Professor Rajendra Chenni’s treatise on the historical processes that led to the formation of the state of Karnataka was published in 2023, exactly 50 years after the name of the Kannada-speaking province of Mysore was changed to Karnataka by Chief Minister D. Devraj Urs to reflect popular sentiment. This “golden jubilee” was marked effusively on November 1, which is recognised as Kannada Rajyotsava, the day disparate Kannada-speaking territories were merged to form a new State in 1956. For readers who are unfamiliar with the complex developments that culminated in modern Karnataka, Chenni’s book is a must-read.
State Matters: Kannada Sub-Nationalism and State Formation
Manipal University Press, 2023
According to Chenni, the Unification movement, or the movement for a distinct Kannada-speaking province, was the result of the convergence of “colonial modernity and nationalist ideologies” accompanied by an effort to “retrieve and reconstruct a literary, cultural and political tradition”. To appreciate the scale of this effort, it is important to understand that the geographical region of modern Karnataka was culled together from 30 separate fragments spread across south-western India.
The largest piece of this jigsaw puzzle was the Mysore princely state, followed by chunks of Kannada-speaking regions carved out from the erstwhile British-era administrative provinces of Bombay and Madras and the Hyderabad princely state. Chenni points out that welding these parts together was a “Herculean task” because these different regions were at varied stages of development and consisted of a “variety of caste-groups and class formations”.
The Unification movement
The anchor for the Unification movement was the ancient conception of a Kannada-speaking region, first articulated in the 9th-century Kannada literary text known as the Kavirajamarga in which the Kannada land was mapped as extending between the Krishna and Kaveri Rivers. The second key historical moment that provided the cultural impetus for the formation of Karnataka was the great empire of Vijayanagara and its vanquishment in the 16th century. The image of the destruction of Hampi was evocatively used by Alur Venkata Rao, who Chenni describes as the “high priest of the Unification movement”, to galvanise the mass of Kannada speakers for the cause of a unified linguistic entity. Despite these historical signposts used by the ideologues of the Unification movement, Chenni writes that that any “attempt to posit an unqualified Kannada identity in the pre-modern period would be a construction not supported by history”.
The genesis of the Unification movement, avant la lettre, can be traced to the end of the 19th century and to the town of Dharwad (which was then a southern outpost of the Bombay Presidency) when pioneering initiatives began to address the discriminatory attitude towards Kannada. W.A. Russell, an Inspector of Schools, spurred the movement by commencing instruction in Kannada at the cost of Marathi which was the language imposed upon the region. (Russell was not the lone colonial agent who was involved in the production of Kannada consciousness as there were several others such as Walter Eliot and Rev. Ferdinand Kittel who worked and operated in different parts of the Kannada-speaking region.)
Russell’s efforts were a bold departure from the set practice and inspired the establishment of a voluntary association called the Karnataka Vidyavardhaka Sangha which would subsequently spearhead the Unification movement. The epicentre of these early efforts to create a Kannada identity and consciousness was Dharwad, revealing that the Mysore Princely State, which in popular sentiment remains the repository of high Kannada culture, suppressed any move towards cohering a Kannada identity.
In fact, the Mysoreans continued with this hostile attitude over the next few decades and were dead-set against unification and would even propose the formation of two separate states: Mysore and Karnataka. The knotty and layered identity of the Kannadigas is evident here as there was a strong feeling that the Vokkaligas, the powerful shudra peasant caste that was dominant in Mysore, would lose their privileged status if a unified province came into existence. The idea of a primordial linguistic identity transcending caste barriers was simply not powerful enough to convince the Mysoreans.
However, by the 1950s, leaders of Mysore realised that opposition was futile considering the trajectory of the Unification movement and gave in to the demand for a unified Karnataka. The small consolation for this “sacrifice” was that amid the complex cultural contours of the Unification movement, the educated dialect of the Mysore region would become the standard Kannada dialect.
Nation or the sub-nation: what comes first?
Chenni also devotes considerable space to the conception of the sub-national unit. What comes first: the nation or the sub-national (linguistic) unit? Chenni sees both emerging simultaneously at least as far as Karnataka is concerned and complimenting one another under the massive impact of colonial modernity. In the case of the Unification movement which also engendered a literary movement known as the Navodaya, this meant “that Kannada sub-nationality did not acquire a sharp political edge. It remained largely culturalist in its orientation”.
Chenni writes that in the initial stages of the Unification movement, the dominant backward castes such as the Lingayats and Vokkaligas were unenthusiastic about the idea of a unified Kannada identity but when it became clear that “development in trade, economy and industrialisation would also be stunted [if Unification did not happen] these communities not only joined the movement but also sustained it to the end”. To understand the Dalit perspective towards Kannada, Chenni segues into the 1970s in Karnataka to the boosa (“cattle feed”) controversy, when a Dalit minister Basavalingappa categorised mainstream Kannada literature as unrepresentative of the Dalit experience and derided it as “fodder”.
Chenni also discusses the contradictory positions of the Congress before and after Independence. Before Independence, the Congress was in favour of linguistic provinces, but Jawaharlal Nehru, with his desire for a strong Union, opposed the formation of linguistic States after he became the premier. He only did it under tremendous pressure leading to the Reorganisation of States in 1956. In post-unification Karnataka, Chenni focusses his attention on two campaigns that reveal the fragility of the sub-national unit: the first one is the simmering demand emanating from north-east Karnataka for a separate State and the second is the similar demand periodically voiced from Kodagu located in the hills of south-west Karnataka.
Chenni has relied on a plethora of academic and popular sources but privileges the testimonies, memoirs, and letters of the leaders of the Unification movement. With the tight focus of the book on Kannada and Karnataka, it may have perhaps been beyond the purview of the book to examine how minority languages have fared in Karnataka, but this aspect would have certainly provided a richer understanding of the complexity of contemporary Karnataka society. There are minor factual errors in the book such as the inclusion of Bijapur as part of the Hyderabad princely state. The many spelling mistakes clearly show that the manuscript of the book could have undergone further copyediting.
These quibbles apart, Chenni, who is the Director of the Manasa Centre for Cultural Studies in Shivamogga and a well-known commentator on political and cultural issues in Karnataka, has written a commendable intellectual history tracing the origins and development of the movement for a united Karnataka and its consequences since 1956. By demonstrating the fragility of the sub-national linguistic unit, Chenni also shows that like the nation, even this seemingly culturally cohesive sub-national entity is vulnerable to further tugs and pulls reiterating that no modern geographical unit premised solely on cultural impulses is welded together perfectly.