Why Attempts to Weaken Sub-Nationalist Movements Should be Battled

Rise in Karnataka sub-nationalism highlights the demand for federalism among southern states.
Rise in Karnataka sub-nationalism highlights the demand for federalism among southern states.(Photo: Rhythum Seth/The Quint)

Why Attempts to Weaken Sub-Nationalist Movements Should be Battled

Sub-nationalism is perceived as a key instrument against oppression and hegemony for those who believe in India as a land of many cultures and who celebrate India’s diversity by opposing attempts at homogenisation. Stereotyping those whose voices remain unheard except at a regional level is, somewhat understandably, unacceptable to them.

On a more objective level, our constitutional position on this issue too is quite clear. It provides no opportunity for those who threaten the country’s level playing field despite there being some discernible institutional or political inequality.

Constructive Sub-Nationalism

Karnataka, though progressive, is known for its soft-natured politics. But the state is not new to sub-nationalist movements. In the early 19th century the state was under British rule and governed based on different cultures. It was divided between the Madras presidency, old Mysore (under the Wodeyars) and Coorg (a part ‘C’ state) in the south and Bombay Karnataka (the Marathi-speaking regions of northern Karnataka) and Hyderabad Karnataka (under the Nizam of Hyderabad).

It was the eagerness of the Kannada-speaking population, spread across these regions, to come together that Karnataka saw an opportunity to use the platform of Karnatakatwa (the essential nature of Kannada-speaking people), a sub-nationalist ideology, in their Ekikarana Movement (the unification movement).

North Karnataka, as it is recognised now (the former Bombay and Hyderabad Karnatakas combined), played a major role in use of language as a medium of expressing sub-nationalist interests.

Similarly, in 1952, Sri Sriramulu Potty fought to liberate Andhra Pradesh, and lost his life for the cause, paving the way for a reorganisation of states just four years later. In case of Kerala, linguistic sub-nationalism is believed to have been formed in the mid-19th century.

Also Read: Hindi Signboards Removed From Bengaluru Metro Stations

This strong Malayali sub-nationalism had, in effect, pushed down caste-based sub-nationalism, which is commendable. However, in all these cases, sub-nationalism was a spirit that worked constructively: it united the populace and brought about development.

Tamil Nationalism

There was an upsurge in Tamil nationalism in the 1960s when the Centre tried to make Hindi the country’s sole official language. Tamil Nadu erupted in anger and many people self-immolated in protest against the imposition of Hindi. They saw the imposition as an insult to Tamil. The Dravida Munnetra Kazagam of Tamil Nadu took exception to it with public statements and other states followed suit.

This went on till the late 1980s. MG Ramachandran and NT Rama Rao later entered into politics and used their dominant public presence to contribute towards the development of their states. Karnataka, though, did not take the same approach and kept culture and politics largely independent of each other.

North Karnataka, as it is recognised now, played a major role in use of language as a medium of expressing sub-nationalist interests.
North Karnataka, as it is recognised now, played a major role in use of language as a medium of expressing sub-nationalist interests.
(Photo: Rhythum Seth/The Quint)

Dravidian Movement vs Karnataka Sub-Nationalism

In the late 1980s, Karnataka witnessed a spate of sub-nationalist movements calling for a separate state. Coorg, for example, called for the establishment of a Kodava State based on their under-development and their regionally popular ethnic identity.

Over time, north Karnataka felt let down by the state’s lackadaisical attitude towards their development, despite the region taking a lead in fighting for a unified Karnataka, and it too called for a separate state.

Their dialect, under-development and different cultural status formed the bases of their demand. They even went so far as to have their own flag for the Hyderabad and Mumbai regions.

The government of Karnataka responded by setting up a committee to study and resolve any problems in the region. These movements, though, were not creative; in fact they were far too aggressive in their stance and Hyderabad Karnataka ended up getting a special status (which it holds to this day) because of this attitude of the government.

On the contrary, the emergence of the Dravidian movement is attributed to a confluence of two distinct mobilisations: the non-Brahmin movement by the Justice Party fighting for non-Brahminical caste representation in the bureaucracy and Periyar EV Ramasamy’s Self-Respect Movement (of 1925) for an egalitarian utopia.

Andhra Pradesh, too, saw a similar movement in NT Rama Rao’s establishment of the regional Teugu Desam party dedicated to safeguarding Telugu pride but in the late 1980s. In all these cases land and language were inseparable entities and gave both an emotionally charged pitch and a geographical identity to these regional political movements.

Also Read: How Hindi Got Caught in Karnataka’s Linguistic Crossfire

Politics of Kannada Pride

In Karnataka the recent developments with regard to the issues of a state flag, use of Hindi in the metros and the Veerashiva-Lingayat discomfiture have created a flutter. What was surprising about this was not the issue itself, but the source of its support.

A party which claimed ‘secular’ credentials mooted and supported it. This was widely seen as an antidote to BJP’s hegemony over cultural politics. This was a clever move by the ruling party to destabilise the leadership of the BJP which was seen as the sole leader for the community.

In the same breath this Veerashiva-Lingayat dichotomy shot the myth that the community is monolithic, unified and is vulnerable to the backward tag. In all these three incidents, the Congress scored over its rival intelligently. However with the incidence of IT raid, there seems to be a dent on the fragile success of Congress-led strategy of countering cultural politics by sub-nationalist forces.

Fate of Sub-national Movements

Sub-national movements arise from imagined communities asserting cultural nationalism in a territorial space, questioning the rigid nature of states. They draw their support from the empathy that their followers have for the collective grievances, whether perceived or real, in matters of language, religion, ethnicity and region.

In all this the subalterns become the actors and the elites the leaders with ideas such as Bhumiputra or Kannada Rakshana Vedike taking birth in the process.

Thus, the south Indian sub-nationalist movements have been in favour of Indian nationalism with a pluralist perspective, but more so for a strong and independent federalism. Any attempts to weaken this in any form, whether through an ideology or through homogenisation via languages or through undemocratic single-party domination, will all be battled and won against over time.

Also Read: Why the Anti-Hindi Sentiment in Karnataka Comes as a Surprise

(The writer is a professor of political science at Karnataka University, Dharwad. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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