The Kannada conundrum of Karnataka BJP leaders amid ‘Hindi hype’

Karnataka’s BJP leaders have found themselves in a tricky spot
Last Updated 30 January 2021, 16:39 IST

Karnataka Governor Vajubhai R Vala addressed the joint legislative session in Hindi earlier this week and attracted criticism for neglecting Kannada.

Social media was abuzz with debates on why the governor did not speak a word of Kannada at least for courtesy’s sake.

Earlier this month, Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit to Shivamogga sparked outrage as the event in which he took part displayed a banner entirely in Hindi. Also, a foundation plaque he unveiled did not have Kannada.

Questions were raised on why the state government did not insist on Kannada. In another recent backlash, former BJP MLC and poet Doddarange Gowda received flak for stating that Hindi was a national language. He tendered an unconditional apology for his statement while clarifying that he never meant to insult Kannada.

In their attempt to strike a balance between the nationalist ideology and asserting regional identity, Karnataka’s BJP leaders have found themselves in a tricky spot.

How are they negotiating this dichotomy between nationalism and regional identity? BJP National General Secretary C T Ravi was quick to defend Gowda, calling the backlash against Hindi as “politically-motivated”.

Some BJP leaders that DH reached out to shared a similar opinion. Their perception is that Hindi did not come at the cost of Kannada and there is nothing wrong in identifying it as a national language. From a larger perspective, they felt embracing Hindi would help include Karnataka in the national narrative.

At a personal level, learning Hindi was crucial, for their voices to be heard in a national party.

“If I go to Parliament and talk in Kannada, nobody will understand what I am trying to share,” BJP MLC Tejaswini Gowda, who once represented the erstwhile Kanakapura constituency in Lok Sabha, said.

“What is the harm in learning Hindi? By learning the language, it will empower me as a person. Kannada is my identity. That cannot be taken away from me.”

However, this argument has failed to convince pro-Kannada activists, authors and linguists.

Purushotham Bilimale, a former JNU professor and author, cited the 2011 census to point out that Hindi had grown 46% between 1971 and 2011, whereas Kannada had seen a mere 3.75% growth in terms of speakers.

“Hindi grew that much as it assimilated several smaller languages,” he observes.

As for the current situation, he saw this as opportunistic politics for BJP leaders. “They need to learn Hindi to grow within BJP. For instance, Tejaswi Surya became a national leader over Pratap Simha as he was fluent in Hindi,” he says, accusing the BJP MPs from Karnataka of being “ready to sacrifice” Kannada.

In fact, a section of BJP leaders privately frown upon this because they are forced to counter the narrative that theirs is a Hindi party, which puts them on a sticky wicket.

Even though Karnataka has not seen radical regional activism, pushing the nationalist ideology when it comes to the language will only lead to a surge of regional sentiments, political scientist Muzaffar Assadi says.

“It’s not just about Hindi being taught as a second or third language. Hindi is becoming the instrument of nationalism. Karnataka is a salad of languages as it is home to several languages and dialects. We negotiate with other languages. Hindi was being treated as one of the languages till date. But imposing Hindi might create a disenchantment,” he says.

Assadi added there needed to be a paradigm shift in understanding regional identity. “The BJP leaders should instead create a space for Kannada in North India. The Kannada language does not exist in the imagination of Hindi-speaking regions,” he says.

(Published 30 January 2021, 15:52 IST)

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