Vatal Nagaraj, 67
The man with the hat is back
Somewhat mellowed with age, this once fiery Kannada activist is a veteran of jingoism with 50 years of activism behind him. A firebrand orator on Kannada pride – if he gets an audience – the three-time MLA has seen his political fortunes ebb in recent years with the gradual erosion of the political space for Kannada pride, following to the advent of Hindu pride in the form of the BJP.
Known for his trademark black floppy hat and sunglasses, which he never takes off in public, Nagaraj is a genial character when not showboating for Kannada pride. He earned his stripes when he staged a protest against the screening of a Hindi film at a theatre in Bengaluru in 1962. He has been a central figure in many anti-Tamil agitations including the early Cauvery agitations following the creation of Karnataka in 1973. He was also part of the Gokak agitation in the 1980s that earned Kannada primacy in Karnataka.
One of his annual protests that brings smiles — if not votes — has been his effort to counter right-wing groups’s opposition to Valentine’s Day celebrations. For a couple of years while the BJP was in power in Karnataka, Nagaraj would roam Cubbon Park in Bengaluru in a hired chariot on February 14, blaring romantic songs and distributing flowers to couples on the park’s benches.
Veteran legislators miss the way he used to light up the assembly with the depth of his knowledge of recent political history. Today, in the absence of any dedicated following, Nagaraj’s political outfit Kannada Chaluvali Paksha is virtually a one-man party. He has tried to stay politically relevant by taking up day-to-day issues like price rise to stage one-man protests featuring donkeys, cows, horses, sheep or cattle as his partners.
Now he has found an opportunity in the fresh dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of Cauvery water. He was at the head of a call for a bandh in Karnataka on September 9 to protest against the Supreme Court order of September 5 to release water to Tamil Nadu.
“There is no water in Karnataka. The state government should not release water to Tamil Nadu,” Nagaraj said while calling for an agitation.
Nagaraj, who has had an easy association with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah over the years, began his agitation peacefully. Things changed with the violence in Bengaluru of September 12; Nagaraj’s statement that people in Karnataka would retaliate for attacks on Kannadigas in Tamil Nadu is seen as being one of the triggers for the targeting of vehicles and businesses linked to Tamil Nadu. His attempt to stage a rail roko on September 15 was nipped in the bud with the police arresting him.
Sa Ra Govindu, 50
Rajkumar aide draws in actors
A film producer and president of an association of fans of late Kannada film icon Dr Rajkumar, Govindu cut his teeth as a Kannada activist in the 1980s during the Gokak agitation to make Kannada the primary language in Karnataka. He was initially a production manager for films.
Govindu has also been a strong supporter of Vatal Nagaraj. The producer of more than 15 Kannada films is the president of the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce and is one of the primary reasons for the large-scale participation of film actors and personalities in pro-Karnataka and Kannada activism including the recent Cauvery agitation.
Muthappa Rai, 62
From gang to Jaya Karnataka
A former underworld don whose name was linked to the Mumbai mafia of Dawood Ibrahim, Muthappa Rai lives like a recluse, his personal armed security guarding his home on the outskirts of Bengaluru. He has over the last decade built a “social organisation”’ called Jaya Karnataka across southern Karnataka on the plank of Kannada pride.
Since his extradition from Dubai in 2002 by Indian agencies, he has built a network of pro-Karnataka activists. On September 9, when activists called for a bandh to protest the Cauvery issue, the Jaya Karnataka flag was the most visible across semi-urban regions on the outskirts of Bengaluru.
Rai’s name was linked to a series of killings of rivals and introduction of guns into the underworld in Bengaluru. He fled to Dubai allegedly continued to run operations for some time. He was accused in the 2002 murder of realtor businessman Subbaraju in Bengaluru over a property issue. He was acquitted in all the cases against him, including murder charges, in 2007.
Since his acquittal, he has assumed the mantle of a reformed don but is also known to have been adjudicator in many property disputes. He runs hotels and bars that are allegedly illegitimate, funds local events, and is largely off the radar of the police. Bollywoood film maker Ram Gopal Varma is currently making a biopic with Vivek Oberoi playing Rai. A former Congress worker, he is widely seen as a likely candidate for mainstream politics on account of the network he has built.
The need for Rai to be under heavy personal security cover at all times is reportedly the assistance he has given Indian agencies in combating Dawood’s gang in Dubai.
“Despite my social efforts and established entrepreneurship they still refer to me as a former underworld don and never as Jaya Karnataka’s founder,’’ Rai said a few years ago when his attempt to foray into cricket by fielding a Jaya Karnataka team in the Karnataka Premier League was prevented.
T A Narayana Gowda, 50
New voice of Kannada pride
What Vatal Nagaraj was once, Narayana Gowda is today. A garment factory worker until a decade ago, Gowda is today the main face of pro-Karnataka activism despite a reputation for lending his Karnataka Rakshana Vedike outfit — which claims to have over 20,000 branches and 70 lakh members — to protests of all kinds. Jailed for two days as a high school student for protesting against Tamil songs being played during Ganesh festivities in his Karehalli village in Hassan district, Gowda cut his teeth as a full-time pro-Kannada activist as a member of a fans’ association for legendary actor-activist the late Dr Rajkumar. He was reportedly removed from the fans’ association in 1998 after he attacked some businessmen from North India. He then formed the KRV a rabble-rousing outfit that filled a void for Kananda activism at a time when Nagaraj had begun to lose his edge. Gowda rose to fame with big protests against the recruitment of non-Karnataka people which forced the government to cancel those and appoint locals instead.
In 2005. KRV activists blackened the face of Belgaum mayor Vijay More in protest against his pro-Maharashtra stance in Belgaum. Several state-run organisations including road transport corporations and civic corporations recognise Gowda’s KRV as a social organisation and contribute funds.
During the agitations over the Cauvery issue, Gowda was among the few Kannada activists to travel to Chennai to seek the protection of people from Karnataka living in Tamil Nadu.