Inclusive Karnataka, liberal Kannadiga

Inclusive Karnataka, liberal Kannadiga

The state’s founding fathers saw the essence of Karnataka as a lens to focus the rays of the world and the rays of India, writes Nataraj Huliyar in a special Rajyotsava feature

6th century Kannada inscription in a cave temple at Badami

In 1949, when Kuvempu, one of our tallest writers, supported the formation of a Karnataka unifying the many Kannada-speaking regions, a minister in the then Mysore State warned him against the idea. Kuvempu replied that he cared little for petty politicians, and wrote a poem titled Akhanda Karnataka (Integrated Karnataka), outlining his vision of a state ruled by the greatest of Kannada poets. ‘Pampa is chief minister here, Nrupatunga the emperor,’ he declared. Goddess Saraswati, putting together the cabinet, chooses Ranna (10th century) and Basavanna (12th century) among her ministers.

No wonder, Kuvempu chose the first Kannada epic poet Pampa as chief minister. It was Pampa who proclaimed ‘Manava jaati taanonde valam’ (humanity is but one). And for Kuvempu, who worked towards creating a secular Karnataka, Basavanna was a natural choice too, for he had, through the reformist Vachana movement, laid the foundation for an equal, casteless society. 

Emotional bond

Kuvempu describes Karnataka as ‘Sarva janaangada shantiya tota’ (a serene garden of all communities) in his poem Jaya Bharata Jananiya Tanujate, a part of which — Jaya he Karnataka Maate — later became the state anthem. Aluru Venkata Rao, a traditional scholar, too, has put forth astonishingly liberal ideas about Karnatakatva (Karnataka-ness) when he defined Kannada nationalism.

D R Nagaraj, a well-known cultural theorist, revisited Alur’s text Karnataktvada Vikasa (Evolution of Karnataka-ness) in 1992, and showed how his broad idea of Karnatakatva differed from a Kannada nationalism that had acquired shades of exclusion, and was targeting linguistic and religious minorities. Alur wrote: “Karnatakatva is the focusing lens (he uses the English phrase) through which one sees not just Bharata bhoomi but the entire world. The rays of the world and the rays of Bharata both dwell in the focusing lens of our Karnataka… Karnatakatva has no place for hatred in the name of religion, caste or party. Anyone who gives an iota of room for such emotions in his heart is a traitor to Karnataka…Karnatakatva does not mean mere patriotism; it is neither just pride about language nor pride in history. It is truly a pure emotion that transcends all this.” 

Liberal outlook

Analysing Aluru’s text, Nagaraj showed how such aspirations grew into a broad vision of an inclusive and secular Karnataka in later writers such as P Lankesh and U R Ananthamurthy. In fact, Poornachandra Tejaswi, Chandrashekhara Patil, Devanoora Mahadeva, Shantaveri Gopala Gowda and many other post-Independence Kannada thinkers have always fought for primacy of Kannada and at the same time stood by the idea of an inclusive Karnataka. This is true also of most new generation writers with a liberal outlook.

In the 20th century, Navodaya (renaissance) writers such as Bendre, Kuvempu, Kayyara Kiyyanna Rai and others supported the unification of Karnataka and wrote inspiring poems defining Kannada and Kannadigas. The impact of their songs, popularised by great singers such as P Kalinga Rao, was seen all over Karnataka. Many popular films adapted such poems or featured new songs expressing the Kannada sentiment. Dr Rajkumar, whose films often had dialogues and songs invoking love of Kannada, took a lead in the Gokak agitation, a movement for primacy of Kannada in education in the mid-1980s. Huttidare Kannada naadal huttabeku (if you must be born, you must be born in the Kannada land),
written and set to music by Hamsalekha in 1993, became an unofficial Kannada anthem.

Local, global

The way Kannada and Karnataka have localised universal social and political philosophies is exemplary. Recently, to earmark the 200th birth centenary of Karl Marx, a new translation of Das Capital was published. The extensive writings of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Lohia are available in Kannada. World classics, cultural theories and seminal feminist writings, including The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir, are available in Kannada translation. Noam Chomsky’s analyses are quickly rendered into Kannada, as are epoch-making books such as Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution. The Kannada intelligentsia is not only open to all that is great but also contributes significantly to these philosophies. Contemporaneity can be found in many Kannada art forms such as sugama sangeeta (singing of modern Kannada poetry) and many other performing arts. Kannada theatre, with groups such as Samudaya, and Bandaya (protest), feminist and Dalit literary movements have brought a whole range of progressive thought into Kannada.


The mass movements of Karnataka continue this tradition. The Dalit movement has Kannada-ised Ambedkar’s thoughts and the farmers’ movement has reinterpreted Lohiaite socialism. Both movements have tried intensively to translate their theories into action. It is Karnataka that has evolved and implemented some of the best models of social justice. The three-time legislator and socialist leader Shantaveri Gopala Gowda relentlessly argued in the sessions of Mysore Assembly for ‘land for the tiller’. Later, the Devaraj Urs government passed a law making the idea a reality.

L G Havanoor, social welfare minister in the Urs cabinet, prepared a report on job quotas for the backward classes. It was accepted by the Karnataka Assembly. The report empowered the backward classes in the political, social and cultural spheres and provided a model for the Mandal Commission Report, later implemented by the Centre. B Basavalingappa, a staunch Ambedkarite and minister in the Urs cabinet, abolished the age-old practice of carrying night soil on the head. Karnataka was the first Indian state to bring about a legislation in this regard. 

Karnataka successfully put into practice decentralisation of power, beginning with the mandal panchayats introduced by Ramakrishna Hegde in the 1980s. In March 2017, the Siddaramaiah government passed the Karnataka Land Reform (Amendment) Act providing dwellings for a large number of the rural poor. In tune with such progressive policies, girl students studying in government institutions from the first standard till their post-graduation (barring professional courses) get free education.

‘Wherever you are, however you are, be a Kannadiga for ever,’ said Kuvempu in one of his poems. Kannadigas include those who live outside the boundaries of Karnataka. Many writers and professionals living outside Karnataka have sincerely tried to live up to this aspiration. But our political and cultural institutions have not been able to make the best use of their knowledge, expertise and experience. 

Legitimate demands

Statesmen, thinkers, activists have often tried to address threats to the
Kannada language. Thanks to the hard work of the Kannada movement ---shaped by Ma Ramamurthy, Aa Naa Kru, Konanadur Lingappa, and Vatal Nagaraj and Kannada Shakti Kendra between the 1950s and 80s ---Kannada became the state’s administrative language and gained primacy.

A new generation is asserting its presence online, as is seen in the campaign against the imposition of Hindi. The Centre has not taken seriously the Kannadigas’ legitimate demand for UPSC and other Central government exams to be conducted in Kannada.

An apprehension that the next generation of upper-and middle-class children studying in English medium schools might turn away from Kannada often haunts Kannada writers. The voice of Karnataka is not heard loudly enough in Delhi as Karnataka is ruled mostly by parties controlled by Delhi leaders. Karnataka has yet to get a strong regional party. The dearth of government jobs, together with the lack of an entrepreneurial spirit among Kannadigas, has led to rising unemployment among Kannada speakers. The closure of Kannada-medium schools year after year is a serious crisis which, unless resolved, will have a disastrous effect on rural Karnataka.

The H D Kumaraswamy government introduced English medium in 1,000 government schools. Some Kannada writers opposed the idea. But, the closure of government schools means, among other things, a loss of jobs for educated Kannadigas in rural Karnataka, where primary education is one of the chief sources of employment. Unless this crisis is addressed scientifically, the idea of a progressive Karnataka will sound hollow. The idea of a liberal, secular Karnataka has been challenged in the past couple of decades, by the ugly rise of communal and divisive discourses. It is now clear that the hidden agenda of these right wing forces is to replace the ideals of a liberal Karnataka to target minorities and hold back the Dalits and backward classes. But not all is lost.

The idea of a progressive Karnataka, whose roots lie in the 12th century Vachana movement, has become stronger in the last 100 years and it can’t be destroyed easily. This land has enough strength to combat divisive forces and preserve its ideals.

(The author is a well-known Kannada writer)