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Is it capital punishment?

RAJENDRA CHENNI

The State finds itself in an unprecedented situation wherein a linguistic identity is threatened by technology. And this time the adversary is the State capital, Bangalore



RARE CASEToday, we find ourselves in an unfortunate situation. Kannada is not the language of modernity and not the language of globalisation.

The irony of language-based identities is that they support aggressive and sometimes violent postures, nurture brash and intolerant attitudes; and in some of their bizarre public expressions flaunt a crude masculinity — but beneath all these they are fragile and insecure. They cannot exist without constructing that `other' such as the language of another neighbouring State; or a community of those who live in the same territory, but are not so openly `loyal' to the language of the land. And in a post-colonial context like ours, the other which threatens the language-centred native identity could be the language of the erstwhile empire which has left behind the permanent other, namely English. It looks as though, as it presents itself in the public space, a language-based identity is anything but self-sufficient. It always turns out to be an assertion of a distinctive, unique identity which is ironically, always defined against the other which threatens it. If one were to go by the idiom and rhetoric used in the vociferous debates on Kannada in which the participants are the Kannada activist groups, one would be forced to conclude that Kannada is that which is threatened by English. As though it was not a language and cultural tradition with over 2,000 years of continuous existence.

How else does one understand terms such as `saving', `protecting' and `nourishing' Kannada so profusely used in the activist rhetoric? There are at least two dimensions to this pathology. One is the plain political fact that the activist groups can survive only by first circulating the metaphors of the insecurity of Kannada and then by projecting themselves as the valiant saviours. The other is the unfortunate dissemination of this feeling of insecurity in the educated middle class so that the notion of the weak, abhimanashunya (without masculine/valiant pride for one's language) Kannadiga is accepted as a common sense notion.

Isolated case

A striking fact about these current notions is that they have their origin and legitimacy in Bangalore. Excepting the dubious boundary regions shared with Maharashtra and Kerala, the rest of Karnataka doesn't seem to go hysterical over them. To cite from my own experience of having lived in Shimoga and the Malnad for over 25 years now, I cannot recall this region being agitated over the threats to Kannada in the same way as the Bangalore-based Kannada activist groups have done. And yet all the professed goals of these groups seem to have been attained here. Kannada is truly the language of administration, the medium of instruction at the university, PhD theses are being written in Kannada, the most sensitive and well informed discussions on post-modernism, globalisation, and politics of identity are held in Kannada. Yes, it is the epicentre of communal conflict but no community has been targeted as the linguistic other. Even without pretensions of speaking for all the diverse regions of Karnataka, one could argue that the perceptions of Kannada identity do not constitute anything homogeneous. There are varied regional nuances which sometimes find exacerbated expressions in linguistic riots and confrontations, but in every case there is an essential difference. North Karnataka and Hyderabad Karnataka regions have made a strong demand for a separate State. Obviously a uniform, universal Kannada identity, which can erase all bitterness about regional imbalances, has never been a reality. Even a little historical sense should remind us that Kannada Nadu and Karnataka State are just so many parts welded together to meet the requirements of the model of a post-independence linguistic state.

Myriad factors

The same historical sense should alert us to the distinctive manner in which Kannada identity is differently nuanced in Bangalore. Its geographical location, its past history, especially in the colonial period are just two among the myriad factors which have made its elevation as Karnataka's capital so arbitrary and contingent. It is a classic case of the ad-hocism which history and politics force upon us. At no point of Karnataka history does it seem to have been the capital location of Kannada culture. That is also precisely the reason why it could so unproblematically become a `cosmopolitan' locale of modernity and now of cyber culture. There is after all, some substantial support to the perception that Bangalore has been invaded by non-Kannadigas. A reliable estimate is that only 30 per cent of Bangalore's residents speak Kannada as their first language. The last few years of the IT boom have made it a cyber city which could also be translated as a city dominated by non-Kannadigas. There is of course no justification for saying that a territory of the Indian nation state should be inhabited by only the members of one linguistic community, in case of Karnataka, the Kannada-speaking community. Unfortunately, the reality is too twisted to be fitted into such idealistic framework.

For instance, would the State of Karnataka (i.e., any ruling party or coalition government) be prepared to declare that as a State belonging to the Indian nation, Karnataka refuses to acknowledge the privileged status of Kannadigas vis--vis the others? Certainly not. All political parties would vie with each other to claim their affiliation to the most primitive and atavistic form of linguistic identity. At the same time, the compulsions of globalisation and the open market economy have forced them to patronise and host all IT and BT professionals, whatever their linguistic identities be. This has led to the highly anomalous situation of the State having trampled upon the rights of its citizens to fulfil the demands of the IT/BT lobby and yet claiming to be the official agency ensuring and authenticating Kannada identity. The insurmountable contradictions of such an attempt have been evident in the past few days in the confrontation between IT leaders and former prime minister Deve Gowda.

This situation has brought forth a unique crisis. With the predominance of IT/BT, English is being seen as the language of globalisation and of immense opportunities — the corollary has been, unfortunately, that Kannada is not the language of modernity and not the language of globalisation. It can now be ghettoised as a vernacular, regional language of `culture'. It is not the language of science and technology. In an extraordinary act of consensus, the entire middle class of Karnataka seems to have willingly entered into this peculiar arena. It sees Kannada as a language of the (recent) past, of the pre-modern, pre-IT revolution phase. A linguistic tradition about 2,000 years old, humiliates itself as not being the language of modernity.

In contrast, English is the emancipatory language of promise and fulfilment. English in the globalised context is a powerful double-edged weapon. But the common-sense perception is that English is the language of power and also emancipation; Kannada is the language of domesticity and of poverty and protest.

In an extraordinary act of arrogance, nowhere witnessed in the globe, the IT industry has also reacted in a manner to suggest that accepting a Kannada identity would automatically mean yielding to the dilution of global standards. We find ourselves in an unprecedented situation wherein a linguistic identity is threatened by technology. The overt expression of this conflict is the fact that Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka, is itself being seen as the adversary, as the other against which Kannada needs to define itself.

One of the rare cases of a linguistic crisis in which the conflict can be formulated as Bangalore versus Karnataka, the capital versus the State, the political centre versus the margin. Yes, a margin vast enough to write back to the centre!

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