The Karnataka way of being Indian

The state’s history and its hard-won specificities will have a say in deciding the assembly election outcome. There is little that models developed in the country’s North can offer it.

Written by Janaki Nair | Updated: May 10, 2018 12:05:08 am
The Karnataka way of being Indian The region forged a developmental model that called for state intervention at a time when there was no social class adequate to the task of industrial development. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

Now that many writers, commentators, politicians and TV anchors are making their “Discovery of Karnataka”, it may be appropriate to ask: What is at stake in this election to the state’s assembly?

The time has come to talk of that part of Karnataka’s — Old Mysore’s — history that is more appropriate in making sense of the contemporary. Most travellers to the state are clearly out of their depth in grasping the complex history of Karnataka, for what does he of Karnataka know, that only “Tipu-hating” knows? Return, instead, to the rich legacies of the “monarchical modern” model pioneered by the Mysore state in the 19th and 20th centuries. The region forged a developmental model that called for state intervention at a time when there was no social class adequate to the task of industrial development. Tipu Sultan recognised this in the 18th century, but it was Mysore’s State Aid to Industries policy of Dewan Mirza Ismail in the 1920s, evaluated by Kasturbhai Lalbhai in the 1950s, that morphed in the post-Independence years into a robust public sector. Bangalore’s flourishing IT/BT sectors owe much to that historical legacy.

The “monarchical modern” model also included social interventions of a path-breaking kind: Reservations for non-Brahmin castes in the “communal order” of 1918. By this, the Brahminical stranglehold on education and jobs was first loosened. It was a process extended under the remarkable rule of Devaraj Urs in the 1970s, and is as yet incomplete.

But state intervention, as we have painfully learned in the past four years, can be pernicious, invasive and damaging. That is why the Mysore state long ago recognised that there can be no development without social peace. Even the technocrat Dewan Visvesvaraiya, better known for the state-driven large-scale projects and planning, recognised as much when Bangalore witnessed sectarian conflict in 1928. He therefore envisioned state intervention not only to produce jobs, but to produce a new kind of “citizen”. Such interventions included “social auditing” measures to improve efficiency.

All this and more is the historical legacy of Karnataka. It is currently renewing the promise of being a region committed to protecting constitutional patriotism. This should surely be of great interest to those who have harangued the chief minister about his advocacy of the Karnataka Flag, the promotion of Kannada (not “Karnataki”, “Kannadi” or “Kannad”), and his argument for the state’s fair share from the Centre. Because what is at stake in Karnataka is not merely more jobs, better health, protected agriculture and the right to education, all of which have reached remarkable heights according to even the most disinterested observers of the state. There is little that the models from the north, least of all UP, can bring to this region.

By insisting on the region as the unit of political calculation, cultural consolidation and financial autonomy, Karnataka takes forward some of the socio-economic revolutions that had been spearheaded since the 1950s: Redistributive policies, new reservation measures and in particular, decentralisation.

By letting the economic speak for itself, and through a deliberate focus on the cultural, the religious and the political, the sentiments of another former chief minister are being taken forward. Kengal Hanumanthaiah passionately defended the “composite structure of Mysore” before state unification in the 1950s. Love of language need not mean monolingualism. Nor should love of religion imply spurning any of those religions that are an integral part of the state. A commitment to the “composite structure” of Karnataka does not translate into the language of “appeasement” in a state where the word “communal,” in its first association with affirmative action, bore no pejorative trace.

A radical religious movement that had spurned caste at its founding, first settled for a place in the Hindu hierarchy, and now pulls away from a syndicated Hinduism. What should this historical passage teach us? The humanism of Basava’s message, which has survived both because of, and despite, the fortunes of the community, has sedimented, not merely in the thousands of Lingayat mathas that dot the state, but in the numerous annual folk celebrations. To miss the refreshing note of love and inclusion would be to miss the multiple ways in which “Basavanna” (not deified, but a respected member of the Kannada “family”) charted another path. The craven tours of temples and mathas in Karnataka, to which every party has succumbed, will not yield greater understanding of this message.

The Karnataka government has never stayed away from the men in orange. Karnataka mathas as religious institutions have, especially since Independence, creatively supplemented governmental development activity, and have thrown their formidable moral authority behind one or another party.

By dwelling on particular regional experiences, the Karnataka Congress may well be striking a different path from what the “national” party has in mind. Here, too, the illustrious, if rebellious, heritage of Urs is of use in building alliances anew to counter a resurgent neo-Brahminism.

There is much that needs urgent attention and remains unaddressed by party manifestoes so far: Environmental threats posed by the robber-baron capitalism of the mineral industry, with which even the Congress — and not just the BJP — has made its peace; rapacious speculations in (urbanisable) land in which every party enthusiastically participates while cities deteriorate; the shocking marginalisation of women in the political process. The state that first brought women into local bodies cannot wait for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill: It would be a shameful acknowledgment that all parties must be made to share what is seen as a political burden.

Electoral outcomes may not depend on these hard-won specificities of Karnataka. But one thing is clear: Little can be understood of this region — not its histories, nor its modern governmental practices — using the Gangetic-belt template. It will suffice if those engaged in their “Discovery of Karnataka” would have, by May 15, learned the most important lesson from the “Chalo Karnataka” campaign: That there are other ways of being Indian.

The writer teaches at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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