Are Linguistic Nationalisms Killing South Indian Federalism?

Linguistic nationalism has, for long, been considered a measure to check Hindi domination in the Indian Union. This paper seeks to explore how, paradoxically, linguistic nationalism can often fuel antagonisms between groups that have negotiated space and politics through multiple cultural registers. Using the case of a recent Kannada film, Sarkari Hi Pra Shaale Kasaragodu, the paper illustrates how multilingualism and pre-existing federalisms could be under threat from contesting chauvinisms.

In April 2018, while doing fieldwork for the Karnataka assembly elections in Mangaluru, I was looking for a lodge for temporary accommodation in Bunder, the city’s old and cosmopolitan fishing port. I spent the better half of an afternoon navigating its boisterous streets, indulging my guilty pleasure of exchanging pleasantries, insults, snide remarks, and even eavesdropping on conversations in a whole range of languages. There is no joy quite like getting into the flow of cities that speak to you, literally and figuratively, in so many tongues. A passer-by pointed to a lodge that he personally recommended, and so, I promptly decided to walk up to the receptionist and ask for a room from 19 April to the 23rd. Unknowingly, I mispronounced the Kannada word for 19, and almost immediately, the receptionist looked at me straight and sternly asked me if I was a Malayali. 

The question was prompted by a certain kind of political wave gripping the state during the election time. The border districts, particularly Tulu Nadu and Kodagu, were being positioned as being “under threat” from powerful Malayali interests that ran the Karnataka state government. The question, in that context, quite simply was thus, “Are you an insider or outsider?” I had, in the moment, no honest way to respond to the question. Sure, my mother is a Malayali and I grew up speaking Malayalam at the home of my maternal grandparents. But they were (we all were) also Tamil speakers, from the legacy of the Madras Presidency, living in Bengaluru, the capital of a Kannada-speaking state. My father is a native speaker of the Kodava language, as well as fluently multilingual in Kannada, Tamil, and English. Most of our friends and neighbours spoke any combination of these languages, including others like Telugu, Tulu, Konkani, Dakhani, and others. Between home and school, thus, slipping in and out of these languages was not entirely a conscious process; which is why, even today, I shy away from answering pointed questions like “Are you a Malayali?” or “Which language do you think in?”

This multilingualism is not confusion; it is very clearly both an identity and a form of politics. It informs equally all our fluidities and rigidities, and this complexity is impossible to convey each time one chooses to identify as “South Indian.” Unfortunately, for many of us, it remains the only category that could hold together this kind of kaleidoscopic history. Resisting the march of Hindi imperialism, thus, becomes an almost intrinsic political position, less so as a fight against the language, but more as resistance to a world view. This is particularly one that seeks to change a democratic plurality into a state-approved uniformity, or one that posits linguistic minorities as base, primitive, second-rate and in need of cultural education. It is for this precise reason that those with complex and mixed histories and identities would tend to gravitate naturally towards regionally rooted politics. Yet, when questions such as whether you identify as a Malayali or a Kannadiga become important in defining who you are in one of the most eclectic and cosmopolitan parts of the subcontinent, it becomes imperative to pause and reflect on what the dangers inherent in our current regional political formulations are. 

Rights of Linguistic Minorities

The recently released Kannada film Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shale, Kasaragodu, Koduge: Ramanna Rai attempts to deal with these questions. The film is set in Kasaragod, a district in Kerala located on the border with Karnataka. The district was an important centre of the movement for a separate Karnataka state and yet, when the state reorganisation took place in 1956, the district was given to Kerala, a decision that is disputed till today. The film delves into the story of a Kannada-medium school in Kasaragod that is to be shut in favour of creating a Malayalam-medium school. The ensuing conflict brings to the fore the issue of the rights of linguistic minorities that have, by dint of circumstance, found themselves in the wrong state. The film combines vivid cinematography with wonderful attention to detail in terms of sights, sounds, and mannerisms to provide a moving tale of disappearing cultures and traditions. The questions raised in the film, however, provoke a line of interrogation that runs far deeper than the simple-minded and moralistic message of Kannada nationalism with which the film leaves the viewer. 

The main axis of conflict in the film begins when a Malayali teacher is appointed in the school. He has no common language of communication with his students. In anger, he tells a girl that she ought to learn Malayalam as she is living in the state of Kerala. Hurt, the girl runs to her father, a hot-headed Kannada nationalist, and refuses to go to school as she cannot understand Malayalam. Enraged, the father threatens to kill the Malayali teacher. At this point, the villagers calm everyone down and try to explain that it is not the teacher’s fault, as he was simply following the appointment order given to him by the state government. 

Disappearing Linguistic Diversity

This scene evocatively captures the structural dilemma of how, over time, the administrative jurisdictions of linguistic states eventually end up reducing linguistic diversity. Consider these facts. The Census of India in 1961 recorded the presence of 1,652 languages. From 1971 onwards, languages with less than 10,000 speakers were lumped together as “others.” Some independent studies like Ganesh Devy’s People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) estimate that the current number of languages in India is close to 780, with 400 languages at the risk of dying in the next 50 years (Dasgupta 2017). The root cause of this is intimately linked to the idea of linguistic states that emerged in 1,926. Languages that had scripts were considered official as per the Eighth schedule of the Constitution and would get linguistic states. These states, in turn, would determine the mediums of instruction in schools and colleges. In one fell swoop, the nation created a very fundamental axis of citizenship that robbed many of the most basic form of recognition. 

The film highlights the difficulty of learning Kannada in Kasaragod district of Kerala. Although the issue is no doubt legitimate, Kannada remains a scheduled language and is not under as grave a threat as some other languages. In fact, even though Kasaragod’s population has a much larger number of Tulu speakers than Kannada speakers—reflected in the eclectic nuances of the language spoken by the characters in the film—the crux of the plot is brought back into the discourse of Kannada versus Malayalam. In both reel and real life, the full citizenship of speakers of non-scheduled languages is rendered invisible.  

Who Are the Victims?

Although it is not explicitly mentioned, the biggest victims of this operational flaw in governance across the country are undoubtedly the indigenous people or Adivasis. Populations speaking languages like Gondi, Santhali, and Bhili came to be divided across numerous states in central and eastern India, and indigenous speakers of Dravidian languages like Tulu, Arebhashe, Kodava, Irula, Kurumba, Badaga, Yeruva, Toda and others, mostly spoken in the hilly regions of south India, came to be divided among the four (now five) major linguistic states of south India. The vast majority of India’s linguistic diversity is found in these indigenous-dominated regions, including the North East. In the film, the veteran Kannada actor Anant Nag delivers a stirring speech in which he suggests that language is not simply the mechanical movement of the tongue, but the very medium in which children write their dreams. When the Kannada school is facing closure on the pretext that there are not enough students, he dons the lawyer’s robes to suggest that if institutions like Parliament can be kept open despite low attendance, then even if there is a single student ready to study in Kannada, it is the government’s duty to provide education in the language, because governance is not a business. The importance of this point, notwithstanding the political use to which it is put in the film, is at the core of the quest for justice for the indigenous people.

A recent study applied the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) to language data from the 2011 census at the district level to get a picture of the linguistic diversity of India (Kawoosa 2018). It suggested that a substantial number of Indians speaking various languages are mostly geographically segregated; that is, the linguistic states representing the scheduled languages are becoming increasingly homogeneous. The study adds that Indian cosmopolitanism is higher in its cities than its villages, confirming the suspicions of the movie that border districts with multiple languages are being increasingly forced into the state language. Indeed, in an earlier study, it was found that Kerala was India’s least linguistically diverse state as of 2011, with 97% of the state’s population recognising Malayalam as their mother tongue (Shashidhar 2018).

A New Fundamentalism

As is blatantly obvious in the course of the film, the cause of this increasing homogenisation, at least in the south, is a new kind of fundamentalism that is entering linguistic politics at the level of leadership and ideology. The film tells the Kannada audience about the struggles faced by Kannadigas in Kasaragod by depicting Malayali characters as scheming bureaucrats. However, one would be hard-pressed to find an inward-looking perspective about how Karnataka’s various rulers have dealt with demands for education in Tulu, Beary, Yeruva, Kodava, Konkani, Marathi or Dakhani within the state. A likely cause for this increased hostility in south Indian states is that today they face a renewed challenge of combating a reinvigorated form of Hindi imperialism under the current political dispensation. Ranging from the NEET battle to accessing basic services, even the major south Indian language groups are under an immense onslaught by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindi–Hindu formulation. This has now led to the point where many in the south are experiencing profound disillusionments with the idea of India itself. 

The new wave of anti-Hindi politics calls for a reduction in identifying oneself as “south Indian,” and suggests we use terms like Telugu, Tamil, Malayali or Kannadiga, based on one’s state, to reaffirm “Indian-ness.” While one could argue that this call comes from a place of good intention, there can be little doubt that this strategy would do nothing but strengthen the forces of Hindi imperialism. These options do not recognise the plurality and fluidity—values embodied in all characters of the film to depict the very essence of a place like Kasaragod—that remain our greatest strength in the face of cultural bulldozing. Aside from its inability to include those from marginal, mixed or multifarious backgrounds, this sort of self-defining can lead to identitarian tensions between “Tamils” and “Kannadigas.” The tensions could very well be over issues like that of Kaveri water, despite it being painfully evident that the majority of working people in both states who rely on the river are either bilingual in both languages, native speakers of tribal dialects, or connected through some common histories. 

South India, for most of its residents, is a project—one that represents the possibility of a true federalism and representation that most of its cosmopolitan residents could never find at the national level. Some positive ventures to this end, such as the Karnataka government’s announcement of a conclave of all 42 Dravidian languages, provide hope that a course correction could be en route (Rakesh 2018). Despite this, the lexicon of movements today has, by and large, sought to reduce people like Periyar—a fluent speaker of Kannada and Telugu, who is also hailed as Vaikom Veeran for his courage in the satyagraha of Vaikom in Kerala—to simply a Tamil icon. Somewhere, it appears, through both politics and popular culture, that we have resolved to fight virulent, exclusionary politics with similar, smaller-scale exclusions. The point of congregating to fight Hindi imperialism is to protect languages, world views, cultures and a pre-existing federalism, one that cuts across British and Delhi-decided geographies and administrative categories. 

Do We Need a New Vocabulary?

The problem, ironically, in the context of the film, may indeed be one of vocabulary. Perhaps the term “south Indian” does not give us the political unity required to chart a new course any longer and neither does “Dravidian.” The work of regional politics must surely be to persist in debating and finding new words that reaffirm regional roots and anti-caste, pre-Vedic, and rationalism-oriented ideals. In fighting Hindi and Hindu supremacists, it is imperative to steer clear of praxis that reifies the categories that have been force-fitted on the south through othering and xenophobia. If linguistic nationalisms have become too fundamentalist to take up this challenge, then perhaps it is time for a new vocabulary of unified and pluralistic resistance. 

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