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A Belgaumite's plea to all politicians

July 22, 2010 14:12 IST

Our energies need to be expended in resolving more pressing problems like the Maoist insurgency and terrorism that warrant our single-minded attention, says Vivek Gumaste

The ruckus over whether the status of Belgaum recalls to mind an anecdote that goes back more than 30 years, when I was barely in my mid-teens, a free-spirited audacious young lad who did not think twice before confronting older folk with his own worldview. At one of those innumerable family gatherings in Belgaum, I cornered a gentleman, a recent entrant to the family who happened to be an ardent supporter of the 'Belgaon, Maharashtra zalach pahije' (Belgaum must become a part of Maharashtra) brigade and battered him with a volley of questions:

"Does it really matter if Belgaum becomes a part of Maharashtra or not? Are you prevented from running Marathi schools or learning Marathi in Belgaum? Do you feel like an outsider when you walk down the streets of Belgaum? And are you discriminated against when you apply for jobs because you speak Marathi?"

He was nonplussed and responded with a mumble of incoherence.

Maharashtra's vociferous claim to Belgaum stems from a supposed numerical dominance of Marathi-speaking people in the city. But how exactly do you define a Marathi-speaking individual? Is a smattering of the language sufficient to categorise you as one? Is familial heritage a necessary prerequisite, or does an acquired proficiency also make the cut? And even if Marathi happens to be the lingua franca of Belgaum, does it make for an automatic and inevitable accession to Maharashtra?

The idea of an exclusive linguistic identity in a bilingual place like Belgaum is an oxymoron. Hailing from this disputed region, I can claim first-hand experience of this conundrum.

I bear a surname that sounds distinctly Maharashtrian in phonetic intonation, despite my paternal lineage having no discernible Mahrashtrian connection. Both my parents spoke Kannada at home and I grew up in Bengaluru. For logistic reasons I call myself a Kannadiga and am proud to be one but in an unobtrusive and non-provocative fashion.

The disconnect between my surname and my so-called defined identity is only the tip of the iceberg. Delve a little further into my family tree and all hell breaks loose; what emerges is a confused picture that could make a convincing case for a severe crisis of linguistic identity; whether you want to make it one or not is your prerogative, left to your discretion. Frankly it doesn't matter to me in the least.

My mother grew up in North Karnataka when it was a part of the Bombay Presidency and writes only in Marathi but speaks for the most part in Kannada. All my child hood summers were spent travelling by train through the areas of Dharwad and Belgaum and across the border to Miraj in Maharashtra where my Kannada-speaking grandfather borne of a Maharashtrian mother resided.

In another twist, a significant part of my father's family that had no claim to being Mahrashtrian by any stretch of imagination, migrated to Mumbai, switched to speaking Marathi even at home and now call themselves Maharashtrian. I can go on and on, reeling off more instances of this morphing of linguistic identities that make Maharashtra's claim to Belgaum.and Marathi-speaking areas in Karnataka and vice versa based on static language labels illogical and untenable.

This story of overlapping identities repeats itself with predictable certainty across the vast length and breadth of India, being more marked where one region interphases with another but also visible in India's metropolitan centres, thanks to a vibrant, mobile young India. Identity lines blur continuously to produce a composite persona enhanced from more than one source, making an exclusive identity almost impossible. Linguistic chauvinism is neither acceptable nor practical and if catered to would result in state boundaries being in a constant state of flux requiring cumbersome frequent revisions to accommodate an ever-changing demography.

For want of a better parameter, modern India chose to organise its land space into smaller and more efficient units along linguistic lines for the sake of good governance. While these demarcations did assuage some regional aspirations and did provide a semblance of linguistic identity to the locals, they were not meant to be linguistic or cultural walls or rigid watertight compartments that barricaded one Indian from another or meant to dictate policies that were repressive in intent or inimical to each other.

When viewed against this backdrop, every language related inter-state land dispute appears frivolous and redundant. Our energies need to be expended in resolving more pressing problems like the Maoist insurgency and terrorism that warrant our single-minded attention.

I have relatives living happily on either side of the Karnataka-Maharashtra border without suffering discrimination of any sort. Some concerns, though overblown at times, do exist and should be tackled within the existing framework with give and take from both sides. The Constitution does make provision for difficulties faced by linguistic minorities. The Official Language Act, 1963 and 1981, states that 'areas where the linguistic minorities constitute 15 per cent or more of the local population arrangements have to be made to translate government circulars, orders, extracts and land records into the minority language'.

Further, small gestures would go a long way in bridging this divide. It would be small-minded of Kannadigas to deny Marathi speakers a Marathi byline on store hoardings. Likewise it is highly ungracious of Marathi medium schools to not celebrate Rajyotsava (celebration of Karnataka's statehood) being in Karnataka.

On a personal level, I celebrate my dual heritage that allows me to relish shrikand at a Maharashtra Mandal congregation and devour finger licking 'bisi bele bhaath' at a Kannada Koota meeting. My request to all politicians is: Please don't make me choose between the two or burden me with an identity crises when I have none. More important, please don't make a mountain of a molehill. Our nation has more important issues to address.

PS. The gentleman that I had confronted, tied the knot with the daughter of an "asal Karnataki' which in North Karnataka lingo means a quintessential Kannadiga, had a happy married life and nurtured two successful children -- all the while speaking Marathi and Kannada and living in Begaum, Karnataka. Examples like this are almost the norm in Belgaum.
Vivek Gumaste