T S Sudhir

In July 2017, several stations of Bengaluru Metro Rail came under attack, almost simultaneously. Kannada activists, mostly representing Karnataka Rakshana Vedika sprayed black paint on the Hindi signages at the stations, shouting slogans against the imposition of Hindi. Soon the Metro authorities decided to be safe than sorry, dropping restricting the names of the stations to English and Kannada.

Usually such protests would be dismissed as the act of parochial Kannada organisations who do not have a larger world view. They also tend to be taken over by rowdy elements, who use muscle power to get their point across. But this protest was unique. Its support base also included software professionals who were concerned about Kannada language not being given its place of pride.

I was in Bengaluru last week and met two linguists, Vasant Shetty and Vallish. Their day
- jobs see them at a tech firm and a start-up respectively. What binds them together is the feeling of angst that Kannada is being pushed to play second fiddle to Hindi even in Karnataka. Their argument is that Hindi cannot be the link language for Kannadigas.

Shetty spoke passionately about how now you have bank staff that cannot converse in Kannada and that Union government-run banks, post offices, railways have sidelined Kannada. This according to Shetty, has created a sense of fear and insecurity among people about Hindi.

But it is not merely about the language. Closer to the assembly elections, it has got entertwined with Kannadiga identity and pride. More so because the feeling is gaining ground that a Kannada speaker is considered inferior to someone who articulates in Hindi.

Vallish said something that struck me as very disturbing. He said that in a diverse country like India, the government must respect multiple identities. Let me quote him to get a clear understanding of the educated Kannadiga mind.

"It cannot be said you have only one identity - Indian - wash out everything else. One identity cannot be pitted against the other. If you are an Indian, agree to Hindi. To say if you are a Kannadiga, you are less Indian is not going to help us associate with the idea called India,'' said Vallish.

The fact that a Kannadiga has to assert his Indian-ness, is a commentary on the faultlines that have shown up. This feeling of being treated as a lesser citizen is very strong in the south Indian states, not just a Bengaluru.

In fact, there is an increasing feeling that the three-language formula
a sham to impose Hindi on south India. That the powers at the Centre have been overzealous about imposing Hindi. And it is not about the language alone. Even with respect to say, the Ramayana, the feeling up north is that Valmiki Ramayana is the only Ramayana whereas, the south has many different versions of the Ramayana. That is because every culture has a Ramayana interpreted to suit the ethos of that land, for its own generations.

The problem with a one size fits all approach is that if there is a perception that homogeneity is being shoved down the throat, it will be opposed fiercely. What needs to be recognised is that Kannada, like any other regional language, is not a mere medium of communication. It is an emotion.

The alternate view is that turning states into islands of regionalism is not healthy for the concept of India as a nation. This is based on the apprehension that India is not a strong enough emotion to hold the states together.

In fact, the contrary is true. Because we are secure as a nation, the time has come to become more federal and allow states to grow.

But at the same time, there is a risk in taking the Kannada language issue too far because if it is perceived as an anti-Hindi pitch, it undermines the contribution of the outsider in Bengaluru and Karnataka's development. Also within Karnataka it is necessary to note that Kannada is not the only spoken language. There is Tulu, Kodava, Konkani and even Deccani Urdu in the Hyderabad-Karnatak region. In fact, Kannada supremacy is limited to just about 5-6 districts of old Mysuru region.

Also given the cosmopolitan nature of a Bengaluru, it is also risky to stoke the regional fire beyond a point. It needs to be recognised that the outsider has contributed enormously to the growth engines of the state. So if those batting for Kannadiga identity start pressing it beyond the political expediency, it has the potential to backfire. Look at the revenues in Karnataka, 60 per cent of it comes from Bengaluru. This is the engine that is running a very backward area like north Karnataka.

But what would worry the BJP this election season is that because of the perception about the party being cow belt focused, the anti-Hindi sentiment and anti-BJPism tend to overlap. Language sometimes becomes a vehicle of domination so sometimes this sentiment against the BJP is also expressed as an anti-language sentiment.

Language has become an important issue in this election because of the manner in which the Congress has played the regional identity card to blunt the BJP's card of nationalism. More so because Siddaramaiah who is practically leading the Congress campaign has played identity politics most of his political life, having been part of the Janata parivaar. That is pretty much his strength.

The BJP is in fact getting a taste of its own medicine. The BJP's emphasis on nationalism, one nation, one flag is being countered by the Congress playing the Kannadiga identity card, almost like a regional outfit. Just as Narendra Modi used the Gujarati asmita card when he was CM, Siddaramaiah is using Kannadiga pride to undercut the BJP's image of being a Hindi Hindu Hindustan party. Like with his decision to go in for a Karnataka state flag that his rivals saw as an assertion of an identity distinct from that of India.

Should it bother the rest of India that Karnataka has adopted its own flag. To take an analogy from the world of cricket, the Indian Premier League showcases the movement towards sub-nationalism of sorts. Does it take away from the larger sense of pride for the country? No. On the contrary, it makes people more comfortable with the idea of supporting a team that represents the identity of the city and the state, say a Royal Challengers Bangalore or a Sunrisers Hyderabad. The flag issue is frankly not very different from this.

Interacting with many leaders of the BJP's Karnataka unit, I got the sense that they realise the trap being set for the party by Siddaramaiah. Which is why they go out of their way to insist that the BJP is as committed to the Kannadiga identity as the Congress. Among other things, it does this by pointing out that the naming of the Bengaluru airport after Kempegowda was its contribution.

Hindi vs Kannada, as the language issue has got unfortunately positioned, also reflects itself in the north vs south divide over allocation of funds. After Amit Shah alleged that central funds given by the NDA regime were being gobbled up by a corrupt Congress government, Siddaramaiah hit back by pointing out that for every rupee that Karnataka gives to the Centre by way of taxes, it gets only 47 paise in return. The point being made is that Karnataka is subsidising the Bimaru states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) while struggling for funds to develop its own backward areas in Hyderabad-Karnataka region.

This election has therefore seen uncomfortable questions being raised. That how fair is it for the Centre to give less forcing Karnataka to reduce for its subsidised rice scheme while giving it to another state to spend it on well-being of cows. Should Karnataka value Kannadigas less than those in the north Indian states, is a question that will be obviously asked.

Which is why I see this Karnataka election as a test for the people of the state. Their choice will be their commentary on their identity, their pride and what they approve of and what they detest. And hopefully, there will be important learning for everyone involved.