low outputs often mean a ‘low equilibrium trap’. But, with little by way of a hostile environment, people had enough, but not much, to eat. Sure, there is poverty, but one does not hear of the abject poverty that characterizes, say, Orissa. And with that perhaps not being a problem, many of the people took to the path of self-actualization! Hence the focus on literature, plays and the finer things of life! Let us not forget theatre troupes like Gubbi Veeranna’s that, in meeting the demands of the average Karnatakan, have contributed so much to this living culture.

It is easy to illustrate this. The 1970s were the decade of the Emergency in India. It was the time of all kinds of protests. In Karnataka, leading the protests was a group called Samudaya. This was a theatre group, awakening people through street plays. But the inspiration was universal. From Gorky’s Mother (Tayee) to productions by the legend of East Germany’s Brecht Theatre, Fritz Benewitz. If the spirit of protest is universal, Karnataka drew upon it from all languages, customized it to local conditions and performed proudly in Kannada on Bangalore’s streets in support of its convictions. Lest this be seen as something of an exception, think of Master Hiranniah’s Lanchavatara, which performed for a long time, drawing inspiration from the daily paper and bringing a smile to the Karnatakan’s face. It is only in Karnataka that an institution like Ninasam can emerge and thrive.


In this perhaps, Karnataka shares a spirit with people from Bengal. The people are alive to issues of justice. They are acutely conscious of exploitation. But this manifests itself through its art. Anger and a desperate honesty has led to many wonderful works of literature. Or the jibes of Ananthamurthy on brahminical tradition in Samskara. Look at the film Chomana Dudi which deals with exploitation. An appreciation of the realities of the world has led to a rich literature that has been recognized through Gnanpith awards; Kannada has more than any other single language. And yet, the state is largely peaceful in industrial relations terms. The anger in the writing dissipates itself; there is no energy left for industrial action.

Perhaps that is why Karnataka, within the idea of India, is a pioneer in industrial development. Under the leadership of people like Visvesvaryya and Mirza Ismail, the state pioneered a model of government-led public sector industrialization. A range of products were produced – fertilizer in Belagola, acetate in Mandya, steel in Bhadravati, and many more. Engineers from these industries laid the groundwork for the public sector led industrialization of the 1950s after Independence. Key elements of India’s public sector are located in Bangalore. Nehru built on the Visvesvaryya legacy. This is a story that needs to be recalled, for it appears to have been forgotten today. Bangalore is modern India. It is a city created by the British after the defeat of Tipu, not a traditional centre of either local culture or economy. But today it is the capital of the state, symbolically spelt now in Kannada fashion as Bengaluru.


There could be another reason, both for the focus on culture and the lead in industrial development that this state is known for. The caste structure in Karnataka is unique in that it does not seem to have the trader community in any great numbers. Dakshin Kannada has the settys, who are business people. But in the rest of the state, this function is performed by those who seem to have immigrated – komtis from Andhra, chettys from Tamil Nadu, moppilas from Kerala. Look at the little shops around town; it is these communities that run them. And if the trader is absent, where will entrepreneurship come from? Karnataka found the answer: the state. India followed this lead.

Protest against injustice is an intrinsic part of Karnataka’s history. It was a thousand years ago that Basavanna protested against the meaningless rituals of brahmanism. This protest led to the rise of the Lingayat religion, premised on recognition of equality before God, and posed a major challenge to brahmin domination in Indian society. Our understanding of caste dynamics in India, going beyond the rigid chaturvarna caste system, draws upon the work of social anthropologists like M.N. Srinivas, who worked in Mysore. It led to an appreciation of the difference between ‘high’ caste and ‘dominant’ caste; about the flexibility in the jati system; or of the phenomenon of ‘sanskritization’ which more than brahmins themselves, was the perpetrator of brahminism.


The distinction between the brahmin and brahminism is clearer in Karnataka than elsewhere. In Uttar Kannada, for example, the brahmins till the land themselves – perhaps the only place in India where this is the case. There is something else unique here. As the Lingayats demonstrated, one could have priests and scholars from one’s own community. Many communities set up mathas, and these were controlled by their own people. None of these communities called upon the brahmin to run the matha. Thus here, the pujari was not a middleman between the individual and his/her god. This middleman role gave the brahmin power in many parts of India, but not here in Karnataka. It is no surprise that the brahmins themselves were in the forefront of poking fun at brahminism. And that the state’s politics did not take on the anti-brahmin hue of its neighbours.

Purandaradasa sang that ‘every day is a good day’, debunking the astrological predilections of the brahminical culture. But this has also meant that within the umbrella of ‘sanatana dharma’, there is a huge variety of religious practice in Karnataka. The Gometeshwara statue is evidence of Jain presence. Haider and Tipu left a rich legacy, which is more than just Lal Bagh. The plays of Chandrasekhara Kambara attest to this wealth of traditional practice. With this variety came tolerance.

If we think of Karnataka’s development indicators – without Bangalore, Dakshin Kannada and Udupi – we get a startling picture of economic backwardness. These three are statistical outliers, pushing the average values upwards. Whether it is agriculture, industry, education or health, the rest of Karnataka shows values akin to the Hindi heartland states of Bihar and Jharkhand. Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have shown progress over the 1990s, and improved themselves. For reasons mentioned below, Karnataka has not; if anything, it has barely managed to stand still.


The truth is: Karnataka is a very ‘backward’ (economically) state that has somehow come to be seen as an advanced progressive one. The question is not why Karnataka is backward, but why these three districts are so ‘advanced’. And there are specific reasons for the growth of each – the ‘Kerala effect’ on social services for Dakshin Kannada, and globalization opportunities for Kodagu (plantation products) and Bangalore (garments, IT).

This is because Bengaluru is a unique in the Indian economic space. In 1918, the Miller Commission made the comment that everyone in Mysore, except for the brahmins and Christians, were backward. The result was not simply a policy of positive discrimination – reservation – by the government, but also a massive investment in education by the mathas of various communities. Doctors, engineers and lawyers became a point of pride in each community. Over the years, these communities boasted of large numbers of highly educated people. This provided the base for the IT boom of the late 1900s – the advantage in educated people power. Here again Karnataka has led by showing India that reservations can work. They can work if there is investment in education. Is India listening?

Located in Karnataka, Bangalore is nevertheless the economic neighbourhood of San Francisco. Economically, it is remote from Tumkur and Chamarajanagara. The political leadership here has not even come to grips with this backwardness, in spite of easily available data and information. There is no evidence that political leaders have grasped the nature of the policy choice. It is the same as that which faces India. Only, in India as a whole, this choice is being debated seriously. The coming years will be crucial for the future of the idea of Karnataka. The crisis today from the politically dominant, but in many ways disastrous, role of those engaged in mining ore from Bellary highlights this point.

In another important dimension, Karnataka suffers a deprivation. A large part of the state – Old Mysore – was not in the forefront of the freedom struggle. There is no memorial here to a Congress session as in Belgaum (over which Maharashtra has staked a claim). That movement schooled a generation of politicians – from Nehru to Prakasam, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to Jayaprakash Narayan, Rajagopalachari to B.C Roy, Sardar Patel to Govind Ballabh Pant. There is no one from Karnataka in this illustrious list.


Thus the state began its political life in India without someone schooled in the freedom struggle to give it political leadership. This vacuum was filled in the early days by the civil service of Old Mysore, a benevolent bureaucracy. Politicians here have not had that great advantage, and those who came into electoral politics had no glorious role models from the past. As a result, Karnataka has missed statesmen and make do with mere politicians. Small people have filled the vacuum in leadership. The state is paying a price for this, but it is not clear how this matter of quality leadership can be resolved.

And worse, in recent years, the models available have not been of the noble kind. Thus while Karnataka has produced a prime minister, it has no politician today who is prime ministerial. Our politicians had no national movement pedigree. Possibly this is why they do not know any better. I am sorry to be blunt, but it is better to face up to this reality and wonder about a new path. We need quality politicians!


An example may help illustrate this point. Karnataka in the mid-1980s pioneered a model of devolution of power to local governments that justly won praise from around the globe. The contribution of Abdul Nasir Sab and then Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde (with inputs from distinguished civil servants in the Mysore tradition), was exemplary. But subsequent state politicians could not see beyond their nose, and within five years had managed to demolish it thoroughly. In place of the grand vision of Nasir Sab came politics of the pettiest kind. Karnataka is yet to recover from this step backwards. Other states have learned from Karnataka and moved on. Not us. Our leaders have excelled themselves in retrogression. Responses like the gram panchayats hakkotaya andolana are a sign of hope that people will not long tolerate such leadership. But there is a long way to go from this hopeful root.

The state, like India, displays great disparities. Bangalore today is a true neighbourhood of San Francisco, but distressingly remote from Chamrajanagar which is only 100 kilometres away. The recent IT migrants to Bengaluru have still not got used to the fact the ‘natives’ here speak, not American as in San Francisco, but Kannada; and they resent speaking even a little Kannada. If anything, they expect the local people to speak ‘their’ language – American! Here is a case of cosmopolitanism of the people being turned against them by the brash and the newly moneyed. And so long as these arrogant immigrants continue to see the world this way, there is a base for trouble in the city.

Karnataka has disputes with its neighbours about the sharing of water – with Maharashtra, Andhra and with Tamil Nadu. The processes in India that lead to such disputes work in magnified fashion in Karnataka. Short term, narrow political – by which I mean electoral – opportunities outweigh longer-term wisdom. We forget the important in the face of the urgent. And intolerance is rising, as the reaction to Girish Karnad’s comment that the Cauvery Tribunal decision be respected showed. The politicians’ reactions to this award have been singularly lacking in statesmanlike behaviour. Thus, there is a need for citizens here to be cautious. I do not know where statesmanship will come from. It may be outside influence, but that we will have to see.

Karnataka can grow in one of two ways. Bangalore and the few others can move ahead, and this will, for a while, move the averages upwards – at the cost of increasing the distance between those who are participants in this growth and those who are not. Or, it can take the harder path of dealing with the backward parts of the state, trusting local governments, investing in them for all-round development for at least a decade, and then reap the fruits of growth as the lowest values rise and thus push up the state average. If the state chooses the latter path, it will again show the way ahead for India. We have to see what happens.