Voices against communalism

Print edition : May 21, 2004
in Bangalore

SOME of Karnataka's most celebrated writers have decided to come together for an explicitly political purpose. The growing culture of religious intolerance and communal violence in Karnataka is at odds, they believe, with the State's long literary tradition of humanism and rational thought. To counter the spread of communalism in the social and political fabric of the State, these writers and their allies in other segments of the creative arts recently formed the Writers, Artists and Citizens' Forum Against Communalism, a network of secular individuals and organisations.

Writer Girish Karnad (third from left, front row) with critic and social activist G.K. Govinda Rao (to his right) at a protest demonstration in Bangalore on April 24 against the assault on members of Writers, Artists and Citizens Forum Against Communalism, allegedly by BJP workers at Birur.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

The Forum Against Communalism comprises writers such as U.R. Ananthamurthy and Girish Karnad (both Jnanpith Award winners), Pratibha Nandakumar, Baragur Ramachandrappa, L. Hanumanthaiyya and Dr. Vijaya; literary critics and academics such as K. Marulasiddappa, G.K. Govinda Rao and G. Ramakrishna; theatre persons such as Abdullah of the Bhaivaikyatha Beedi Nataka Thanda and Ravindranath of Samudaya; K.S. Vimala, general secretary of the Janavadi Mahila Sangha (JMS); Indudhara Honnavara, a leading Dalit activist; and several others.

"As writers we all feel passionate about the damage that communalism inflicts particularly when we look at our State's pluralistic literary and cultural heritage," said U.R. Ananthamurthy to Frontline. "One thousand years ago Pampa, our first great poet, wrote that mankind was one. He was a Jain, and wrote a version of the Mahabharata in which he made Arjuna the hero. The great Vachanakaras of the 12th century fought Vedic Hinduism and the caste system. In our own time we have Kuvempu, Bendre and Karanth who laid great traditions of rationalism. How can we allow a party like the BJP to gain a foothold in a state with these great religious traditions?"

The Forum was launched in Bangalore South parliamentary constituency where H.N. Ananthkumar, State president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is contesting. "We chose this constituency deliberately," said Vimala. "Since Ananthkumar's appointment as president of the Karnataka BJP there have been many incidents of communal violence in places like Aland, Kodagu, Anekal, Chickmagalur and Mangalore. He has gone on record to say that the BJP wants to make the Bababudangiri shrine in Chickmagalur the `Ayodhya of the South'." The Forum issued a call to the electorate to support any winning secular candidate against a BJP candidate.

Several secular organisations have joined forces with the Forum. These include the JMS, the People for India Forum, Manasa, Arivu, Bangalore Initiative for Peace, Democratic Youth Federation of India, Manava Premigala Balaga, Samudaya, and some progressive Dalit groups.

The Forum activated its network amongst progressive writers and cultural activists in different parts of the State to organise four cultural jathas that commenced from Bangalore, Mysore, Hospet and Dharwad. Passing through towns and villages where the artists staged performances, the jathas converged at Birur in Chickmagalur for a public meeting and cultural programme. Four lakh pamphlets against communalism were printed, including the popular JMS pamphlet "Why Women Should Not Vote for the BJP".

Criticism of the Forum's activities first began to be made from within the community of creative writers. "We have come under much criticism from others in the literary field for our political call," said Pratibha Nandkumar. "But this is a part of the fight against communalism. We don't belong to any political party - all we are telling people is to vote for a secular party," she said. But once the activities of the Forum got under way, the more serious attack came from supporters of the BJP. A meeting organised in Vijaynagar in Bangalore city by the JMS and the Forum was disrupted by pro-BJP activists. In Anekal town, the activities of the Forum were disrupted. In Sagar, Shimoga, a performance by Abdullah's children's theatre group was attacked, allegedly by BJP supporters.

The most serious attack to date on Forum members and their activities, however, occurred in Birur on April 23 where a function to celebrate Basava Jayanthi was held to which members of the Forum Against Communalism were invited. Apart from speeches and theatre performances, Venkatesh Nayak, a well-known singer from Dharwad, was to give a one-hour performance. Forum activist allege that two lorryloads of BJP activists forcibly stopped the function. Copies of the JMS pamphlet were burnt and the stage was ransacked. "The hostile crowd then swelled to around a thousand," said Nandakumar. "We were taken into the police station, ostensibly for our protection, but the crowd laid siege to the building shouting filthy abuses at us." The well-known writer, R.G. Halli Nagaraj, and a group of child artists aged between seven and 17 were inside the station. According to Nandakumar, they were roughed up, threatened and insulted.

Forum members say that such a response was only to be expected. "Let any government come - our struggle against communalism will go on," said Govinda Rao. "Every act is political, whether it is writing, singing or dancing. If writers and artists don't come together for a cause like this, why do we call ourselves intellectuals?" he asked.

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