In his essay on the Kagodu Satyagraha, written 15 years after the event, Shantaveri Gopala Gowda wrote that his memories of that episode had got fresher by the day.
In 1951, between mid-April and August, landless tenants protested against their landlords over the terms of tenancy at Kagodu, a village in Sagar taluk of Shivamogga district. The involvement of socialist leaders like Gopala Gowda brought a political intensity to their struggle, which is now cherished as the first farmers’ protest in post-independence Karnataka.
Born into a poor agricultural family in Shantaveri, a village near Thirthahalli, in 1923, Gopala Gowda was drawn to the freedom struggle during his high school days. He and his friends would pull down post-boxes and cut telegraph wires at night. Arrested for acts like these during the Quit India movement, he served time as an undertrial in a jail in Shivamogga for several months, when he came in contact with a variety of freedom fighters who led him to the ideas of Marx, Gandhi and Trotsky. The few books he could find in the jail included Nehru’s The Discovery of India and Minoo Masani’s Socialism Reconsidered. The jail, he recalled, proved “a university,” and initiated him into political life.
Gopala Gowda couldn’t pursue his school education beyond the tenth standard. After working at various jobs, which included rolling beedis, teaching in a local middle school and, later, managing the Vokkaliga student hostel in Thirthahalli, he joined the Student Congress. In organising party events, he came to meet socialists within the Congress like Rammanohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya. When the socialists quit the Congress in 1948, Gopala Gowda followed suit and started working for the Socialist Party.
He was first elected to the Karnataka legislature from Sagar-Hosanagar (1952) and twice subsequently from Thirthahalli (1962 and 1967). Accounts of his campaigns, which were always run with modest resources borrowed from supporters, reveal the immense local admiration for his integrity, courage and charisma, which saw voters rise above their community identities to support him.
Eloquent, serious and passionate, Gopala Gowda’s speeches in the Karnataka Assembly stood out as exemplary interventions from a leader in the opposition. The necessity of land reforms, the welfare of the Dalits and backward castes, the betterment of schools and universities, the need for decentralised governance, and the installation of Kannada as the language of state administration, which figured prominently in them, reveal his earthy socialism as much as his enormous expectation from the political classes in a country recently freed from British rule.
Gopala Gowda’s passionate efforts to see land ownership reside in those who tilled the land were a clear influence on the later land reform measures of Congress Revenue Minister Kadidal Manjappa and Chief Minister Devaraj Urs. A mentor of former Chief Minister J H Patel, he also inspired leaders of the farmers’ movement like Kadidal Shamanna. He was an integral part of the ‘Lohia moment’ in Kannada literature, which encompasses the creative activities of U R Ananthamurthy, P Lankesh and K P Purnachandra Tejasvi. He features as the chief protagonist of U R Ananthamurthy’s novel, Awasthe (1978), which was later adapted into a film by Krishna Masadi.
Gopala Gowda passed away in 1972, at the age of 49, following a paralytic stroke. His family life had started relatively late: he had married Sonakka only eight years earlier and they had had two children.
His scrupulousness, his fine oratory, his abiding love for literature and music, his austere lifestyle, his powers of metaphorical thought, his short-temper, his abhorrence of elitism, his rootedness, his interest in world politics, his love for conversation, all of these qualities, which his contemporaries have testified to abundantly, made Gopala Gowda one of the most distinct political figures in Karnataka. He had once said: “There are people who have reached the shore, and there are people who are yet to reach the shore (‘Dhada hattidoru, dhada hattade iroru’). I want to do politics for those who haven’t reached the shore.”
On the occasion of Gopala Gowda’s birth centenary, asking what it takes to do politics for those who haven’t reached the shore in our times would be to recall a rich political legacy, and perhaps initiate steps to revitalise it.
(The ISEC Professor looks for new ways of looking @Chandan_Gowda73)