Kannada and Kannadigas: A struggle for survival

I am a Kannadiga, which means my mother tongue is Kannada.  Kannada is an Indian language spoken by at least 60 million people in India and abroad. Most of them, like me, are from Karnataka, a southern state in India.

Kannada has a rich literary tradition and earliest written records date back to 4th century CE and several indirect references to the existence of Kannada date back to 3rd century BCE (I should provide references.  Will do so soon).  There are other ancient languages in South India that are distinct from Kannada.  kannadaThere is a perennial tug of war between these languages (political states divided on linguistic lines) to claim that their own language is far superior (more ancient, more classical and so on) to other sister languages of this region. Such claims and passions have obtained new dimensions with people in the modern day physically immigrating to neighboring states (more than ever before), but psychologically anchoring their loyalties to their original maternal states. However, I like to believe that most Kannadigas in general know in their hearts that Kannada and other languages in the region are all equal.  I am proud of the fact that we (Kannadigas) care for our language and do not believe in belittling other languages.  We also don’t tom-tom Kannada’s greatness by disrespecting other languages or peoples.  When I say disrespect, I mean “refusing to interact with others when they don’t know or speak Kannada”. We don’t refuse to speak with non-Kannadigas and we don’t start talking in Kannada if someone asks us a question in a non-Kannada language.  I for one laugh at the silliness of (a minority of) citizens from other neighbouring states when they question Kannada’s classical status because they are delusional about their superiority. Kannada and Kannadigas are not like that. We don’t file petitions in court questioning the traditions of other states and languages. Kannadigas don’t do it. Many pro-Kannada activists have regretted this attitude of Kannadigas. Such activists think that Kannadigas are prone to marginalisation within our own state (by others) because we are more than accommodating and sometimes generous to a fault. I differ from such views.  Kannadigas have always stood for Kannada’s primacy in Karnataka, but we do not believe in frivolous debates about superiority or supremacy. I wish to believe that we (Kannadigas) do not claim supremacy of Kannada over other languages. By saying so, I might appear to be claiming superiority of Kannada attitude (which I don’t need or want) over others in the region.  Hang on until the end of this article to draw your own conclusions about what I mean when I say “Kannadigas are different but are not indifferent”.

A 1953 independent Indian currency note listing the then seven scheduled languages of India, including Kannada (third from the top left).  Language equality and diversity will lead to stronger federalism and a stronger nation.

Kannada is a living language. Kannada alphabet has as many letters as one needs to rewrite and pronounce words from other languages with no compromises on quality of pronunciation.  Kannada’s versatile grammar and a unique way of internalising foreign words means that it is one of the fastest evolving languages in the region and can compete with any language in the world in terms of vocabulary and breadth of coverage.  Above all, Kannada supports the lives of millions of citizens of Karnataka. For them, Kannada makes difficult subjects easy to understand. For them, Kannada means their regional identity. For them, Kannada makes living easy. The last reason is enough to enforce Kannada’s promotion, and a preferential treatment for Kannada in Karnataka.  Now, non-Kannadigas who may have immigrated to Karnataka recently or have lived in Karnataka for a few years, may find life easier if Karnataka offers all services in their language of preference.  Why is that a big no-no? You will be wrong if you think my argument is going to be based on (parochial) majoritarian lines.

For any language to flourish, it has to have a minimum number of users, who depend on it for their day to day lives.  India has been blessed with thousands of such languages and they have flourished because India has had a population dividend that can support sustenance of languages over millennia.  Sadly, many languages of India are on the verge of extinction because the number of people who depended on those language has dwindled over the years.  We will be not only losing those languages but also with them an invaluable treasure trove of knowledge, wisdom, and literary heritage. For instance, many of us have been mystified by the symbolic scripts from the Indus valley civilization.  We don’t know what they mean (although some claim to have decoded them). A huge civilizational heritage is locked (never to be known) because a language died. We don’t want our current Indian languages, some of which have built their own legacy over 2000 years, to be lost in the name of globalisation madness.  Yes.  All of us are for modernisation and development.  All of us support free movement of Indians all across India.  However, such freedom should not stifle the living languages of India in the name of uniformitarian or pseudo-nationalistic notions of India.  India as a nation is a modern concept.  India as a civilization is an ancient concept. The Indian civilization has always been a fluid entity. It evolves in myriad ways and nurtures diversity. The current Indian linguistic states (I mean political states) believe in nurturing the concept of India as a nation without compromising the original concept of Indian civilization.

I am writing this article in English knowing fully well that many of us in India do not read or write English (live alone the fact that they don’t have access to internet).  However, my writing is intended for those who constitute the ruling class. The ruling class includes not only the politicians (many of whom do not speak English) but also the steel frame Administrative service (who must speak English!). Indians have embraced English as a language for two reasons.  Of course one of them is historical. The British left India but the English mindset has not left us. The British cared only for business and not the people of India. We Indians will be better off if we disassociate the British from the language English.  The second reason for embracing English is the timidity of current ruling class in New Delhi, which wrongly believes that India as a nation needs to embrace Hindi as an official language of daily transaction. The truth is that most Indian political states are bustling with billions of people who do not speak, write or understand Hindi.  Hindi as a language is as good or bad as any in India. But, the Hindi imposition on Kannadigas (and other non-Hindi speakers) is unacceptable. We are different in that we embraced a three language teaching policy in Karnataka when others refused.  We are not indifferent to the needs of non-Kannadiga residents of Karnataka.  We will help them integrate into Kannada culture and Karnataka’s traditions.  However, the challenge in South India is that we have progressed much faster than the rest of India.  We will attract more people from other parts of India and most of them will speak languages other than Kannada.  We will accommodate non-Kannada speakers but we will not allow them or their language to rule us.  We should not allow the English mindset to rule us either. For our own sake and for our future’s sake, it is important that all Indian languages are on an equal footing. It is the duty of any citizen of India who migrates from his home state to another state to learn the local language if he or she believes that they are going to spend a major part of their lives in their new found home.  Don’t stifle Kannada in Karnataka.  Don’t stifle our freedom to use and promote our language in our state.  When Hindi becomes a symbol of regional chauvinism, a mild-mannered, accommodating Kannadiga may not tolerate it.  It is high time that the Central government wakes up to this issue.  Forget celebrating Hindi diwas. Stop imposing Hindi in central institutes, banks, schools, roads and on our lives in Karnataka. The Karnataka state government should stand up and ensure that Kannada is available on all platforms from local counters to internet portals. Next time when a Kannadiga visits a local bank branch in a remote village in Karnataka and tries to open an account, and if the bank offers the application form in English and in Hindi, the polite Kannadiga may throw the form to the bin and hopefully can manage his/her anger. He/she will not break the bank’s shining glass window. That is not us.


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