Language matters

(Part 4 of the Bangalore Days series that began here.)

The Seshadri Road hostel I lived in during the early nineties was a protected space. The comings and goings of outsiders were monitored. Staying away from the hostel for a day — with a relative, for instance — needed the hostel warden’s approval. So it was a surprise when one evening a band of five or six young men entered the hostel premises and asked all residents to gather in the courtyard. The warden was absent, and we were curious. Soon around thirty of us collected to hear the outsiders.

Their leader came forward and began to speak in Kannada, using a tone I’d heard previously in political rallies dramatised in films. His aim, it soon emerged, was to protect the local language and culture from neighbourly influences. Too many Tamilians have settled in our city, he said. They’ve diluted our culture, replaced Kannada with Tamil on the streets, and they have also taken away our jobs. Tamil movies run all over the city. It is hard to find an autorickshaw driver who can speak Kannada — they are all Tamilians. This has to stop. Tamilians must leave Bangalore and return to their state.

While their leader gave this speech, his companions walked around distributing pamphlets. It was a call to action, exhorting us to spread awareness of this “takeover” of the city by our neighbour. Among us were a few students from Tamil Nadu; they listened silently and collected the pamphlets.

This was an isolated episode that I soon forgot. Much later, I learned that linguistic nationalism in Bangalore had a long history, and the decades-long quest for Kannada dominance in the city had never come to fruition. In the pre-independence days, efforts by the Mysore state had proven inadequate to stop the rise of English in public and private life. Post-independence, as the hegemony of English grew, Kannada nationalism took a turn towards targeting Tamil and Urdu speakers using demographically driven tactics. (The 1991 census revealed that 35% of Bangaloreans spoke Kannada as a mother tongue, followed by 25% Tamil, 19% Urdu and 17% Telugu speakers.)

The struggle to assert the dominance of Kannada (and its speakers) has spanned mainly the spheres of culture, religion, and work. The poor showing of Kannada movies (in comparison to their Hindi or Tamil counterparts) has led to the demand for mandatory screening of Kannada movies for a fixed number of weeks each year; Tamil Christians, both Catholic and Protestants, dominate the city’s churches, which has led to agitations demanding more Kannada services and church-related jobs for Kannadigas; public sector jobs have been another area of conflict. The parallels to Mumbai (and Shiv-Sena’s drive to keep Maharashtra for Maharashtrians) are evident, but no political party here has extracted similar clout from the issue.

These days there are few overt signs of people trying to defend their culture. On this visit, in a medical store near Koramangala I spot a notice, both in English and Kannada, promising customers speaking Kannada a ten rupee discount for every thousand on the bill. I collect my money. All taxi drivers speak Kannada, although not everyone is from the state. The local drivers grow effusive when they learn I am a Kannadiga. One of them begins by telling me about his sister’s daughter who worked in a software company and is now in the UK. Then he speaks about his son, who is pursuing a degree in aeronautical engineering. The driver does not see a future in this field; but who listens to parents these days, he says.

The city’s diversity is visible at home and work. At the apartment complex, in the  congregation of women my mother joins each Thursday to sing devotional songs, she is the only Kannadiga; the women talk to one other in English. All my sister’s dozen or so colleagues at work are from outside Karnataka. This cosmopolitanism is so much a part of the city’s culture that stray incidents of violence against foreigners in the city — people from the ‘Northeast’ , or Africans — come as a shock to the middle-class. “How can this happen in Bangalore?” is the common refrain. Unseen by the cosseted middle-class, competition for scarce resources — land, water, jobs — remains an issue for the lower income groups, and at difficult times there are always people, like the man who lectured us at the hostel, to remind these less privileged ones of the demographic reasons for their fate.

One thought on “Language matters

  1. ” Unseen by the cosseted middle-class, competition for scarce resources — land, water, jobs — remains an issue for the lower income groups, and at difficult times there are always people, like the man who lectured us at the hostel, to remind these less privileged ones of the demographic reasons for their fate.”

    This line of reasoning applies the world over, not just in Bengalooru/India. No wonder it comes as a shock to the middle (and upper middle) class folks come election time, when even the lowly lower class folks have one vote apiece. Heil President-elect Trump!!

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