Is Bangalore Going the Bombay Way

On 1st Nov, on Karnataka Rajya Utsava, while I was entering a shopping mall, a person with a wad of thin books in his hand whisked one into my hand. I waved him away without any consideration. Few steps later, I stopped turned around, walked to him and asked for a copy of the book he was distributing free. It was a postcard size book on how to learn Kannada.

A day later I read the Karnataka CM’s (a Congress CM) Rajya Utsava speech in paper. He said everyone staying in Karnataka should learn Kannada and consider themselves Kannadigas. Karnataka is also going to become the first state in India to have its flag.

I am from Calcutta and have been staying in Bangalore for last 12 years now – and from time to time have seen manifestation of provincial sentiments through violence sometimes owing to something as innocuous as death of Kannada movie icons and sometimes slightly more tangible issues like water sharing with neighboring states.  The targets are generally ethnic groups to establishments like malls, restaurants representing a culture perceived to have overshadowed the local culture or representing  those who are insolent towards it.

But the best part about these conflagrations is they fizzle out in a day or two thanks to the fact that they are mostly carried out by small chauvinistic groups with little or no impact on mainstream politics.

Only twice, in my so many years in Bangalore, have I seen chauvinistic disturbances targeted towards a particular group or community go beyond their one-day routine.

One of them involved the Kaveri water sharing issue. The Kaveri water sharing  issue has been a source of disturbances for sometime recurring almost once every year but none has taken so long  to calm down. The trigger was a Supreme Court order asking Karnataka to share more cusecs of Kaveri water with Tamil Nadu than the state was ready to do.

My wife and I were touring Chikmagalur, a nice hill station in Karnataka with lot of coffee plantations but little known outside south India. We left for Chikmagalur a day after a state-wide bandh over the Kaveri issue.

Roughly two to three days later, sitting in a restaurant in Chikmagalur overlooking the road in front, we saw a flock of people shouting slogans, a column of black smoke rising up from amidst them. Curious, I asked the restaurant manager what it was.

He said they were protesting the Supreme Court order which had gone against Karnatka assuring us that they would not cause any harm, that it was just a protest.

Later we realized it wasn’t ‘just’ a protest. It took a week or so for normalcy to return. Some IT offices were forced shut by vandals, people killed, vehicles particularly those with Tamil Nadu number plates, set on fire.

The other one was over passing away of a famous Kannada movie star, Rajkumar. Within an hour of the death news becoming public, in anticipation of trouble, our office was called off and we were asked to return home. A few hours later, city life completely collapsed. Malls were attacked; foreign brand outlets were vandalized. It took sometime for normalcy to return.  (Some years earlier the same superstar had been kidnapped sparking similar reaction from his fans across the city.)

For the last 20 years or so, Bangalore has seen an excessive influx of migrants from different parts of the country mainly due to IT but also other industries and work streams. This influx of people from other places has meant the local culture now has to jostle for space with other cultures. This marginalization expresses itself through outbursts of regional sentiments whenever there is a provocation.

Another city where provincial chauvinism expresses itself through violence towards ‘outsiders’ is Bombay, another place which offers economic possibilities. Beating up poor migrants and attempts to force the local language on everyone are common.

The difference between Bangalore and Bombay, though, is in Bangalore the troublemakers don’t continue for too long. Also, the level of cynicism and organization that characterizes the chauvinistic flareups in Bombay is not to be found in Bangalore.

Perhaps a little bit of regional chauvinism is inevitable in a city which goes through economic prosperity on the scale Bangalore has over last 20 years or so. What is important is to avoid touching the raw nerve.

That’s why the chief minister’s brazen exhortation to everyone staying in Karnataka to learn and feel Kannada – doesn’t help unless he wants to convert Bangalore into Bombay. He should stop doing it.

In the meantime, I will try learning a little bit of Kannada using the book I got.

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