Let’s talk about the UP-fication of Karnataka

A state that till yesterday prided itself for being India’s most global corner is poised on the edge of an eruption of tribalism.

Published: 25th February 2022 12:25 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th February 2022 12:25 AM   |  A+A-

Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

Like medieval Tatar hordes overrunning some new part of the Steppes, war in distant Ukraine has taken over our mindspace out of the blue. As if we didn’t have enough complicated things to fret about, now we have to cope with a changing world order and less abstract concerns like oil prices—not to speak of our domestic (and domesticated) foreign policy savants tiptoeing carefully around the elephant in the room, India’s strategic muddle. At least for a long fortnight, we will occupy this news interregnum, almost finding solace in the fact that the mess is elsewhere. Till March 10 brings us back to the war in our midst.

With no prejudice whatsoever towards Goa, Manipur, Uttarakhand or Punjab—all of whom are marking important milestones in the evolution of their political histories—we can safely bet that Uttar Pradesh will be the main course on TV that night. It is the one state where election results can change the very future that India will be reaching for. But perhaps there is one fundamental debate that has already been settled by the voters of UP, and it happened even before voting started.

To grasp what that could be, think of a scenario—not a hypothetical scenario really, but one that has been realised in flesh and blood so many times that we have lost count. Its elements are familiar to us all. A provocative speech or two, perhaps being replayed on loop, a real or symbolic act of hatred, an animal carcass thrown strategically near a place of worship, slogan-shouting mobs, mobile squads of youth skilled or semi-skilled in the specialised arts of stone warfare and arson, a partisan police, curfew, unnamed bodies wrapped in the next morning’s newspaper headlines.

Yes, we are talking about that strange undertaking called the Indian riot, which occupies an indeterminate space between spontaneous and choreographed. Meerut. Badaun. Colonelganj. Ayodhya. Aligarh. Muzaffarnagar. Gonda. Khurja. Saharanpur. The number of times Uttar Pradesh has hosted that familiar sequence of events is something for future chroniclers to tabulate. And the election rhetoric this time, as also the last few times, has been redolent in that imagery.

But notice something conspicuous? Not a leaf has stirred in the cane fields of the Doab, the kasbas of Rohilkhand or the alleys of Banaras. Yes, the mandate will rest on wafer-thin vote swings, and it’s a wide open game. But as we said, Uttar Pradesh has already voted on at least one fundamental thing. It has shown remarkable resilience against all attempts to create a Hindu-Muslim binary.

Wherever you look, whichever street that roving TV microphones pick up ambient sounds from, the vox populi is loud and clear: UP is interested in livelihood issues. Education, jobs, pensions, farm incomes, stray cattle, what have you. Whoever wins the Assembly polls, the people of UP seem to have already won a battle. The mood was set in western UP—most prone to communal strife in recent years—where Jats and Muslims came together in protest against three farm laws. As of now, the people have managed to set the agenda, not the political parties.

Instead, where do you hear of communal tension, if not in poll-bound UP? Why, Karnataka, of all places. First, the sleepy coastal town of Udupi came close to exploding, then the whole state followed suit, as if a chain of deadly firecrackers had been placed all along the Ghats and the Deccan plateau, and finally it fell upon Shivamogga to hit the headlines with the murder of a young Bajrang Dal activist, and a near-riot. Peace, defined negatively as the absence of actual street wars, is now enforced by the jackboots of paramilitary forces.

It is almost as if Karnataka has been UP-fied, while UP itself looks to a different future. No great ethical turn brought this about. Uttar Pradesh has perhaps seen enough, and had enough—it has crossed saturation point. In a way, the north’s body politic, infected so often by communalism, has developed some immunity. And the virus, in search of more vulnerable hosts, has migrated south.

Thus it comes to be that a state that till yesterday prided itself for being India’s most global corner—with ‘Bangalored’ even entering the global lexicon as a signpost of the new economy—is poised on the edge of an eruption of tribalism. Its new symbols, a slogan-shouting, burqa-clad Muskan and a dead Harsha, are both children of Karnataka. Barring a few girls who walked hand-in-hand with their hijab-clad classmates, in a heartening sight that went viral, the state’s PU students could not unite like the farmers of Uttar Pradesh did. It’s a Karnataka very different from what its great minds may have visualised in the last century.

March will bring a verdict on both Udupi’s hijab row, on which the arguments in the High Court were concluded, and the contest in UP. Both will have constitutional and political ramifications beyond their territories. UP, by virtue of its sheer size, will still decide the course of party politics in India. But the deeper political consequences may flow from the decision on how uniform we are going to be. Karnataka, the IT pioneer, is now a political startup. Let’s just hope that when a western traveller says in the future that there was a state in southern India where he saw very many unicorns, the world doesn’t think he was making up a fanciful myth.

Resident Editor, Karnataka, The New Indian Express

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