Creation Mythology

All through history, Karnataka was only an imagined home of the Kannada-speaking people. It was a cultural construct and a poetic fancy with no specific political or geographical formation to back it up...

This book, which I found at a second-hand book stall, has been by my bedside shelf for close to nine months now. I picked it up many times to caress its dull-grey exteriors, admire its repaired spine and flip through its dusty-looking illustrations, but somehow never got around to reading it. There was a peculiar remorse about postponing a deeper engagement with it, but then in a personal library, some books are for reading, some for plain reference and a good number of them are for the record. This particular slim volume of 200-odd pages, I thought, fell somewhere in-between the reference and the record categories, but nevertheless it got read last week.

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Titled The Karnataka Handbook 1924, it is an assorted tell-tale collection of articles, demographic statistics, charts, photographs and also a gatefold map. It was published by the provincial Congress committee for a special occasion and with a distinct purpose. The occasion is the first session of the Indian National Congress "within her [Karnataka] borders" at Belgaum, and the purpose was to build a strong case for the consolidation and reorganisation of the Kannada-speaking territory. This book was apparently meant to educate the nationalist leaders and delegates attending the session, presided over by Mahatma Gandhi, on the idea of Karnataka. In other words, it was an elaborate document created to lobby for the state of Karnataka.

The fascinating element though is that all through history, Karnataka was only an imagined home of the Kannada-speaking people. It was a cultural construct and a poetic fancy with no specific political or geographical formation to back it up. In fact, none of the kingdoms that ruled over the geographical spread that now gets denoted as Karnataka -- Chalukyas, Gangas, Rashtrakutas, Kadambas, Hoysalas, Tuluvas and Wodeyars among others -- ever called themselves as Kannada dynasties. It was only a retrospective ascription and an utterly modern enterprise to manufacture a history for the Kannada-speaking people at the beginning of the 20th century. This book carries the mould of that emergent thought.

In his foreword, D K Bharadvaj, the chief editor of the volume, says: 

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"Until recently when the Congress secured for it [Karnataka] its integrity by a redistribution of provinces on the linguistic basis in 1920, it was but little known outside... This present attempt is intended to give an idea of the part played by Karnataka in the life of India." 

Interestingly, both India and Karnataka were not a reality in 1924, but there is a clear indication in this book that both are being forged simultaneously in the minds of people. There is a serious effort to convert a cultural idea into a political project. Observe the cautious footnote for the map: "The boundary of Karnataka, marked by thin straight lines, may only be taken as approximately marking the limits of the Kannada speaking people. It does not follow the Congress division. Suggestions for rendering it accurate will be thankfully received."

We know how a car gets manufactured or a computer gets made, but then how does a nation get built in stages like a rocket? You'll have to read this book to get an inkling. The book puts the project together with the help of seven different sections starting with geography, then history, history post-1799, a summary of  recent developments, religious movements across centuries, contribution to fine arts, Kannada literature and finally appendices that include demographic statistics and an introduction to prominent men of arts, letters and administration. In the geography section, the country in the making is imagined as "equal in area to England and Scotland put together or twice Portugal or Greece or five times Denmark or six times Holland or seven times Belgium." The sub-text however is that this grand size would be real only if one is able to piece together portions parcelled out among four different governments -- the Bombay Presidency, the Nizam's dominions, the parts under the Mysore Wodeyars and then the Madras Presidency. The most exhaustive and polemical section is the one on history, but the one that discusses the most recent developments is the section titled 'New Awakening.'

The section on history is a narrative of regrets, but it begins with a naive utterance: "A history of Karnataka, giving us a view of the rise and development of the Karnataka sub-nation as an integral unit, its social, religious culture, has not yet been attempted. But if this sub-nation, now so divided up and dull in life, is to take her share along with the sister provinces in the rejuvenation of Indian culture, such a history is absolutely necessary. We hope that some day such a history will be written."  This is naive because there never was an 'integral unit' called Karnataka ever in history. What quickly follows in the narrative is ample proof: "Historians are of the opinion that ancient Maharashtra does not connote what the modern name does. However, even if Karnataka in its entirety was not called Maharashtra, there is no doubt some portion of it went by that name." Also, take a look at this assertion: "Karnataka was pre-eminently the field of this Aryan and Dravidian fusion... Karnataka is in South India what the Punjab is in the North." 

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Later, writing about the Satavahanas, the confusion and the contradiction persists. It is argued that the Satavahana kingdom meant the current Bellary district and its neighbourhood. "Besides these indications of the Karnataka origin of the dynasty, it is not clear why the same people should be called the Andhras sometimes and the servants of the Andhras at other times." The narrative also makes an effort to set up the Pallavas from the Tamil land against the apparently Karnataka kingdoms like Kadambas and Chalukyas. This is nothing but a further effort to mark territory. However, such conflicts have remained key ingredients of Kannada patriotism. 

The story of Mayurasarma, who is said to have become Mayuravarma later, adds spice to the tale of patriotism. It is said that Mayurasarma, a Brahmin, went to Kanchi to study, but his studies were disturbed by some Pallava princes. "After vowing vengeance against them, he returned to Sriparvatha, built up an army, fought with the Pallavas and founded a kingdom in Banavasi, and became a Kshatriya calling himself Mayuraverma." This "may contain some truth" as the narrative says but then the amusing part is the interpretation of his vengeance as Kannada pride. Even when the narrative mentions someone like Krishnadevaraya, of the Vijayanagar empire, and Tipu Sultan, of Srirangapattana, there is nothing specifically Kannada or Karnataka attributed or attributable to them. In fact Krishnadevaraya is extolled as a great Telugu poet and a Sanskrit scholar. There is also an acceptance that his was a bilingual (Kannada and Telugu) court with a greater emphasis on Telugu and the Andhra people called him 'Andhra Bhoja.'

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In a further effort to create the depth of glory and antiquity, sample this para: "Going back to legend from the solid ground of history, many places of pilgrimage hallowed by Rama's feet mentioned to be in Dandakaranya, are in Karnataka. Hampi of the Bellary district, on the banks of Tungabhadra, is Kishkinda of Ramayana. The Pampasarovara is here. Hangal in the Dharwar district is Viratnagara where the Pandavas had to sojourn for a year incognito. Kubathur village in the Sorab taluk of the Shimoga district was Kuntalapura, the capital of Chandrahasa. Manipura where Arjuna fought with Babruvahana is in Heggadedevanakote Taluk of the Mysore Province." 

As mentioned earlier, the section titled 'New Awakening' discusses the most recent efforts of building the new nation. It begins by identifying two important landmarks in history that notify the downfall of Karnataka. The first is associated with the fall of the Vijayanagar empire: "After Talikota the dismemberment of Karnataka was complete." Although there was a period during the rule of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan when the state was pieced together, it was too short lived. Hence "the fall of Srirangapattana and Tipu is the second landmark in the downward march of Karnataka." 

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From 1839 practically what is perceived as 'Karnataka' or the Kannada-speaking areas came under British rule. The British with the "sole intention of administrative efficiency" made the most "unscientific" dismemberment of the perceived linguistic state. That is when Dharwar, Belgaum, Bijapur and Karwar came under the Bombay Presidency, in which Kannadigas were far fewer in number compared to Marathas and Gujarathis. The "Kanarese people" of Bellary and Ananthpur districts were included in the Madras presidency and "linked to the Andhras." And people in Salem, Coimbatore and the Nilgiris were also added to the same Presidency and grouped with the Tamils. Also, Koppal, Bidar, Gulbarga and Raichur fell under the Naizam's dominion where Urdu flourished. The Coorgs were cut off from the rest of Karnataka by being placed as a separate administrative unit. After offering this context, the section proceeds to detail the efforts being made to get back these lost territories. Interestingly, all through, there is no mention of other language-speakers with an independent identity within these claimed territories, like the Konkani speakers and people with Tulu and Kodava as their mother tongues. They are merely "allied languages" because the number game is against them and also because they mostly use the Kannada script to write their languages.

The lament and charge that gets foregrounded in the narrative is that the Kannada people distributed in other linguistic territories "cared less" about their Kannada brethren in the other parts: "Educated men and even graduates in Bombay Karnataka could not locate Vijayanagar." The claim is that although there is a "centrifugal force" that makes these people oblivious about their mother tongue, gradually but faintly some "centripetal influences" are being introduced. The lack of pride among Kannada people is a refrain that prevails even today. 

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What gets counted as 'centripetal influences' are the setting up of Kannada printing presses; publication of Kannada newspapers like Chandrodaya and Karnataka Patra; setting up of Kannada primary schools by Channabasappa Dharwar, an educational inspector; publication of the 'inspirational' work called Kanarese Dynasties by J F Fleet; the founding of the Karnataka Literary Society in Dharwad around 1890; the founding of the Karnataka Sahitya Parishat in Bangalore, in 1915; the starting of a political organisation called Karnataka Sabha with the object of achieving a "united Karnataka British Province with a separate university, a separate harbour and a separate Congress circle" and finally formation of the Karnataka Provincial Congress Committee in 1921 with its headquarters in Gadag.

Amidst the setting up of all these institutions the most important development was the effort to standardise the Kannada language: "Kanarese dialects and the text-book language in one part of Karnataka were unintelligible to the inhabitants of other parts. Publishers and newspaper editors literally starved for want of circulation of their productions. It was therefore felt that the sine qua non for territorial integrity and political unity is the achievement of the uniformity of the Kanarese language throughout Karnataka. In the year 1906 to achieve this linguistic uniformity, literary conference was called under the auspices of the Karnataka Literary Sangh in Dharwar and a second session was held the following year again in Dharwar." 

There is also a tracking of precedence to bolster the argument for linguistic provinces. There is a reference to the effort of 'Ooriyas,' similarly dismembered, holding the Utkal Union conference in 1903. The formation in 1912 of a separate province for 'Beharis' from the Bengalis and reunification of Bengal itself. And the Andhras taking a cue from 'Ooriyas' and 'Beharis' in 1913. What also gets highlighted is the recognition offered to linguistic provinces by the Montagu-Chelmsford Report and the Imperial Legislative Council in 1918 giving a "sympathetic acceptance" to the resolution of Sir B N Sarma that provinces be formed on the linguistic principle. Largely owing to the persistent activity that gets recorded in this book, Karnataka finally became an entity in 1956 when the reorganisation of states took place. But then, the state had to wait for fifty years after the publication of this book to get the name 'Karnataka,' till 1973 it was the State of Mysore. 

But in the end let ask myself: Why did I read this book of record? Why did it hold my attention from page to page? Not simply because it sounded like conspiratorial history with a hindsight, but chiefly because the cultural and political project of integrating Karnataka that gets discussed in this book has never really reached a culmination. It is an ongoing one in the minds of the people. In their minds, large chunks of 'their territory' is still scattered outside its borders. The border dispute between Maharastra and Karnataka on Belgaum is still a sensitive political issue. To the extent that to strengthen its claims, Karnataka government since 2007 began holding an annual legislature session in the city. Similarly Kasargod that is aligned with Kerala is a contentious piece of land for Kannadigas. The sharing of the Cauvery water between Karnataka and Tamilnadu is of an explosive nature. Most recently there has been enormous discontent on the shifting of boundary markers between Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka near Bellary by mining companies. So nothing seems to have changed and hence the book resonates in the present. 

The process of imagining the borders appears to be a perennial one, like the process of imagining the history of a non-existent province. In fact, many of the areas that the book claims to be filled with a majority of Karnataka speakers never in the final assortment came to Karnataka. That includes Ananthpur, which went to Andhra and Salem, Coimbatore and Nilgiris, which became part of Tamilnadu. Clearly, it is time that we think of a definitive history on the creation of linguistic provinces in India.

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