Monday, December 12, 2011

Choices for Linguistically Warring India; The Canadian Way or the Ottoman Way

It is becoming clearer by the day that the linguistic reorganisation of states has done more harm than good to our country. Instead of welding the nation into a functioning federalism like Canada or Switzerland, it is reminding us of the Austrian and Ottoman empires that came to grief because they could not turn their multicultural diversity into a viable unity.

Back in the days of innocence, the national movement for independence was structured along the lines of Pradesh Committees, each pradesh generally comprising one linguistic region. That seemed a natural counterpoint to the imperial scheme of presidencies and princely states. Potti Sriramulu's fast to death in 1952 was a coercive tactic, but the States Reorganisation Act four years later did not necessarily appear in a negative light. There was hope that regional languages would flourish and that the overall effect would be progressive.

Ambedkar was among those who warned of the dangers ahead. Nehru had his reservations too. Distinguished foreign pundits cautioned that linguistic division could encourage secessionist forces (See Selig Harrison, India, The Most Dangerous Decades, 1960). The chief argument was that India was different, from Canada and the Ottomans and every other case in history because in India “linguism was only another name for (caste) communalism,” as Ambedkar put it. Proving his point, new states became battlegrounds for Marathi Brahmins and Maratha peasant-proprietors, for Kammas and Reddis, for Lingayats and Vokkaligas. D.R. Mankekar, a prominent editor of the 1950s, said: “We find once again, on lifting the linguistic cloak, casteism and love of office grinning at us”.

Bal Thackeray turned the grin into a growl. His nephew Raj Thackeray went the whole hog to unleash campaigns of violence against non-Maharashtrians. By not checking that tendency, senior leaders like Sharad Pawar and Vilasrao Deshmukh encouraged chauvinistic extremism. Patriotism became indistinguishable from bigotry. Belgaum City Corporation recently passed a resolution not to honour Chandrasekhara Kambar, this year's Jnanapith winner. It did not matter that Kambar was a son of Belgaum and studied there. It did not matter that he was one of the finest poets and playwrights of modern India. All that mattered was that he was a Kannadiga while many corporators considered themselves Maharashtrians.

Sadder still is the Mullaperiyar dam dispute between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Simple logic shows that no two neighbours are more dependent on each other than Tamil Nadu and Kerala. To understand the full scope of this interdependence, it is necessary first to understand the difference in character between Tamils and Malayalees. Tamils are hardworking. Malayalees are hardworking only outside Kerala; at home they are happy with their Gulf money and their nonstop politics.

One consequence of this character difference is that agriculture, which needs sustained hard work, has come to a standstill in Kerala. All necessities are imported. If vegetables and fruits and chicken do not arrive in truckloads from Tamil Nadu daily, the Malayalee will starve.

Firebrand politician Vaiko once tried to take advantage of this. He blocked all truck movement to Kerala so that the Malayalee would starve and learn a lesson. He quickly reversed gear because Tamil farmers, denied their assured market, began starving too. Even Vaiko had to concede that the Tamil farmer and the Malayalee consumer were made for each other. The survival of each depended on the other.

This is why the Mullaperiyar issue is actually a non-issue. Land on the Tamil side is arid, so water from Kerala is essential to the Tamil farmer. It is just as essential for Kerala that the Tamil farmer gets the water he wants for, otherwise, Kerala won't get its daily food supplies. Never was collaborative coexistence more elementary. And never was the failure of political leadership more evident. Kerala repeatedly assures full water supplies. With that the dispute should have ended – but linguistic egos keep it going. A Tamil employer in Doha, Qatar, sacked his Malayalee employee for supporting the idea of a new dam. Nothing more need be said.