What your nela and what your jala says about you

First Cauvery, now Hogenakal: Karnataka’s river of distrust with Tamil Nadu runs deep. After sparring over how to share water from the Cauvery, the two States have now locked horns over the Hogenakal Integrated Water Scheme.

Tamil Nadu’s plans to implement a Rs 1,334-crore Japanese-funded project to provide drinking water is opposed by Karnataka which says Hogenakal Falls is a “disputed border area” and no project can be taken up till the dispute is settled. The BJP’s Ananth Kumar raised the issue in Parliament in early March, calling it illegal; chief minister aspirant B.S. Yediyurappa took a coracle ride to oppose the project.

Meanwhile, the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike has set a April 9 deadline for TN to drop the project, and has threatened to stop the airing of Tamil films and TV channels if the project goes ahead.

But Tamil Nadu’s local administration minister M.K. Stalin says the project would not harm Karnataka in any way as only Cauvery water that runs through TN territory would be utilised for the project. Its assembly last week passed a resolution urging the Centre to support the project and to stop Karnataka from opposing it. And chief minister M. Karunanidhi yesterday breathed fire: “This is just a spark, diffuse it at the very beginning so that it doesn’t turn into an inferno… Break not just our buses, but our bones.”

Just what is it about land, water and language that evokes such strong reactions in both States?

In his just-published book ‘Keeping Faith with the Mother Tongue‘ (Navakarnataka Publications), journalist, writer and translator Sugata Srinivasaraju looks at “The Tripod” of land, water and language that defines identity.



There is a quiet consensus that land and water are emotive issues. But why they become emotive often gets explained in livelihood, economic, environmental or political terms. These explanations undoubtedly reflect the most fundamental concerns of man, but they tend to overlook the fact that there is also a broad cultural element at play. This cultural element relates to the identity-imagination of the people. Who you are and where you come from are often described in physical terms of land and water.

Take for instance the drawing of the contours of the Kannada land in the earliest extant Kannada text, Kavirajamarga. It simply says that the land that lies between the Cauvery and the Godavari is the Kannada heartland (Cauveryindma Godavarivaramirpa nade Kannada tirul).

To this idea of land and water inexorably gets woven the aspect of language.

Identity is conceived on this tripod of land, water and language and therefore losing them in whatever measure is tantamount to losing identity. People may not make straight and stated connections between this tripod and their identity, but that is the cultural wisdom that governs them.

Therefore, when there is talk of sharing Cauvery water or conceding a few taluks to Maharashtra on the Belgaum border or when a mass icon like Raj Kumar who personifies standard Kannada speech dies, there is violence. The violence does not happen because there are some politically-motivated miscreants to do so, but because such violence is guaranteed amnesty under a well-perfected cultural logic linked to identity.

The violence is seen as an assertion of identity and not as a hooligan act. What in the jargon of law would qualify as crime, in this context turns out to be a ‘heroic’ act for a seemingly greater ’cause’.


Go back a little in history and see how India was reorganised post-Independence. The reorganisation of States was on cultural terms—on the basis of dominant language zones. They were not partitioned as economic zones, linking production areas with nearby markets. There is an argument that such an economic division was eminently possible and would have altered the destiny of India.

So, the very idea on which this nation is built supports an emotive identity struggle that revolves around land, water and language.

Therefore, invariably, river water tribunals can never give acceptable verdicts or border committees can never come to a conclusion. With the linguistic reorganisation of the States, there is also a rigidity that has been built into the conception.

The conception happens around the idea of dominance—which language dominates which area?

The most natural predisposition of the Indian people to be bilingual or trilingual is not taken into account in this conception and hence tension is inevitable and to an extent insurmountable. In this light, the demand for a seperate Kodava land or a Tulu Nadu, within a flat, homogeneous idea of Karnataka and Kannada is therefore perfectly understandable.

Land, could be an identity-marker, but at a baser-level it spawns a feudal idea. One often wonders if arrogance has its roots in the security of owning land. We are familiar with the argument that owning knowledge leads to oppression, to democratise that we innovated on the idea of reservations and created access to knowledge. Similarly, owning land too leads to arrogance and oppression, but that is something that we do not want to readily acknowledge.

Redistribution of land or land reforms has never been a continual programme for any government. Land has always formed a complicated relationship with power. At least, in the case of Karnataka the land reforms that was carried out in the 1970s was slowly, but significantly undone in the ’90s and not surprisingly by former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda, a man representing a dominant community of landlords and claiming to uplift a constituency of farmers.

It is not surprising therefore that between April 2004 and October 2007, when his party JD(S) was in a power arrangement nothing but land was discussed and deliberated, leading one to think if the government had become a quasi-real estate agency. First, it was about the extra land that was given to the international airport; then it was the ‘land-grabbing’ by Infosys; the controversy over the Arkavathy housing layout; then of course the excess land acquired for Nandi’s Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor project; the contentious mining of the Bellary lands for manganese and iron ore; formation of SEZs; Bidadi and Ramanagaram townships; newer ring roads around Bangalore; acquistion and alignments for Metro rail and finally a joint legislature committee to look into encroachments of land in and around Bangalore.

In this context it is interesting to observe that a fledgling political party that writer Devanur Mahadeva and others have floated, Sarvodaya Karnataka, whose manifesto aspires to bring the landed and landless on a single platform, has not taken off significantly. At best it remains a captivating idea, but founded on a naive, utopian ideal.

In the same breath, it is also interesting to note that in the recent debate about the introduction of English in primary schools, the ones who were militantly defending the interests of Kannada were from the forward and traditionally land-owning classes. But the ones subscribing to a ‘pragmatic’ English curriculum, were backwards and the landless masses.


All this should establish that land in our mind is inextricably linked with a host of other powerful cultural ideas like water and language. It is intertwined with our nationalism and ultimately our identity and hence can never be perceived in isolation or independently.

This should explain why so much of resistance and violence surrounds the idea of land today. The conflict that we see either in Nandigram or Nandagudi, the proposed sites of SEZs, is largely because people are being asked to alter their idea of land.

From a cultural conception that constructed our identity and shaped our national and sub-national debates, they are being forced to view it as real estate. Land was always inheritance, even in the severest of crisis it was pawned, not sold, but today it is placed in a terrain of borderless economics. It is an easily transactable commodity without any emotional baggage. This is culturally shocking and would take a long time before people accept it. It will take at least as long as it took us to create the idea of borders and nations.

In the last decade or so, the imagination of our governments have taken a right about turn. From flogging the idea of ‘India lives in its villages,’ to the idea of expanding the cities so that they seamlessly integrate villages, everything has been turned on its head. Villages as autonomous cultural nuggets are facing extinction in government policy.

A good question to ask would be whatever happens to the idea of rootedness?

We always had this fond thought that our wisdom was all stored in the villages and when we faced a crisis in the cities we could go back to the villages to recover them. But what happens when such a civilisational treasure is now on the brink of being lost?

The result is violence, in all its physical and metaphorical manifestations. The governments now think that if you improve one City, then a hundred villages around it will automatically prosper. A result of such thinking is the thousands of crores of rupees being allocated to the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

Sometime ago, N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys demanded green cultivable land to build his campuses. At one point technologists like him even advocated the idea that Bangalore should be converted into a Union territory, which means delinking it completely from all local politics.

It appears for both the corporates and the political class, all emotional linkages to either land or language are roadblocks to economic prosperity. They see it as an important and legitimate function of democratically elected governments to acquire and redistribute land to big corporations. These ideas have caused anxiety among people. One hopes that the anxiety about the imminent loss of language and land finds a mature expression.

[Excerpted from Keeping Faith with the Mother TongueThe Anxieties of a Local Culture, Navakarnataka Publications, pp 288, price Rs 200]

Photograph: courtesy K. Ashwin

Also read: Cauvery, Cauvery antha badkothare