What is the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike? How has a motley group of self-appointed soldiers come to dominate the political discourse so quickly and so often? Who in the organisation decides what issues to take up? How does it work the media? How does it explain the violence and vandalism that has become its signature tune; the charges and suspicions?
With the media largely preferring to ignore a phenomenon that threatens to alter the social, political and business grammar of the State, DEEPAK THIMAYA, who hosts the Jedare Bale interview show on Udaya TV, and Time to Talk on Udaya News, throws light on the man behind the mission: T.A. Narayana Gowda.
The first time I met Narayana Gowda was in the parking lot of the offices of Udaya TV in Vasanthnagar in Bangalore in 2005. The car park had been cleared out for a protest by Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, supposedly at the behest of Tejaswini Sriramesh (before she morphed into Tejaswini Gowda midway into her term as the MP from Kanakapura).
The encounter was brief and ended with a sharp exchange of pleasantries, considering the fact that I was being seen as a “villain” by the Tejaswini gang for standing by the TV channel’s Tamilian management, when I was naturally expected by her to side with her.
The KaRaVe protestors were vocal and aggressive, and even walking in front of them could have been considered as effrontery. But the foolishness I indulge myself in from time to time pushed me to make my face be seen in their midst. In one such attempt I found myself standing directly in front of Narayana Gowda, who had incidentally walked to the point where I was standing to receive a phone call.
The face to face struck a cold lash in my heart because of the reputation KaRaVe had gained by then.
A portly, average bodied man with a thick vermilion spot on his forehead, and the red-and-yellow Kannada towel slung around his neck, Narayana Gowda, with his intensely investigating eyes, appeared the sort of person I should avoid at that moment. I knew who he was and he knew who I was, but we were in “opposite” camps because I was not seen to be with the Kannadigas.
The question was, “Was I was an enemy of the State, in the process of my loyalty to the company that gave me my identity?”
When, a few months hence, I heard that Narayana Gowda himself had expressed a desire to come on my show, I did something that I do not do normally: meeting the probable guest for a preparatory session.
Normally I do not break my head about any interview at all and, in this case, it was indeed a task only in terms of the travel to the part of the City. I did not find it uncomfortable considering the accepted axiom that anyone in the service of the language of the land is certainly above everything.
Everyone in the vicinity knew the exact location of the KaRaVe office in Gandhinagar, and I was able to easily locate it by spotting the trademark towel around a middle-aged men standing in front of the building.
But walking up the staircase of the building, I was shocked to see how low-key the whole atmosphere appeared.
The attendant manning the office failed to recognise me (deflating my self-importance straightaway!). But, he x-rayed my exterior from top to bottom with his eyes, went inside, and reported the arrival of the guest.
I was not made to wait for long to be ushered into the presence.
Narayana Gowda sat in a small, simple office, with large pictures and citations, behind him, along with a heavy setting of divinity in the form of pictures all around him. Most politicians stand up and greet if the man is someone important from the media. Not Gowda: I remember him sitting firmly in his seat. He did a namaskara and looked very cagey.
Since this was some time after the protest against Udaya TV, we had many things to discuss in retrospect. I was surprised to know that he was already bitter about Tejaswini and had some very uncharitable things to say about her. He told me how he and his organisation were used by her on many occasions before she became an MP and how she had little use for them now that she had other contacts.
As the conversation continued, he dropped his guard. Gone was the suspicious soldier; in his place was a seemingly simple man who had been caught in the throes of a movement.
This was a man, I felt, was not there by design. The moment had found the man; it just so happened that that man happened to be Narayana Gowda! He knew his importance but did not exhibit any over-confidence. He was glad about his support base but was careful not to tread an uncharted path.
I could sense that he was not at all favourably disposed towards outsiders, which many say is a sentiment he developed after a stint in Bombay during his early days. After speaking about many things and listening to him narrate the various accounts of his and his organisation’s experience, I was satisfied that whatever maybe his shortcomings, here was a man who would fight for the cause he believed in.
I formally invited him for my show. The interview went off well. I asked him every uncomfortable question possible. He patiently answered each one of them and, to my surprise, he was cool and composed.
Before the interview was telecast, I had a call from him, enquiring if everything was all right and whether he had offended anyone in his responses. He was, in particular, worried about an answer where he sounded like he was not in agreement with the other Kannada activists including Vatal Nagaraj. I had to assure him through a conversation over 20 minutes that he had not. I also heard that had gone underground to escape the police who were looking for him in connection with some trouble in Belgaum.
The show was telecast on a Sunday afternoon. I heard after that, that he was very happy and his followers were happy too, despite their initial apprehensions. When I called him, he sounded more humble and polite than in our first encounter; in fact, this time, he addressed me respectfully and told me how the show had helped him clear a lot of confusion in the minds of the people.
Possibly because he is an activist of the media age, possibly because of the kind of issues he has taken up, possibly because of the manner in which KaRaVe activists work, Narayana Gowda has been subjected to more scrutiny than, perhaps, any other Kannada activist. Starting with the allegation that he is into “roll-call” (a label slapped on him recently by his one-time supporter, Tejaswini) to suspicion of how he goes silent about some issues after taking compensation for his silence, Gowda has been portrayed as a villain by his detractors.
On top of all of that, Narayana Gowda has seen the simmering tension in his organisation brim over and culminate in a fullscale split a year-and-a-half ago. Praveen Shetty, known for his aggression mostly resulting from his inability to articulate thoughts, led away a splinter group supposedly upset with Narayana Gowda’s Machiavellian agitations. Gowda maintains that the mischief mongers and blackmailers have been purged from KaRaVe, and that it is now a more decent and well-organised outfit working under guidelines and guided by values.
Nevertheless, the doubts, the questions and suspicions about the man, his motives and his motivations persist.
I remember having called him once to complain about the way some Kannadiga families were being humiliated in an apartment complex owned by some north Indians, but the unenthusiastic response I got from him raised some doubts in my mind about the scope and the choice of his activities.
After Dr Raj Kumar’s funeral in 2006, I remember waiting to start for home when a group of people accosted me and got me to promise them that I would in my next television opportunity not forget to ask Gowda about his money transactions, his dubious business dealings, and unscrupulous tactics.
I escaped by giving them an assurance which I knew I would never be able to honour.
I have met him many times and sometimes during his arrival or departure in connection with a show or discussion, at the entrance of Udaya TV. I have interviewed him twice for Jedara Bale and once for Vijaya Karnataka (which was not published for strange reasons).
I have shared the dais with him several times and have crossed paths many more times. The last time we were at a function was the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana in Udupi, when the Praveen Shetty group was seen battling with the police to prevent Gowda from attending it.
How much should a television interviewer be bothered about the personal life and transactions of the leader of KaRaVe when there were larger issues to deal with? Should I take bazaar gossip seriously and have asked him to clarify the rumours and hearsay on air? For instance, should I have taken seriously a juicy bit I heard from a discotheque owner that he had seen Gowda in places that one should not find a KaRaVe type of guy in, before he became the leader of the organisation?
It is not a secret, and Narayana Gowda himself admits to it sometimes, that he was greatly influenced by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and that, to an extent, was even a Hindu activist, before he donned the mantle of a Kannada activist. His close proximity to the Hindu organisations has even earned him frequent brickbats from secular organisations.
Narayana Gowda may have had any kind of background or past. Should that be used to view the issues he raises and represents now? Should that be used to deflect attention from the issues he raises and represents now?
I have asked him many times about the source of his money. He says that he does get a lot of contributions from various people from all over the world. He has also admitted to this openly in many public fora too.
Narayana Gowda may not come across a person of striking intellect but it is clear that he has his ear to the ground and the uncanny ability to judge what issues will strike a chord among the silent masses he thinks he represents.
Contrary to the belief of his detractors, he is not someone who openly advocates violence. He has time and again reiterated the fact that all the violence, if you call it violence, has been against the property of the provoker than at any person.
Gowda is careful about what he speaks and chooses his words carefully. He avoids confrontation with the police, as best as possible and carefully plans the “attacks” in consultation with his trusted lieutenants and confidantes. His Men Friday say that nothing happens in KaRaVe without Narayana Gowda’s knowledge and OK.
He is known to make a serious attempt to understand an issue before agitating against it. He is a patient listener and respects people more knowledgeable than himself. When the Cauvery verdict came out, I have heard that he took the trouble of getting some legal experts to explain to him the intricacies of the judgment.
Sometimes, his poor knowledge of English may have led to a lot of misunderstanding. Sometimes, his agitations have been misdirected. Sometimes, he sounds like a man suffering from the ‘I’ malaise, that is more out of practice than intention. (Whenever he has a chance to take his own name, he calls himself respectfully as “Narayana Gowdru” instead of referring to himself in first-person.)
But make no mistake, Narayana Gowda is a Kannada hero—in the absence of anyone to play that role.
This is the first time Kannadigas feel that someone is standing up for them and fighting for them. This is the first time Kannadigas feel that somebody is willing to be seen in negative light to do something positive for them.
He may be bad in the eyes of the world, but he is good in the eyes of many Kannadigas.
During the Mysore Utsava I had organised last year, Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, among other organizations, protested against me. I talked to Narayana Gowda on the phone and explained the situation. The protest was eventually called off. But it’s still a mystery to me whether I had successfully convinced the protesters or whether it was a phone-call from Gowda that did the trick.
Since, nothing happens in KaRaVe without Gowda’s knowledge, what shall I conclude?
Also read: Karnataka Rakshana Vedike: Good, bad or sad?