Don’t let your identity die

Actor Chetan spearheaded a struggle for the impoverished Kadugollas to be identified as a separate community

Each of us has multiple, overlapping identities – identified according to context. In the US, the overwhelming reference point is racial identity; here in India, community identity defines us.

So what happens when the community identity you believe yourself to be a part of does not exist in books? 

Well, unique stories, cultural practices, vernacular variations begin to wither away without recognition.  

Poverty, malnutrition, healthcare struggles go unnoticed.  The wonder of India— unity among multiplicity—begins to wane.

Hence, the preservation of distinct, robust identities in the midst of an overarching, inclusive humanity remains essential.

Six months back, I had a first-hand experience on the ups and downs of fighting for a community’s identity—in some ways, their very existence.

Members of the Kadugolla community-- Kannada-speaking, impoverished tribals of Ramanagara, Chitradurga, Tumkur, and Bellari— approached me in December 2017. 

The Kadugollas had been historically and legally merged into the larger Golla community even though the two communities have very little in common except for the name. 

For example, Kadugollas live in ‘hattis’, thatched roof abodes, in rural and forest settings, while the Gollas are predominantly urban folk; the Kadugollas rear sheep professionally.  

Again, differences between the communities are copious.

Yet the Kadugolla peoples had never been able to successfully assert themselves as a separate identity, unable to convince the State government that they were a unique cultural community and required an independent categorisation.  

In other words, theirs was a ‘rocking-chair’ movement— ongoing (for decades) but making no progress.

Where was the impediment?

The Gollas, an economically superior community to the Kadugollas, benefited holistically by containing the Kadugollas within their caste framework for the sake of democratic numbers, which allowed the Gollas to more easily procure resources and exert political pressure.

Although the Gollas have various issues of their own, their added numbers’ dominance ensured that the higher layers received governmental benefits, while those at the bottom of the totem pole like the Kadugollas were left hoping for trickling crumps. This system benefitted the Gollas, who had every intention to keep the Kadugollas from acquiring a separate identity. But the Kadugollas deserved socio-economic upliftment, so the fight had to proceed in spite of vested interests.

I decided to conduct our initial Kadugolla identity meeting at a quaint, centrally located, family diner. Then, reality struck. An early Kadugolla representative began her talk, animatedly extolling with amazement on how ‘a meeting for Kadugolla rights could take place in a hotel as high-end as this!’  Amidst five and seven-star extravaganzas, this hotel was bare bones; to our fellow Kadugolla activists championing the cause from ‘hattis’ still lacking electricity, this average diner literally put the generation-long Kadugolla struggle on the proverbial map.

I realised then that coming to terms with our society’s existing inequality was neither possible nor recommended.  In fact, it’s that awareness of being the beneficiary of unjust privilege that demands we do more, help more, give back more.

As the year came to a close, our campaign started heating up.  Kadugolla activists, intellectual CS Dwaraknath, and I met the Law Minister, Chief Minister, and a series of IAS officers. We wanted a Kadugolla identity, so we pushed for it. We wrote articles, spoke to the media, and mobilised people from the Kadugolla community. 

On January 17, this year , we won a separate identity for the Kadugolla community. Here’s the irony: although the joy and gratitude the Kadugollas have shown me knows no limits, it’s me who owes them.  For they helped me realise how important it is to have an identity. 

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