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Lohia's legacy in Karnataka

Last updated: 23 March, 2010
By Chandan Gowda 22:49 IST

In Perspective

Despite its limited electoral career, Lohiaite politics had tremendous impact on mainstream politics.

Ram Manohar Lohia, whose birth centenary is being observed today (March 23), can be credited with infusing his robustly original democratic ideals in the minds of some of the most creative individuals in Karnataka: The ideals of caste equality, the virtues of economic democracy and a decentralised administration, the ‘equal irrelevance’ of capitalism and communism and the political necessity of de-privileging the English language — in short, the ideas with which Lohia tried to evolve a model of Indian socialism, informed the activist consciousness among many influential politicians, social activists, intellectuals and artists in Karnataka for over five decades.

Lohia is not only intimately linked with his brief, but also dramatic involvement with the Kagodu farmers’ satyagraha in Karnataka. Between mid-April and August, 1951, the landless tenants rebelled against the landlords over the terms of tenancy at Kagodu, a village in Sagar taluk of Shimoga district. Lohia joined the satyagrahis on June 14, 1951. He was arrested and sent to a jail in Bangalore for a short period. His association with this protest gave it a countrywide fame.

The Kagodu satyagraha later brought political gains for Lohia’s Socialist Party (SP) in Shimoga district. This region was to remain the only SP stronghold till the party’s demise in the state. Prominent SP politicians like Gopala Gowda, J H Patel, Konandur Lingappa, S Bangarappa and Kagodu Thimmappa were all from here.

Although its electoral career was limited, the Lohiaite socialist politics had tremendous impact on the mainstream politics of the Congress. The 1974 land reforms of Congress chief minister Devraj Urs, which conferred land ownership to the tenants, hijacked the key plank of the Socialist activism in the state. The pro-backward class policies of Urs also owe a debt to the long standing Lohiaite demand for reservations for the backward classes.

Literary movements
Lohia’s thoughts had a major influence on the social and literary movements in Karnataka. Inspired by Lohia’s ‘Angrezi Hatao’ campaign, Konandur Lingappa founded the Kannada Yuvajana Sabha (KYS) in Mysore in 1957.

In the mid-1960s, the Samajavadi Yuvajana Sabha (SYS), a forum that grew out of the KYS in Mysore under the leadership of Prof M D Nanjundaswamy and writer Poornachandra Tejaswi, tried to popularise Lohiaite ideals. Nanjundaswamy and Tejaswi compiled and translated passages from Lohia’s major works and published them as a short book. In the ’70s, SYS activists organised numerous public discussions on, among others, Lohia’s passionate ideas of ‘jati-vinasha’ (destruction of caste), the importance of rejecting the English language, the need for avoiding extravagant marriage ceremonies, etc.

Lohia was an inspiration to farmers’ organisations, especially the KRRS, which launched a powerful farmers’ movement in the ’80s under the leadership of Nanjundaswamy. The KRRS’ successful demand for farm loan waiver and its activism against the GATT proposals and the agribusiness MNCs embodied Lohia’s socialist ideals.

Two of the three founders of the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti (DSS), B Krishnappa and Devanur Mahadeva had been active Lohiates. Siddalingaiah, the other DSS founder, observed that the Lohiaite influence helped them temper the hostility towards Gandhi among Dalit activists in the state. Their ideological canvas made space for the oppressed among the non-Dalits and allowed them to interact with progressive upper-caste activists.

Lohia left an indelible influence on three of the most charismatic writers of the Navya (modernist) movement in Kannada literature: U R Ananthamurthy, Tejaswi and P Lankesh. All of them were from Shimoga.

While Tejaswi and Lankesh were in open admiration of Lohia’s ideals for ending caste through inter-caste marriages and his rational dismissal of religious superstition, Ananthamurthy was skeptical towards the hubris of liberal modernist aspirations for destroying tradition. He even propagated that caste also be seen as a source of knowledge and creative talent.

While Lankesh and Tejaswi liked Lohia’s emphasis on the primacy of individual freedom, theatre activist K V subbanna (he translated Lohia’s ‘Interval During Politics’ to Kannada), found virtue in practices of self-sacrifice in the higher interests of the community. Poet Gopalakrishna Adiga’s fascination with Toynbee’s cyclical theory of history led him to translate Lohia’s ‘Wheels of History’ to Kannada.

Lohia’s immense influence on various aspects of Karnataka’s life proves, yet again, that the impact of political leaders cannot be measured by their electoral success alone or restricted to their lifetime.

(The writer is an associate professor at National Law School of India)

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