The Assertion of Kannada Should Not Suppress Karnataka’s Linguistic Minorities and Local Dialects

By Shawn Sebastian | 1 September 2017

If languages were allotted characters as per their position in socio-political discourse, then Hindi has often assumed the role of a villain in south India. Ever since states were carved on linguistic lines, the southern states, especially Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, grew watchful of the linguistic pedestal that Hindi occupied in India and its potential danger to the regional languages and cultures of the south. The decades-old issue of the imposition of Hindi has assumed prominence lately due to a slew of recent developments—for instance, in June this year, the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions announced that the central government would promote the usage of Hindi in government offices in southern India and the Northeast. This time, it is Karnataka, not Tamil Nadu, which is leading the opposition to it.

In June, pro-Kannada activists in Bengaluru began a social-media campaign demanding the removal of Hindi signage and announcements from the city’s metro stations. Over the subsequent weeks, the campaign gathered steam on the internet under the hashtag “#NammaMetroHindiBeda”—We Don’t Want Hindi in Our Metro. In the first week of July, the activists defaced the Hindi writing at metro stations. That month, the Kannada Development Authority (KDA)—a state government body mandated to promote Kannada—joined the protests demanding the removal of Hindi signage. In addition, the KDA demanded that the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL), a joint venture of the state and central government, only appoint only employees who speak Kannada. Towards the end of the month, the state government relented and wrote to Narendra Singh Tomar, the union urban development minister, seeking the removal of Hindi signage from the metro. In the first week of August, the BMRCL began removing Hindi names from the metro’s signboards.

Since then, the campaign has shaped up to become a larger movement that raises strong demands, such as the adoption of a two-language system—Kannada and English—in the state’s administrative, educational and public institutions. Following the furore, madrasas of seven districts in the state switched the medium of instruction to Kannada. In early August, SG Siddaramaiah, the KDA chairperson and a namesake of the state’s chief minister, issued an ultimatum to non-Kannadiga government officials: learn the local language within six months or leave the state.

Reeling under anti-incumbency pressure and facing a buoyant Bharatiya Janata Party that waits to wrestle power in the 2018 assembly elections, the state’s Congress government, led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, appears to have decided to play the language card to their advantage. “We have to not only love and respect others, but also send out a very strong message that we [Kannadigas] will not tolerate any attack on our language, land and water, if others try to do so,” the chief minister said in a video released by his office in July. As the movement expanded, there appeared to be a sub-nationalism in the making in Karnataka, which likely developed as a counter narrative to the BJP’s high-pitched nationalism. However, this pro-Kannada rhetoric lacks the perspective of the numerous linguistic minorities that reside in the state.

Post Independence, while majority linguistic groups in south India, such as the Malayalam and Telugu speakers, were successful in carving out states, the demarcation left many minority linguistic groups scattered across these regions. When it comes to multilingual populations, Karnataka is one of the richest states in the country. According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI)—a nation-wide linguistic survey conducted between 2010 and 2012 by a non-governmental organisation called the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre—over 50 languages are spoken in Karnataka The Constitution officially recognises only 22 Indian languages in its Eighth Schedule, but none of Karnataka’s minority languages, which include Tulu, Kodava, Konkani, Dakkhani, Banjara, Sanketi and Beary, and others are included in that list. The report also identifies ten of Karnataka’s languages as endangered.

The data on language in the 2001 census of India—the 2011 census does not provide this data—is also telling of the large populations of non-Kannada and non-Hindi speakers in the state. According to the data, in the district of Uttara Kannada on the western coast of the state, almost 61 percent of the population speaks Tulu, and more than 160,000 people in the state speak Coorgi. The census also shows that at the time, 66 percent of the state’s population spoke Kannada; 11 percent spoke Urdu; seven percent spoke Telugu, between three to four percent spoke Marathi and Tamil each, and nearly three percent of the population spoke Tulu. The Hindi-speaking population in the state was less than all these languages—approximately 2.5 percent.

The cause of such linguistic minorities is often not reflected in the larger anti-Hindi rhetoric that engulfs the language debate in south Indian states. The irony is that the dominant languages in these states are often aggressors themselves, suppressing the minority linguistic groups.

The lack of protection for linguistic minorities in India is despite constitutional provisions for it. Article 350A of the Constitution states that “it shall be the endeavour of every State and every local authority within the State to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother-tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups.” Article 350B provides for the appointment of a special officer whose duty is “to investigate all matters relating to the safeguards provided for linguistic minorities” and to “report to the President upon these matters.”

In March 2016, pursuant to these provisions, Akhtarul Wasey, the commissioner for linguistic minorities in India (CLMI), submitted the 52nd annual report to the president. The report defines linguistic minorities at the state and district level as “any group or groups of people whose mother tongues are different from the principal language” of the state and district respectively. In it, the CLMI notes that the Karnataka government had failed to implement schemes or administrative decisions in favour of minority linguistic groups. The report notes that state government has not made “any arrangements for translation and dissemination” of government orders or notifications in minority languages.

On the point of medium of instruction, apart from Kannada, the report only records schools that teach in Urdu, Marathi, Telugu and Tamil—this effectively deprives students belonging to other minority groups of an opportunity to learn their mother tongue in school. In this regard, it has urged the state government to include a column for preferred language in school-admission forms to elicit information about a child’s mother tongue.

Although the report notes the existence of academies for Urdu, Konkani, Tulu and Beary, each with an annual budget of close to Rs 60 lakh, it notes that the state government had not given the commissioner any information about “the promotion and development of minority languages in the State.” Additionally, the report observes that there is an absence of any machinery or committee “for monitoring and reviewing” schemes for minority linguistic groups. In its findings and recommendations, the report urges the Karnataka government to nominate a nodal officer for linguistic minorities in the state.

In 2013, Thomas Benedikter, a researcher with Eurach Research—a private research centre in Italy—published an extensive study on minority languages in India. In it, he made a revealing comparison to Europe. He writes that the idea of a “nation state” was softened in Europe due to the rights given to each independent state to retain their national languages, whereas in India, the state appears afraid of granting rights for linguistic minorities fearing a possible threat to state cohesion. In his introduction, Benedikter notes: “While the Indian way to internal multilingualism privileges the major languages with official recognition, many millions of minority language speakers are deprived of important linguistic rights and are discriminated against by the current language policy of the Union and the States.”

My conversations with members belonging to linguistic minorities appeared to confirm Benedikter’s findings. Chennapanda K Subbaiah, the secretary of the Kodava Samaja—a cultural body of the Kodava community in Bengaluru—told me that he believed the government has not done enough to promote their language. “Our children do not have an opportunity to learn Kodava language at school,” Subbaiah said. “The learning is limited to home,” he continued. “The Kodava language is facing a threat of dilution and introducing it at school would help save it.”

On the issue of the government’s stance against Hindi, Subbaiah said that it was wrong to deny children the opportunity to learn a language. “Whether it is Hindi or any other one, any language is an added skill,” he said, before adding that almost 70 percent of the community was well versed with Hindi because many of them served in the army. “Selection of languages should be voluntary for the community and not enforced,” he continued.

According to K Abhay Kumar, a professor at Mangalore University who specialises in ethnic studies and Tulu folklore, “Like Hindi, Kannada is also a foreign language for Tuluvas.” Kumar said that Tulu has been introduced in the school and college curriculum, but his concern was that “the younger generation of Tuluvas are shifting their loyalty to Kannada and English.” However, he added that a desire for a separate state called “Tulu Nadu” was still alive among the community. He said the community believed it would help protect their language and culture.

Kumar felt that Tuluva should be given priority over Kannada. “Our community is often compelled to follow the state’s language policy that forces Kannada over Tulu,” he said. “When a 5–6 year old child goes to school from our region, Kannada is an alien language for many of them as they speak Tulu at home.” He added that children whose parents are not multilingual face several issues in the initial stages of their education.

In the second week of August, in the midst of the growing pro-Kannada movement in Karnataka, a group called Jai Tulunad began an aggressive campaign on Twitter with the hashtag “#TuluTo8thSchedule,” seeking the inclusion of Tulu in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. In an interview to the web publication the News Minute, Ashwath Tuluve, the president of Jai Tulunad, said, “When Kannadigas felt the threat of Hindi imposition, they campaigned for their language and won. We want to protect our mother tongue as well.”

The push for Kannada will surely help in promoting mother-tongue literacy in the state and in wake of the linguistic imposition of the central government, the rise of the anti-Hindi movement is certainly important. But the proponents of the anti-Hindi movement in Karnataka must not become guilty of a similar linguistic imposition—as a state that hosts several rich and diverse multilingual groups, pro-Kannada movements must be cautious to take into consideration the needs and demands of minority linguistic groups.

Shawn Sebastian is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker.

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