Perils of an Imagined Enemy
Translated from Kannada by Dr Shakira Jabeen
January 12, 2018
An incident that took place twenty 25 ago has the capacity to question many of our notions about land, language, and their enemy. I was invited to a town, known as the “rice bowl,” near Raichur to deliver a talk on the Rajyothsava Day celebration. A little before my speech, one of the conveners of the program whispered a request to me, “You are free to talk in favour of Kannada as much as you want, but please don’t deride the Telugu speech community!” Although I was not inclined to criticise the Telugu speech community, curiosity prodded me to ask, “Why?” The answer was that the entire expense of the day’s program was being borne by the Telugu people of that town. True to his explanation, the dinner after the function was arranged in the Telugu zameendar’s house. My enquiry, thereafter, had elicited a truth that threw light on many issues.
The construction of the Tungabhadra dam in Hospet had prompted many Reddys of Andhra Pradesh to buy land in the Koppal area and settled down as landlords. The improved economic status of the Reddys triggered unease among the local landless Kannada speech community. The pro-Kannada organisations have, time and again, made an emotional reference to this fact during the Rajyothsava celebrations. There is a historical background to this disgruntlement towards the Telugu speech community by the Kannada people. Eminent scholar M M Kalburgi argued that the Vijayanagara king Krishna Devaraya’s pro-Telugu policy struck a blow to the development of Kannada. This line of thought was only reinforced later, during the re-organisation of the states, when the Telugu speech community made an effort to include Bellary to Andhra Pradesh. The death of Raamzan Saheb during the struggle for unification, and losing Aluru and Adoni to Andhra Pradesh, added to the disappointment of the Kannada speech community. The Telugu speech community, on their part, felt an anxiety at the approach of Rajyothsava Day. Sponsoring the celebration was their way of overcoming the insecurity.
At the root of this problem lies the fluid perception of an enemy by the pro-Kannada organisations. With regard to border dispute, the Marathas are the opponents. With regard to land and irrigation, it is the Telugu community. Tamil speakers and Goans are the opponents in river water dispute. With reference to Kasaragod, it is the Malayalam speech community. The issue of Kannada as a language of education makes the Urdu speaking Muslims the opponents. The Union Government is constructed as an enemy with regard to the introduction (or non-introduction) of new railway lines, granting Kannada the status of a classical language, or the imposition of Hindi. There are other enemies too — cinemas that don’t screen Kannada films, courts that pronounce judgements that go contrary to the interests of Karnataka, the North Indian business community that’s occupying Bangalore… the list is endless.
There is a marked difference between this imagining of the enemy by the pro-Kannada outfits and the idea of “Karntakathwa” proposed by the pro-Kannada literary thinkers. In 1911, B M Shrikantiah, in his lecture, “How Kannada Language Can Raise Its Head,” blamed Sanskrit for the sad state of Kannada poetry. D R Bendre, in his poem “One and Only Karnataka,” deconstructed the “imagined enemy” and prodded the Kannada people to stop blaming the outsiders and look within. Aluru Venkataraya’s concept of “Kannadatwa” held the Union Government as the opposition/ enemy. Shambha Joshy saw the enemy as the Marathas who refused to accept their filial ties with Kannada land, language, and culture. The revolutionary ideas of the nineties imagined the Union Government — which treated the states as its fiefdom and its people as their slaves — as the enemy. Recently, the Government of Karnataka opposed the Union Government’s move to impose Hindi through the Metro station display boards. This long list shows the multiple ways in which an enemy of Kannada-Karnataka is imagined or created. All these accusation by the writers and thinkers do not prescribe aggression or a militant approach to the enemy.
These narratives of imagining and constructing the “opposite” then raise the question — can modern societies escape from this “imagined enemy?” In fact, the narrative of nationalism that led to the emergence of nations based on religion, language, or ethnicity used this binary of “self” v/s the “enemy”. In this narrative, the “self” is perceived as innocent, vulnerable, tolerant, well behaved, and “sinned against”. The opposite is the exploitative “other” — the enemy. The prescribed escape from this exploitation is only by adopting aggression. Kannada literati, too, have been selective in strengthening this binary by using historical and mythological metaphors to represent contemporary conflicts. K V Puttappa equates English-medium education with the story of Pootani trying to poison Krishna under the guise of feeding him. The Three Language Formula of 1964 has been equated with the trident. More often than not, it is the objective and ideology of the people feeding the conflict that decides the pattern that the conflict assumes.
The organisations — in their thought process and the concern regarding the land, language, and the language community — adopt the vocabulary of a crusade. In the process, the hatred that one is expected to feel for the enemy may transform into racism. The danger in this transformation is the underlying desire to annihilate the enemy. We can cite examples to prove this — the Cauvery water dispute leading to the murder of Tamil speakers, the Urdu news controversy leading to communal riots, the cow vigilantes’ attack on those who transport cows, etc. Fundamentalism is born out of the shrinking inclusivity in the expression of love for one’s land. This should explain why language agitators are an easy prey and become a part of fundamentalist religious groups. But, this is no reason to reject the agitators. Many of the issues they raise are pertinent and valid. However, it must be noted that their construction of the imagined enemy is faulty and derails many of the valid questions that they raise. At the same time, it is important to remember that many political parties have been founded on the basis of perceived injustices meted out to regional language communities. Shiv Sena of Maharashtra was founded on the issue of injustices that the Maharashtrians suffered at the hands of the Kannada people and the North Indians. The very name, “Shiv Sena”, has political, historical, and communal features. The party logo reinforces these features. Conveniently enough, the Shiv Sena did not consider the Gujrati speech community, which has lorded over the economic world of Mumbai, as their opponent. Instead, they attacked the poor youth of Bihar who had arrived in Mumbai to write the railway recruitment exams. North Indian taxi drivers were also targeted. Prior to this, the Shiv Sena had constructed an enemy out of the Kannada people, who had successfully established hotel businesses in Mumbai. The party is also known for its bias against dalits and Muslims. Simultaneously, it has constructed religious and regional language opponents. Similarly, it was the poor labourers of Bihar who bore the brunt of the ULFA agitation against the Union Government. It is, indeed, difficult to explain this tendency of targeting the innocent and vulnerable within a framework. The inability to track the real enemy, the failure to arrive at a consensus through dialogue, and the inability to express dissent in a democratic manner, is the reason for this blind hatred for the “other”. The real enemy is seldom attacked. It is appalling that these attacks on the weak and the vulnerable have public consent and support.
There is a need to fathom why exclusive politics in general, and parties like Shiv Sena in particular, thrive in a democratic country. When the administration fails to create equal opportunities for the oppressed and the marginalised groups, fails to ensure economic growth, fails to ensure an atmosphere conducive for pro-people agitations, then exclusive fringe parties move to the centre stage. Imagining an enemy, non-dialogic militant stand on issues, and an offensive mode of functioning, all these appeal to the opportunity-deprived groups as heroism, for a while. The fringe groups that base their origin on regional language and local communities have a ring master or a leader who represents cruel heroism. These fascist leaders demand unquestioning loyalty to themselves, treating it as a litmus test of their commitment to the cause. This leader-centric approach eliminates those who don’t or can’t exhibit blind loyalty to the leader. The insecure leader’s panopticon vision searches for the enemy within the organisation.
It is some consolation that Karnataka doesn’t have leaders like Bal Thakeray. But most organisations and parties here are leader-centric. This, too, has huge impact on the way the enemy is imagined — he who poses a threat to the leader is an enemy. After this, a convincing narrative to project this enemy as a threat to the collective well-being of the organisation has to be constructed.
My focus is on the pro-Kannada organisations. Isn’t there a possibility of transforming them into a meaningful strength to the development of Karnataka? Not much serious thought has been given to this aspect. These organisations do not include academicians, writers, thinkers and politicians who intend taking Karnataka forward inclusively. It’s a reality that the intelligentsia nurtures a disdain for these organisations that take agitations to the streets. It’s a strange paradox that the strong have no direction, and the informed have no strength, to execute their plans. Time and again, there have been efforts to channelise these organisations into a regional political party. But those efforts have failed. I think, it is not easy to domesticate these tigers that feed on the idea of an imagined enemy. Modern globalisation has added to the proliferation of such “tigers” in many part of the country. People from various regional, national, and linguistic backgrounds are thronging to the cities of Karnataka. The cosmopolitanism that’s emerging out of this hybridity is pushing the regional language communities to the periphery. Their disgruntlement becomes a fertile ground for harvesting followers for the fanatic organisations. A similar narrative of injustice and loss of employment opportunities was floated in USA. President Donald Trump’s victory owes much to this neo-Nazi imagination. Trump’s America has seen an escalation in race related attacks.
We create a lethal mixture of fundamentalism by inciting the feelings of the oppressed and legitimising mindless offensive attitude. It is the same as enormous physical energy, without proper mental makeup, turning man into a beast. It is these mindless bodies that go around devouring vulnerable human beings. They spare the strong. It is pitiable that, in imagining the enemy, there is also gloating about religion and nation. History is proof that imagining the enemy has only made the real enemies more powerful. There is a need to remember that fundamentalism and cruelty are not the armaments of the mighty. Similarly, they cannot be the weapons of the soulless and insecure beings either.
Rahamath Tarikere is a Professor at the Kannada University in Hampi and a Sahitya Akademi Award winning writer. He returned his Sahitya Akademi Award to protest against the killings of scholar M M Kalburgi and rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare
Dr. Shakira Jabeen is from the Department of English, Nehru Memorial College, Sullia, KarnatakaDisclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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