Karnataka Awakening: Walking the Talk

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    The late 19th century marked an interesting phase of ‘awakening’ across the Indian subcontinent. If on one hand there was the birth of nationalism and an ‘Indian’ identity, there were also forces rallying efforts towards the crystallization of regional identities, largely based on language. Literature played a pivotal role as did cultural influences and, of course, politics.

    It is in this context that the creation of the ‘idea’ of Karnataka is a fascinating tale. It was developed around the linguistic identity of Kannada, which brought together the diverse parts of the state as we know it today, into one whole. Eventually, it culminated in the formation of the State of Mysore in 1956, which was renamed ‘Karnataka’ in 1972.

    ‘Karnataka’ and Kannada

    Kannada along with Tamil ranks among the oldest of the Dravidian languages. Both trace their origins to a proto-Dravidian tongue, which probably diverged to become independent entities around 500 BCE. Asoka’s Brahmagiri edict in Karnataka’s Chitradurga district, which dates to 250 BCE, is written in the Brahmi script, in the Prakrit language. It contains the word ‘Isila’, which has been identified as being of Kannada origin and proof that the language existed during that time.

    Further evidence of Kannada’s antiquity comes from the place names mentioned by the Greek geographer, Ptolemy (100-170 CE). Names such as Badiamaioi (Badami), Inde (Indi), Kalligeris (Kalkeri), Modogoulla (Mudgal), Petrigala (Pattadakal), Banaouase (Banavasi) and many others appear to be of Kannada provenance.

    Written Kannada literature that has come down to the modern era, however, dates back to the 5th century CE.

    The Halmidi inscription, in Karnataka’s Hassan district, dates to 450 CE and is considered the oldest-written record of the language.

    Some scholars have identified this inscription with the Kadamba dynasty though others disagree. By the 10th century CE, Kannada was a flourishing language in the region.

    A wealth of ancient sources use the word ‘Karnataka’ or something very close to it, to denote the region that is more or less part of the modern-day state of Karnataka.

    In the Bhishma Parva section of the Kumbakonam edition of the Mahabharata, the following verse delineates the various southern regions:

    Athapare Janapada Dakshina Bharatarsabha

    Dravida Kerala Pracya Musika Vanavasika

    Karnataka Mahisaka Vikalpa Musakashtatha

    The Pune edition uses the word ‘Unnatyaka’, meaning ‘elevated land’ or ‘Kuntala’ in place of ‘Karnataka’ in the verse above.

    Besides this, a work by the Sanskrit grammarian Panini (400-350 BCE) and the Mrichchhakatika by Sudraka (circa 5th century CE) also make references to ‘Karnataka’. In the 5th century CE, the term ‘Karnataka’ was also used by the astrologer Varahamihira in his Brihatkatha. The Birur plates of the Kadamba ruler Vishnuvarma (475-485 CE) call Shantivarma “the master of the entire Karnataka region”.

    In the ancient period, Karnataka was a part of the Mauryan Empire (321 to 185 BCE) and it is generally believed that the first Mauryan Emperor, Chandragupta Maurya (r. 321 - 297 BCE), died in Shravanabelagola in Hassan District, after he had renounced the throne and became a Jain monk.

    The Satavahanas, Kadambas, Badami Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Hoysalas and Vijayanagara emperors were some of the other dynasties who later ruled the region. Kannada flourished under these dynasties.

    The post-Vijayanagara (1336 - 1565 CE) period saw the ascendance of their erstwhile feudatories, the Wodeyars, in Southern Karnataka as well as pockets of Maratha influence throughout the rest of the region. For a time, the Wodeyars were sidelined by the father-son duo of Hyder Ali (1761 - 1782 CE) and Tipu Sultan (1782 to 1799 CE), who were then defeated by the British. The British role in bringing the Wodeyars back to the centre-stage was critical, and by the early 19th century, the British were on a firm footing in the region.

    With the onset of British rule after the defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799 CE, the many areas that constituted Karnataka came to be dispersed among several administrative entities. By one count, the number of such entities was 22. There were areas administered directly by the Madras and Bombay Presidencies. Then there were several princely states, among whom Wodeyar-administered Mysore and the Nizam of Hyderabad were the most prominent. A few of the other minor princely kingdoms, mostly located in Northern Karnataka, were Savanur, Jamkhandi, Mudhol and Sandur.

    Due to the size, spread and varied political entities involved, during the 19th century, with the exception of princely Mysore, Kannada was not the language of administration anywhere in the many entities that controlled Karnataka. This was a reversal of Kannada’s previously prominent place in the region till the Kannada revival movement began in the late 19th century.

    In the areas that came under the Madras Presidency (the districts of Udupi and Dakshina Kannada [South Kanara then] today), English, Tamil and Malayalam (to a lesser extent) were prominent. In the areas that came under the Bombay Presidency (Uttara Kannada [North Kanara then] and several districts in Northern Karnataka), Marathi and English were prominent.

    While the Kannada-speaking population in this region was considerable in terms of numbers, the sheer size of the Bombay Presidency meant that despite their numbers, in percentage terms, the number of Kannada speakers was small. In the Nizam’s dominions (several districts in North-Eastern Karnataka), Persian and Urdu were prominent and in the princely states that dotted Northern Karnataka, the fact that most of the rulers were Marathas meant that Kannada was again sidelined.

    The rise of the Kannada identity is closely linked to the attempt to revive the language.

    A Kannada Renaissance

    In the second half of the 19th century, along with other Indian languages, Kannada literature too entered its modern phase, which saw the novel, the short story and the essay become prominent, and the classical forms take something of a back seat as writers began to respond to the changed conditions brought about by colonialism.

    This was given a fillip by the cultural revival movement pioneered by organisations like the Karnataka Vidyavardhaka Sangha and cultural figures like Alur Venkatarao and B M Srikantaiah, who influenced people greatly and set the scene for what eventually became the ‘Karnataka Ekikarana’ (Karnataka Unification) movement, whose objective was the unification of all Kannada-speaking areas.

    In 1890, the Karnataka Vidyavardhaka Sangha was established in Dharwad by a small group of individuals led by R H Deshpande, an officer in the Education Department of the Bombay Presidency and a Kannada lover. Shamrao Vittal Kaikini, a prominent lawyer of that time, was its first president, while Deshpande was the secretary. That the Sangha came into being in Dharwad is significant.

    Dharwad, Belgaum, Uttara Kannada and Bijapur were all then part of the Bombay Presidency (Bombay-Karnataka in local parlance). Owing to the fact that the Bombay Presidency had its capital in Bombay, Marathi was the prevalent language of the province and inspite of Kannada being the local language in these districts, it was Marathi that was taught in the government schools of the region much to the chagrin of individuals like Deshpande and others who were keen on Kannada being given its rightful place. Ironically, British administrators like Walter Eliot and W A Russell attempted to remedy this by encouraging the teaching of Kannada in schools. Other Europeans prominent in giving Kannada its rightful place were Rev. Ferdinand Kittel from Germany, who compiled a Kannada dictionary and the Britisher, B.L. Rice, who wrote on the history of Karnataka.

    To this end, Deshpande, who had secured an MA degree from the legendary Fergusson College in Pune, was drafted by Russell into the Education Department in 1884. But Russell’s transfer a little later coupled with the appointment of a Marathi-speaking officer in his place stymied Deshpande’s efforts at promoting Kannada within the system.

    Realising that government service meant that he could not push Kannada’s case beyond a point, at least not in the government system, Deshpande along with other like-minded individuals contemplated the creation of an organization that would promote Kannada. It was under these circumstances that the Vidyavardhaka Sangha was born in July 1890.

    To begin with, the Sangha’s objective was to encourage Kannada writing and literature through the publication of books and journals.

    It saw itself as a cultural organization that attempted to propagate Kannada culture. In 1896, the literary journal Vaghbhushana was started to encourage Kannada literature. The Sangha also began holding Kannada classes and published many Kannada books.

    The Sangha found support from the Maharaja of Mysore, Sri Chamarajendra Wodeyar. Since Mysore was the only region where Kannada was an official language, the Mysore administration supported the Sangha’s activities by sending examiners to conduct Kannada exams and also supplied funds for the Sangha to acquire its own premises.

    In 1905, the first conference of Kannada writers was held in Dharwad. In 1915, the Mysore government supported the organization of the second such conference in Bangalore, after which the Kannada Sahitya Parishat was created.

    In October 1917, the Sangha passed a resolution urging the government to bring all Kannada-speaking areas together as one province, ‘Karnataka’.

    The Ekikarana (Unification) was well on its way and found widespread public support across the many Kannada-speaking areas.

    The leading light of this movement and the foremost among those who articulated the idea of Karnataka was Alur Venkatarao, who is still revered as one of the foremost scholars or high priests (kula purohita) in Karnataka today.

    The ‘Kannada Kula Purohita’

    Alur Venkatarao was born in 1880 in Bijapur, then a part of Bombay-Karnataka. As was the practice in those parts in those times, he studied in Fergusson College, Pune, from where he obtained his BA and LLB degrees. Life as a lawyer in Dharwad failed to excite him and he soon became intimately involved in the activities of the Vidyavardhaka Sangha. In 1903, he made the case for Karnataka at a meeting, which deeply altered the view of the Vidyavardhaka Sangha with regard to its activities. The Sangha’s work took a more political turn thereafter and it began to actively popularise the idea of Karnataka.

    In 1905, he began to edit Vaghbhushana. A visit to Hampi in 1905 seems to have motivated him to turn his attention to dedicate himself to the cause of reviving what he believed was the lost glory of Karnataka. In 1917-8, after several years of research and travel, he published Karnataka Gathavaibhava (The Lost Glory of Karnataka), which was a history of the region, besides articulating the spirit of ‘Karnatakatva’ (the spirit of Karnataka). He also plunged into the freedom struggle after 1920 and in 1922, began Jaya Karnataka, an influential journal dedicated to the cause of Kannada and Karnataka.

    In time, Venkatarao’s single-minded focus on creating a Karnataka and Kannada consciousness earned him the title ‘Kannada Kula Purohita’ (the high priest of Kannada culture).

    The National Scenario

    Meanwhile, after 1915, the Congress under Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi adopted a conscious strategy of mass mobilization. Organizing people on linguistic lines was one of its important strategies in this phase. This was done in order to tap into the existing unity that already existed within linguistic groups and harness the energies present for the greater national cause. Also, given that literacy levels were low, the necessity to communicate in the specific languages of the people was recognized very early by Gandhi and critical to the transformation of the Congress from a high-brow ‘English speakers club’ to a mass organization.

    In 1920, at the Nagpur session of the Congress, the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee was formed—a clear signal of the Congress’s commitment to the creation of Karnataka at some point in the future. The Belgaum session of the Congress in 1924, which also saw the organization of the Ekikarana Conference at the same time, was a further shot in the arm for the Karnataka movement.

    The Motilal Nehru Committee Report (1928), which was an articulation of the Congress’s view of a future India and its constitution, further reiterated the Congress’s commitment to the cause of regional languages.

    The Congress also attempted to press the claim for the creation of Karnataka when the elections of 1937 came up. This followed the Government of India Act, 1935, and was an attempt by the British to give Indians a very limited measure of self-rule. Amidst the many happenings on the national front, the Ekikarana movement continued to meet regularly, to keep the cause of Karnataka in the public eye.

    By 1946, it was clear that Indian independence was just around the corner and that would be the opportunity to fashion a new India that would emerge from the yoke of colonialism.

    Developments Post-Independence

    With independence in 1947 came a wave of expectation that provinces on linguistic lines would soon be a reality. But the trauma of Partition had forced the government into a rethink and it dragged its feet on the creation of linguistic states.

    A complicated arrangement of Part A, Part B, Part C and Part D states with varying levels of power was put into place. These were as follows: Part A states were former provinces in British-India; Part B states were former princely states or unions of princely states; Part C states included former chief commissioners' provinces and some princely states; and the only Part D territory was the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

    Following the decision to reorganise states and territories, in the initial part, from the 20-odd entities into which the Kannada-speaking areas were divided, the number of entities was reduced to five – Mysore, Hyderabad, Bombay State, Madras State and Kodagu (formerly Coorg). But the larger aspiration for a united Karnataka remained unfulfilled.

    The reports of the Dhar Committee and the JVP (Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya) Committee, which favoured a status quo on the issue of states’ reorganization also did not help matters.

    In 1953, with the martyrdom of Potti Sriramulu, who fasted unto death for a united Andhra Pradesh, the Nehru government was forced to act and announce the creation of Andhra Pradesh on the linguistic pattern. The demand for Karnataka was, however, not considered. This resulted in a huge public outcry.

    The victory of the Ekikarana Paksha (Unification Party) in byelections in 1953 in Hubli-Dharwad was yet another indicator of the public mood. There were demands for linguistic states in other parts of the country like Punjab and Maharashtra as well. The Central government was forced to act, and the States Reorganisation Commission under Justice Fazal Ali was constituted in 1953 to look into the matter. The committee submitted its report in September 1955 and recommended the creation of a Kannada-speaking province.

    On 1st November 1956, the State of Mysore, which was composed of the various Kannada speaking regions, came into being.

    That the new entity chose to call itself ‘Mysore’ was in part due to the fact that a ‘Part B state’ named Mysore that was the successor to the princely state of Mysore with Kannada as its official language already existed. Other Kannada-speaking areas which were then in other states were brought under the ambit of Mysore, to create a state that encompassed almost all the Kannada-speaking areas. In 1972, the name of the state was changed to ‘Karnataka’.

    Karnataka Today

    Almost seven decades since its formation, Karnataka today faces many developmental and cultural issues. The imbalanced development of Northern Karnataka and Southern Karnataka, owing to their different histories, is one of the more serious issues at hand.

    South Karnataka was formerly part of the princely state of Mysore, which was among the more well-administered regions of the country during colonial rule. Under enlightened Dewans like Sir M Visvesvaraya and Sir Mirza Ismail, this kingdom prospered.

    The Northern Karnataka region, which historically formed part of the Bombay Presidency (Bombay-Karnataka) and the Nizam of Hyderabad’s dominions (Hyderabad-Karnataka), besides several minor princely states, was backward in comparison. This imbalance persists to the present day. The North Karnataka region, which is now referred to as Kalyana Karnataka, continues to lag behind the southern part of the state in human development indicators.

    The cultural differences between the two regions are also an irritant. The district of Belagavi, formerly Belgaum, also has a significant Marathi-speaking population and there have been demands for its merger with Maharashtra. It is an issue largely kept alive by politicians, who have a vested interest in not allowing a resolution since they are looking to harvest this emotive issue for short-term electoral gains.

    Karnataka also has to deal with the unique linguistically diverse situation of the coastal areas of the state (the districts of Dakshina and Uttara Kannada and Udupi). Besides Kannada, Tulu, Konkani and Byari are the local languages here and this blend of tongues and distinct cultural traditions means that this region is different from the other parts of the state. Kasargod, which is part of neighbouring Kerala, is culturally linked to this region and its non-inclusion in Karnataka in 1956 continues to rankle many in the state.

    Another cultural sub-region is the hill district of Kodagu (for some years after Independence, a Part C state), which is home to the Kodavas, a culturally distinct community with their own language (Kodava Takk) and cultural traditions. The Kodavas enjoy a larger-than-life image and their martial traditions have meant that many from the region have been part of the Indian Army. Two Kodavas (Field Marshal K M Cariappa and General K S Thimayya) were also army chiefs.

    While many Kodavas were part of the Ekikarana Movement and the district’s contribution to the state is widely appreciated, Kodava groups have occasionally raised the demand for separation from Karnataka owing to the perception that the district does not get sufficient attention in the current administrative set-up.

    The growth of Bengaluru into a bustling metropolis and its tag of being the software hub of the country have meant that the city dominates the economic life of the state even as it has become a magnet for migrants from all parts of the country. This has created its own set of developmental issues, typical of any large metropolis the world over. Cultural issues to do with language and traditions that are unique to the Indian scenario have compounded this further. It is an ongoing process that is still playing out.

    Cosmopolitan Bengaluru today exudes the aura of being a ‘world city’ which belies the struggle that many underwent to create Karnataka.


    Karthik Venkatesh is a history enthusiast who writes on lesser-known aspects of India’s history. He is particularly interested in exploring the history of India through its languages, which he believes offers tantalizing perspectives. He works in publishing and is a freelance writer.

    This article is part of our special series the 'Making of Modern India' through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India's exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.

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