Noted Kannada poet, playwright and Dalit activist Prof Siddalingaiah died of coronavirus-related complications in Bengaluru on Friday evening. He was 67.
Siddalingaiah was admitted to a private hospital in the city and was in ICU. He had tested positive for Covid-19 on May 2 and was admitted to Manipal Hospital on May 5, according to relatives.
His wife is in hospital receiving treatment for Covid-19.
Born on February 3, 1954, in Magadi, Ramanagara district, Siddalingaiah is credited with starting the Dalit-Bandaya movement in Kannada, as well as starting the genre of Dalit writing in Kannada literature. He was a voice of the Dalit world in Kannada from the time of the publication of his debut poetry collection, `Hole Madigara Hadu (The Song of the Madigas)’, in 1975. His poem ‘Yaarige Bantu Yellige Bantu Nalavattera Swatantrya (Who received freedom and where is the freedom of 1947?)’ became an anthem of the Dalit movement in Karnataka.
Siddalingaiah’s autobiographical book, ‘Ooru Keri (Village Corner)’, published in 1996, told the story of the harshness of the existence of Dalits; it used a philosophical and humorous tone which was a hallmark of his writing. He wrote ‘Ooru Keri’ part 2 and 3 subsequently to provide glimpses into his life as a writer, activist and politician.
Siddalingaiah was at the forefront of Dalit politics in Karnataka in the 1980s and 1990s and was one of the founders of Dalit Sangharsha Samiti, a major voice for the rights of the community.
‘Have to foster liberal thinkers and liberal traditions that are pro-Dalit’
Considered a moderate and a socialist in his later days, Siddalingaiah rued the fact that young members of the Dalit community had in recent years begun to think of him as a traitor to the community for seeking to ally with mainstream political parties and leaders to espouse the Dalit cause.
“Even in the Dalit youth movement a sort of fanaticism has set in,” he had said in a chat with The Indian Express in 2016. “Groups operate like a Dalit RSS. They do not have a broad way of thinking. There is no consciousness for total social change. It is an individual-centred ideology. There is no great leaning on Ambedkar’s ideology or Marxist ideology.”
“We have to foster liberal thinkers and liberal traditions that are pro-Dalit in order to help the Dalit movement,” he had said. “We are neglecting this aspect. There is a small section among non-Dalits who are opposed to exploitation of people in the name of religion and god. We have to enlarge this base.”
At Bangalore University, where he was chairman of the Department of Kannada Studies for several years, Prof Siddalingaiah was also the director of an Ambedkar Study and Research Centre which taught students about Ambedkar and his thinking.
“There is only a superficial understanding of Ambedkar even among Dalit students. The relationship is also rooted in a lot of hatred for other communities for suppression over the last 2,000 years,” Siddalingaiah had said in 2016. “There is a desire for revenge at the root of a lot of Dalit thinking. This is dangerous to Dalits, non-Dalits and the nation itself. Ambedkar had a positive approach. He did not look at Dalit issues through the prism of anger and revenge.”
Siddalingaiah was a nominated member of the Legislative Council for two terms between1988-1994 and 1995-2001. He was also a former chairman of the Kannada Development Authority and Karnataka Book Authority. He was awarded the Pampa Award, the highest literary award of the state, in 2019, and the Rajyotsava Award in 1986.
‘Remembered for prolific writings, poetry and contributions towards social justice’
Paying tributes to the noted poet and writer, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Siddalingaiah will be remembered for his prolific writings, poetry and contributions towards social justice. Modi tweeted, “Dr. Siddalingaiah will be remembered for his prolific writings, poetry and contributions towards social justice. Saddened by his passing away. My thoughts are with his family and many admirers in this hour of sadness. Om Shanti.”
Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa, several state ministers, state Congress chief D K Shivakumar, Opposition leader in Assembly Siddaramaiah and many other leaders condoled his death.
“Siddalingaiah had put the pain of Dalits in the form of words and created awareness about the Dalit issues in the state,” Yediyurappa said in a statement.
Historian Ramachandra Guha tweeted that Siddalingaiah was a warm and compassionate human being, with a delightful sense of humour. “Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of the distinguished Kannada poet Siddalingaiah, of Covid-related complications. He was a warm and compassionate human being, with a delightful sense of humour. His autobiography, which is available in English too, is a literary classic,” Guha tweeted.