If languages were allotted characters as per their position in socio-political discourse, then Hindi has often assumed the role of a villain in south India. Ever since states were carved on linguistic lines, the southern states, especially Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, grew watchful of the linguistic pedestal that Hindi occupied in India and its potential danger to the regional languages and cultures of the south. The decades-old issue of the imposition of Hindi has assumed prominence lately due to a slew of recent developments—for instance, in June this year, the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions announced that the central government would promote the usage of Hindi in government offices in southern India and the Northeast. This time, it is Karnataka, not Tamil Nadu, which is leading the opposition to it.
In June, pro-Kannada activists in Bengaluru began a social-media campaign demanding the removal of Hindi signage and announcements from the city’s metro stations. Over the subsequent weeks, the campaign gathered steam on the internet under the hashtag “#NammaMetroHindiBeda”—We Don’t Want Hindi in Our Metro. In the first week of July, the activists defaced the Hindi writing at metro stations. That month, the Kannada Development Authority (KDA)—a state government body mandated to promote Kannada—joined the protests demanding the removal of Hindi signage. In addition, the KDA demanded that the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL), a joint venture of the state and central government, only appoint only employees who speak Kannada. Towards the end of the month, the state government relented and wrote to Narendra Singh Tomar, the union urban development minister, seeking the removal of Hindi signage from the metro. In the first week of August, the BMRCL began removing Hindi names from the metro’s signboards.
Since then, the campaign has shaped up to become a larger movement that raises strong demands, such as the adoption of a two-language system—Kannada and English—in the state’s administrative, educational and public institutions. Following the furore, madrasas of seven districts in the state switched the medium of instruction to Kannada. In early August, SG Siddaramaiah, the KDA chairperson and a namesake of the state’s chief minister, issued an ultimatum to non-Kannadiga government officials: learn the local language within six months or leave the state.
Reeling under anti-incumbency pressure and facing a buoyant Bharatiya Janata Party that waits to wrestle power in the 2018 assembly elections, the state’s Congress government, led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, appears to have decided to play the language card to their advantage. “We have to not only love and respect others, but also send out a very strong message that we [Kannadigas] will not tolerate any attack on our language, land and water, if others try to do so,” the chief minister said in a video released by his office in July. As the movement expanded, there appeared to be a sub-nationalism in the making in Karnataka, which likely developed as a counter narrative to the BJP’s high-pitched nationalism. However, this pro-Kannada rhetoric lacks the perspective of the numerous linguistic minorities that reside in the state.
Post Independence, while majority linguistic groups in south India, such as the Malayalam and Telugu speakers, were successful in carving out states, the demarcation left many minority linguistic groups scattered across these regions. When it comes to multilingual populations, Karnataka is one of the richest states in the country. According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI)—a nation-wide linguistic survey conducted between 2010 and 2012 by a non-governmental organisation called the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre—over 50 languages are spoken in Karnataka The Constitution officially recognises only 22 Indian languages in its Eighth Schedule, but none of Karnataka's minority languages, which include Tulu, Kodava, Konkani, Dakkhani, Banjara, Sanketi and Beary, and others are included in that list. The report also identifies ten of Karnataka’s languages as endangered.