Why Siddaramaiah raised issue of federalism and flag on Facebook post

The Karnataka CM has intensified the pitch to assert regional identity ahead of the Assembly elections.

 |  8-minute read |   17-03-2018
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Whoever drafted the 1,000-word Facebook post - mysteriously dated March 14, but in fact posted on March 16 on behalf of Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah - deserves to be thanked for this important catalyst for a conversation that ought to have begun long ago.

Titled "Regional Identity and Federalism", the note is also flagged by his official Twitter handle on Friday and can thus be taken as bearing his imprimatur.

He begins by pointing to the needless hype created by sections of the media, referred to dismissively as “TV studios in Delhi”, last summer over Karnataka’s move to have its own flag. The state government had then set up a committee to study the matter and its report last week recommended a tricolour - yellow, white and red with symbols of India and the state featured on the white part.

“The anchors were worried about the unity of India and lectured the Karnataka government on nationalism,” Siddaramaiah recalls and goes on to pose a rhetorical question: “Is the desire of the people of Karnataka to have a flag for their state, to give primacy to Kannada language and to have greater say in the running of their own lives inconsistent with the objective of building a strong nation?”

karnataka_031718032214.jpgImage: Twitter/@CMofKarnataka)

His demarche comes as the state is preparing for Assembly elections in which the BJP is making a strong bid to recapture the power it lost five years ago when its current state leader BS Yeddyurappa had eaten into the party’s votes having floated a breakaway Karnataka Janata Paksha after he had been ousted as chief minister over corruption allegations at the behest of LK Advani.

Siddaramaiah’s assertions of his Kannadiga identity, criticism of Hindi-imposition and championing of the state’s rights have put the state BJP in a tight spot, as it fears that opposing his stance and harping on Hindutva nationalism might alienate many voters. 

In a few short sentences Siddaramaiah explains how post-Independence India opted for a strong centre but is evolving from a union of states into a federation, having learned “useful lessons from turmoils in Tamil Nadu over Hindi language imposition and demands of autonomy from certain states like Punjab and Assam”.

After sketching the history of Kannada and the pride the state takes in it, he gets on to rather slippery ground arguing that better off states such as Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Maharashtra give more to the centre in taxes than they get in return. This is a problem common to several large and even medium states with regions and provinces that have modernised and developed at vastly different speeds, be it China, India, Italy or Brazil.

Ideally, national governments would want direct and indirect taxes collected from better off regions to be distributed equitably with a view to help the zones lagging behind. Much heart-burning results among the developed - and as they would argue, better-run - regions and in the real world, with corruption and ill-planned development thrown in, the debate gets further heated.

“We need a system where states receive larger portion of the taxes collected from our states and the share of centrally sponsored schemes must go down,” the chief minister says, arguing that “the south has been subsidising the north. Six states south of the Vindhyas contribute more taxes and get less.”

This is similar to what the leaders of affluent eastern and south-eastern provinces of China would say if they were allowed to and those of northern Italy do say and most vociferously, even raising the threat of secession.

Southern states have attained stable population growth he says, arguing controversially that as one of the criteria for devolving taxes is population, current policies incentivise states with unchecked growth in numbers.

Siddaramaiah is on a more solid ground when he says “states do not have a say in making of the country’s economic policy” and cites the example of cheap pepper being allowed in from Vietnam via Sri Lanka ruining farmers in Kerala and Karnataka. He suggests “a standing mechanism for discussing trade policy and agrarian issues” on the lines of the Goods and Services Tax Council.

What was once the Planning Commission turned into NITI Aayog or National Institution for Transforming India by the Narendra Modi government has “effectively dismantled the erstwhile National Development Council (NDC)” with nothing to replace it, he says.

“Even the NDC was a talk shop,” Siddaramaiah adds, failing to discuss why his party, the Congress which had been in power at the Centre until 2014, let that come to pass.

Karnataka, with a population of 65 million, is bigger than many European countries as are most Indian states, he notes, calling for setting “states free to grow as per their capacity and their genius, without being nervous about any imagined threat from assertion of their identity”.

Noting that Indian states post-Independence were organised on linguistic lines, he ends with a flourish: “Many of the languages and cultures of the states pre-date the Indian identity. Yet, we Indians are bound by a common history, common civilisation, and a common destiny. My identity as a proud Kannadiga is not inconsistent with my identity as a proud Indian. So, in Karnataka when we speak about primacy to Kannada, argue against imposition of Hindi language, or call for adoption of a state flag, we are confident we are contributing to building of a strong India; for, a confident Indian nation is confident about the individuality of all her daughters.”

That is all well, but how much has Siddaramaiah done to defend the state and its interests as well as against Hindi imposition and for the rights of all the people of the state and not only Kannada speakers?

If there is full-blown imposition under the BJP-led government at the Centre now which has all but in name adopted majoritarian Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan nationalism as a policy, the north Indian tongue in whose name several glorious languages such as Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Mythili and others have been eclipsed was being pushed by successive Congress-led administrations too.

The Karnataka CM has to account for his party’s complicity in that exercise and state clearly whether it was making a full break now.

There need to be federations within the federation and inclusive policies for speakers of minority languages as well as practitioners of minority faiths within states too. In Karnataka, speakers of Beary, Kodava, Konkani, Tamil, Telugu, Tulu, Urdu and other languages need to feel they are not submerged, subsumed and forgotten thanks to Kannada domination.

Regions such as Hyderabad-Karnataka or Bombay-Karnataka must have a full say in the running of the state. Hills and forests of Adivasis need to be recogniSed as their ancestral abodes and not subject to destructive, rapacious and environmentally disastrous "development", the kind Siddaramaiah’s government has been practising, periodically unveiling ill-advised plans for more roads, railways and other massive encroachments in the already-endangered Western Ghats.

The right to life and livelihoods of Dalits and minority communities - which have been under threat and not only since 2014 - must be protected and ensured. Adequate representation of Adivasis, Dalits and minority communities in all echelons of the administration, including in the police and paramilitary forces, might be one of the ways of achieving that.

Perhaps the continuing deaths of mostly Dalits engaged in manual scavenging and manhole-cleaning could be prevented if civic bodies and supervisory bodies such as human rights institutions had members of affected castes on their rolls.

Would this week’s mass acquittal of Sri Rama Sene goons, including its chief Pramod Muthalik, in the 2009 Mangalore pub attack case have come about if the state policemen, who ought to have filed the evidence that was thick on the ground, were not in the grip of Hindutva forces?

Just as the Maharashtra police steeped in Hindutva ideology have made no headway in cracking the assassinations of Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, so too their Karnataka counterparts have yet to record progress in the killing of rationalist MM Kalburgi. An arrest has been made in connection with Gauri Lankesh’s assassination only recently, more than seven months after the event. 

Siddaramaiah and his colleagues in Karnataka have to acknowledge that prominent leaders of their party have evaded justice for their role in the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and that a Congress prime minister looked on as the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992 and thousands of Muslims were killed.

Indubitably, these events paved the way for the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat under a then relatively new state leader, Narendra Modi.

That said it is nevertheless good that prominent leaders such as Siddaramaiah in Karnataka and chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu of Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh are now, pushed by ground realities, invoking federalism.

A mainstream politician in Tamil Nadu, Vaiko, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, openly condemned attacks on Christian prayer halls in Madurai district early this week.

Gauri Lankesh’s sister Kavitha has often spoken in recent months of the groundswell of support she has been getting from not only Karnataka, but swathes of neighbouring states all inviting her to speak at events organised to oppose communalism.

These are welcome developments and together should help ensure that the burgeoning Hindutva supremacist menace meets with stout resistance.

Also read: Why Modi's campaign strategy in Karnataka may blow up in its face

Writer

N Jayaram N Jayaram @n_jayaram

The writer is a journalist now based in Bangalore. He has worked for the Press Trust of India and Agence France-Presse.

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