Kannada nationalism = Hindutva + Fascism?

SUGATA SRINIVASARAJU writes: If one has been following the media in Palestine and the Middle-East, post-Yasser Arafat, the one question you notice cropping up almost like a refrain in a song, in all contexts of crisis, is: “What would have been Arafat’s reaction? What would have happened were he alive?”

I feel there is a similar question asked here in Karnataka, whenever the state faces a crisis that tests its nerve and character: “How would have P. Lankesh reacted if he were to be alive?” The colossus that he was, his contrarian, lateral and sometimes anarchist views were awaited, respected if not always followed.

In the context of the Cauvery debate that is now consuming the state I would like to point to the brand of Kannada nationalism that presently surrounds us.

It is, to say the least, governed by a shrill sub-nationalistic pitch, very different from Lankesh’s well-defined cosmopolitan nationalism. If our political class had followed Lankesh’s brand of nationalism perhaps they would have escaped the situation they are currently in—of no reaction or comments and facing a constitutional dead-end.

It has been nearly a week since the final award of the tribunal was declared, but not one politician worth his salt has said anything beyond mouthing inanities likee, “We will react only after we have studied the 1000 page-report.” When have our politicians actually been short of words and when has there been such conspicuous silence on such a major issue?

Over the decades, the political class in Karnataka have come to occupy an unrealistic perch on the Cauvery issue, climbing down from which now, when the award is not entirely to their expectations, is clearly seen as political suicide. And what were their expectations? It is difficult to say, because the issue has always been submerged in the din of rhetoric.

At present, Kannada nationalism, sadly, is at its reactionary best. There is a symbiotic relationship between this brand of foregrounding regional identity and Fascism or even Hindutva. It ignores the liberal and sensitive pursuits of our history and tradition.

Another variety of nationalism that is competing to replace this is also not very gratifying. It is to reject the cultural reality of Karnataka and view it as a convenient unit of administration or a modern political entity. This nationalism operates on abstract ideas, which escape the familiar route of language and culture. This model has been shaping up with the surge of the IT industry in Karnataka.It is interesting to note here that recently IT chieftains had even suggested that Bangalore, the state capital should be governed as a Union territory.

But Lankesh’s nationalism envisages Karnataka as a turf of multiple realities. He re-imagines Karnatakatva as one of the authentic forms of protest against global monoculture that is developing as a result of growing capitalism.

Lankesh’s engagement with Kannada culture was unique and probably the most significant in modern times. He never once invoked the past to create pride in Kannada. He made the language seem it could handle all the concerns of the present. He never treated the Kannada language like an artifact; he plucked its idioms from across its many dialects and wove them into a new hope. The rough edges were his triumph.

Francois Mitterand, Steffi Graf, Sanjay Gandhi, Greta Garbo, Sonia Gandhi, Devaraj Urs, B S Chandrashekar, Nazir Sab, Veerappan and Rajkumar could all co-exist in his columns. He made them all gel well in the mental landscape of a person who knew only Kannada. His writing was an unstated experiment in the process of keeping a cultural space open and healthy.

But the current polarisation of debates and reactionary responses only create a delusion that one’s culture is an immaculate domain devoid of any influences, while only the contrary can be true. The anxieties of influence is there at all times for all cultures, but cultures also have a way of appropriating and absorbing influence to nourish themselves.

It could be a new grain, a new vegetable, a recipe, a musical tradition or an abstract idea of coping with famines and plagues, cultures are more open and flexible than most of its interpreters think they are. This is what, week after week, for twenty long years, Lankesh tried to say. He was deeply engrossed in a face-to-face dialogue with Kannada culture through his Lankesh Patrike, and never once did he try to be its spokesman to the outside world.

It now appears like a well-executed cultural mission, but it was the most spontaneous thing to happen in our cultural history this century. His iconoclasm had an unstated cultural goal and dynamics. A time has come when we have to reclaim or recover this vision that Lankesh saw for our culture.

There may be problems with the final order, we may need to seek clarifications from the tribunal, there may be a legal battle necessary and even a legislative intervention. But, is there a need to foul-mouth a linguistic community, create an environment of fear, shutdown Tamil channels and banish poor Tamil-speaking labourers from our borders?

We seem to be speaking of the final order like the US-influenced Iraqi justice system that put Saddam to the gallows. As if it was an order delivered overnight without giving us the right to represent our views. The truth is that we have done it for 17 long years and at the end of it, if we perceive the order has not been in our favour, then we should ask ourselves if we presented our case effectively.

The political class cannot exonerate itself of this responsibility. Lankesh, if alive, would have reminded our political class of its responsibility. He would not have spoken with the casualness and indifference of a Girish Karnad, but would have engaged our people and the opinion-makers and he would be heard. Nobody would have burnt his effigies and slippered his portraits. That was the moral power of Lankesh and Lankesh alone.

At every bend in recent political history, politicians rode the Cauvery wave in the Mysore region to win votes and now when they suddenly cannot use the issue anymore, they face the difficulty of going back empty handed and facing their constituents. Because their old rhetoric is no longer valid. On the other hand, if they had only prepared their constituents to the idea of sharing the yield of the river, perhaps they would not have been in the situation they currently face.

As long as the political class in Karnataka views the Cauvery dispute as a rights issue of an upper riparian state and not as an effort at equitable sharing of water within the constitutional framework, the resolution of the dispute will remain a far cry.