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On caste and Kannada activism

On caste and Kannada activism



I want to examine the discourses that have emerged in the wake of Karnataka state government’s decision to establish a Sanskrit university on a 100-acre plot in Magadi close to Bengaluru at a cost of Rs. 320 crores.[i] While the decision to set up this campus was taken by BJP government headed by B.S. Yediyurappa in May 2011, a controversy erupted after chief minister Basavaraj Bommai laid the foundation stone for the campus in early January 2022, thereby officially greenlighting the project. The move has understandably polarized Kannadigas with many bemoaning the allocation of such a big amount to revitalize Sanskrit when Kannada suffers from want of governmental attention.

I want to start by acknowledging my caste location and other aspects that are significant to writing this piece. I am a Lingayat Shudra. My people are weavers and fall under 2A category of backward classes as notified by the Karnataka state government, and are also included under the OBC list of the central government. I was born and grew up in Bengaluru, which saw pitched conflicts over Kannada language and identity, including the Cauvery riots and the Urdu news riots that I personally witnessed as a teenager. My primary goal in writing this piece is to think through the anti-caste possibilities of Kannada identity, which has largely remained latent. To do this, I examine the widespread framing by many Kannadigas, Kannada organizations, and the media that the main issue with the establishment of the university is one of privileging a non-Kannada language, especially one as moribund as Sanskrit, over Kannada. The Twitter campaign of the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, which is a frontal Kannada organization leading this struggle, is a case in point. Using hashtags #ಸಂಸ್ಕೃತವಿವಿಬೇಡ and #SayNoToSanskrit, many Twitter users presented the impact of the establishment of the university as unfolding predominantly in the sphere of language.[ii] While the influence of brahmins in exerting their clout to have the university sanctioned is recognized by some, the ensuing critique is limited to understanding them as impelled by self-interest and financial gain.

The caste politics behind the establishment of the university is also subsumed into other critiques. For example, some argue that the setting up of the university is an instance of how federalism works on behalf of northern states and interests. Such critiques have sought to paint the state BJP leaders as doing the bidding of their New Delhi bosses without paying adequate attention to the needs of Kannadigas. While this argument is not false, it only reveals a partial picture and does not get to what I believe is the core issue of which autocratic federalism is one articulation—the hegemony of brahmin/ism[iii].

Departing from the aforementioned lines of thinking, I want to suggest that the primary threat of the university is not the displacement or sidelining of Kannada, per se, nor is it merely the evidence of an increasingly autocratic federal structure, even though these are important fallouts that cannot be ignored. Rather, I believe that the establishment of the institution should be read along with other developments that gesture to what I believe is the central project of the BJP government: the revival of brahmin/ism and the propagation of its institutions to shore up support for a brahmin/ical caste-centered way of life and politics. In this context, the university’s role needs to be understood as that of a state ideological apparatus (Althusser, 2014)which, along with other apparatuses and extra-institutional measures, will play a key role in rationalizing brahmin/ism as the organizing principle of Indian society. Specifically, it is a key step in rendering brahmin/ism respectable by reinforcing its aura of antiquity and by preempting critiques against it.

In making this critique, I want to also intervene into debates on Kannada identity and its relationship to caste. Even though a bulk of Kannada activists on the ground are drawn from Dalit-Bahujan groups, the role of caste in the construction of Kannada identity does not generate much debate outside of certain progressive Dalit-Bahujan circles. Put differently, who is a “Kannadiga” is often defined along caste-neutral lines,[iv] but presumes a Hindu caste-normative persona as embodying it.[v] Furthermore, upper-caste, particularly brahmin, thinkers have not only imagined Kannada identity within terms set by the Indian nation-state but also solidified this caste-blind but caste-inflected understanding over the years in ways that have prevented anti-caste articulations of Kannada identity from emerging.[vi] I hope that the current debate over the Sanskrit university can shed new light on how Kannada activism cannot ignore the caste question.


The Karnataka Samskrit University (KSU) was established in 2010 by the then BJP government headed by B.S. Yediyurappa. According to its website, the university, which is temporarily housed in the Chamarajendra Samskrita Graduation and Post Graduation Centre in Bengaluru, has 31 Sanskrit colleges and 243 aided Veda and Sanskrit pathashalas across the state under its jurisdiction. The university offers several certificate courses, diplomas, and undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in topics pertaining to priesthood and associated occupations such as astrology. It also offers a certificate course in manuscriptology, which is the only secular course that I could find.

KSU is a modern-day version of the agrahara appropriately retooled to evade any critique of its caste-exclusive nature. Passing itself as a modern institution of learning, its purpose seems to be to serve as a preserve for brahmins and coordinate “research” that can be used to reinvent Indian history—an urgent project for the current government. While the university remains theoretically open to non-brahmins, the course offerings have no relevance for the bulk of the Dalit-Bahujan population and religious minorities who, owing to their historical exclusion from learning Sanskrit, will be barred from the university by design.

At this point, there is also little hope that the university can assist in any sort of critical studies of Sanskritic sacerdotal literature. According to KSU Vice-Chancellor K.E. Devanathan, the university campus will comprise a Sanskrit heritage city, a school for astronomy, one for astrology, and another for grammar and computational linguistics.[vii] This way, the predominant focus of the university will be to train the next generation of brahmin priests and scholars in Sanskrit who will propagate the Vedas and Hindu Sanskritic literature and associated lifeways. Last, but not least, the establishment of the university also creates steady employment opportunities for priestly brahmins who find themselves financially denuded in a rapidly modernizing world.

Slight to Kannada or return of brahminism?

As I mentioned earlier, the establishment of KSU has been widely framed as a slight to Kannada by the media[viii] as well as by Kannada activists and organizations. This reading is not without grounds as the state government has shown rank indifference towards the Kannada University in Hampi—the only public research university dedicated to research on topics related to the language—which is languishing for want of funds. Vice-Chancellor of the university S.C. Ramesh told the media that a request for Rs. 24 crore is waiting government approval as a result of which not only has the institution not been able to release fellowships to students for three years but has also not admitted a single student during this time.[ix] Furthermore, there are rumors that the state government is considering closing down Akkamahadevi Women’s University—the only women’s university in Karnataka—named after the 12 Century poet philosopher and Basavanna’s contemporary, Akka Mahadevi.[x] Given these developments, it is not surprising that many have seen the allocation of Rs. 320 crores to a Sanskrit university as a travesty that exposes the government’s preference for Sanskrit over the language of the land.

Another reason fueling this anger is that when the BJP state government moved forward to make Kannada compulsory in higher education, four organizations—Samskrita Bharati, Mahavidyalaya Samskrita Pradhyapaka Sangha, Hayagriva Trust, and Vyoma Linguistics Labs Foundation—challenged the order in the Karnataka High Court. All of these organizations are seen as populated by brahmins and representing brahmin/ical interests. They argued that making the language compulsory would affect degree students who are not familiar with the language.[xi] As the opposition to the government order was seen as almost entirely led by brahmins, the establishment of KSU is seen as another blow dealt by the community to the cause of Kannada.

However, this point needs further examination. My argument is that as far as brahmins are concerned, Kannada and Sanskrit are both languages that have historically worked as domains to consolidate their hegemony. As such, brahmin relationship to Kannada is not entirely one of antagonism, even though there is also a history of resistance to brahmin hegemony by Kannada Dalit-Bahujan groups. While brahmin support for Sanskrit is undeniable, as no other community seems to be invested in its revival as much as them, there is no reason to believe that the community would exclusively promote Sanskrit at the cost of Kannada. Let me elaborate.

Janaki Nair (2005) notes that while English dominates in the commercial and business world in Bangalore, Hindi and Tamil have established themselves in the entertainment sphere (quoted in Rao, 2010). This leaves Kannada confined to the world of literature and domestic life, where it has some hold.  As such, a historical analysis of the place of brahmins within Kannada literature should bear out my point.

In November 1973, riots broke out all over the state after then Minister of Municipal Administration and Dalit intellectual,[xii] B. Basavalingappa, called Kannada literature “bhoosa sahitya” (cattle-feed) in an apparent reference to its lack of engagement with caste (Satyanarayana & Tharu, 2003). In what came to be subsequently known as the bhoosa agitation, Kannada activists drawn from upper-caste and non-Dalit groups attacked Dalit students supporting the minister, eventually leading to his resignation from the cabinet of Devaraj Urs. Basavalingappa had touched a raw nerve by stating an unacknowledged fact about Kannada literature: “All the literature in Kannada is in favor of upper castes, created by upper castes, for the upper castes only”(quoted in Epp, 1992, p. 149).

His assessment rings true if one surveys modern Kannada literature that emerged starting from the first half of the 20th century. Navodaya (renaissance) and Navya (modernism), which together reigned dominant from the early decades of the 20thcentury up until 1970s, did not take up caste as an analytic in any significant way. Most Navodaya writers were concerned with themes associated with romanticism. Navya (modernist phase), which followed Navodaya, also skipped the caste question, instead lamenting the failures of a postcolonial India for not keeping the promises made to its people (Nikhila, 2016). Pragatisheela (progressive literature), the transitional phase between the two movements that lasted from 1940 to 1950, was a brief period where works emerged in common people’s language that were concerned with everyday issues. But even here, capitalist exploitation and fighting imperialism eclipsed any sustained engagement with caste as the foundation of Indian society.

Despite the marked differences in aesthetics in these three phases, all of them had one thing in common: they were dominated by upper castes, especially brahmins. Navodaya saw writers such as D.R. Bendre, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Shivaram Karanth, D.V. Gundappa, Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar, V.K. Gokak, Pu. Ti. Narasimhachar, and K.V. Puttappa (also known as Kuvempu)—all brahmins except Kuvempu from the Vokkaliga community who went on to become the most famous Kannada writer and first Kannada  Jnanpith award winner. The women writers of this period such as Thirumalamba, M.K. Indira, and Triveni are also from the upper castes. Well known Pragatisheela writers include A.N. Krishna Rao (known as AaNaKru), T.S. Subba Rao (known as TaRaSu),and Basavaraj Kattimani. The leading figure of Navya was Gopalakrishna Adiga, an Udupi brahmin writer, who is widely seen as the father of the movement. Other popular writers included G.S. Shivarudrappa and P. Lankesh (Lingayats), U.R. Ananthamurthy and Girish Karnad (brahmins), Chandrashekar Kambar (Vishwakarma[xiii]), and K.S. Nissar Ahmed (Muslim with unknown caste location). While this phase made way for more non-brahmin voices to emerge, Kannada literature still remained the preserve of dominant castes with very few exceptions.

My point is that even though many of them have made notable contributions to Kannada literature and some even took up themes that pertained to Dalits, OBCs, and poor people, the near dominance of upper-caste writers, especially brahmins, over modern Kannada literature through most of its existence cannot be ignored.[xiv] This hegemony was to have long-ranging effects, not just on the thematics that preoccupy Kannada writers, but also on Kannada identity in ways that has rendered caste as an absence-presence in struggles over language and identity.

It was the aforementioned bhoosa controversy that forced Kannada literature to reckon with caste-based exclusion. In doing so, it changed the contours of Kannada literature as a cohort of radical Dalit writers burst onto the scene. Prof. B. Krishnappa, Devanooru Mahadeva, Siddalingaiah, K.B. Siddappa, D.R. Nagaraj, Indudara Honnapur, and many others, who were closely involved in the bhoosa agitation and with the subsequent founding of the Karnataka Dalita Sangharsha Samiti, went on to become prominent writers. This caused a seismic shift in the Kannada literary world by introducing new themes and concerns to an otherwise upper caste-dominated literary milieu. The growing voices of Dalits consolidated into what is today known as Dalita sahitya or Dalit literature in Kannada. Caste/ism, which had been hitherto un/consciously elided in Kannada literature, took centerstage. As Satyanarayana and Tharu (2003) note,

Rather than bargain for space in the brahmanical, Sanskritic and self-consciously national mode of elite Kannada culture, these activists created their own space. Kannada culture, they said, belonged to them as much as it did to anyone else…

It was this growing Dalit movement that laid the foundation for what would eventually be known as the Bandaya (rebellion) phase of Kannada literature. Dalit writers came together with Left progressive writers and anti-Congress groups to launch the Bandaya Sahitya Cheluvali, which inaugurated the Leftist turn in Kannada literature by fostering a coalition between Dalit and non-Dalit writers and movements committed to social justice that took up the caste/class nexus as a central thematic. D.R. Nagaraj, Siddalingaiah, Baraguru Ramachandrappa, Shudra Srinivas, Poornachandra Tejaswi, and others were the central figures of this broad-based coalition. While there were frictions among writers with regard to the centrality of caste vs. class, among other modes of social stratification, the movement’s utility lay in opening up debates around these issues that would have a formidable impact on Kannada literature.

I have traced this history to demonstrate both the caste composition of the Kannada literary world as well as its thematic preoccupations. Although the Dalita-Bandaya phase has irrevocably transformed Kannada literature in a manner that the latter cannot any longer remain caste innocent, brahmin hegemony that has its roots in the pre-Dalita-Bandaya phase has also continued to exert a strong influence. This can be gauged by the fact that six out of eight Kannada litterateurs who have received the  Jnanpith award (considered the highest honor a writer in Indian vernacular languages can receive) are brahmins. Furthermore, literature produced by upper-caste authors is considered as embodying a universal Kannada sensibility and dominates Kannada curriculum at different levels. This and other forms of institutional support fosters brahman/ical hold on Kannada literature by rendering caste/ism as a provincial issue.

Lastly, a look at contemporary Kannada writers also bears out this point. While second-generation Dalit Kannada writers such as Do. Saraswati, B.T. Jahnavi, Mogalli Ganesh, and others have kept the legacy of anti-casteism alive along with their predecessors such as Devanooru Mahadeva, it is Vivek Shanbag, Jayant Kaikini, or Vasudhendra (Kannada’s first queer writer) who have become the more readily recognizable faces of Kannada literature. While the latter occupy different ideological positions, the continued hegemony of brahmins nonetheless needs serious inquiry.

Given this history, I want to problematize the idea that the institutional support of the state government to Sanskrit can be understood as favoring one language over the other. If the powers-that-be are attuned to protecting the interests of the brahmin/ical order and if brahmins see Kannada as a domain that enlarges rather than constricts their power, then we need to expand our analysis beyond seeing the setting up of the Sanskrit university as an issue that can be solely understood as that of language domination. There is more at stake here.

Another explanation

In my assessment, the revival of Sanskrit learning through the university is intended to strengthen a key brahmin/ical domain rather than sideline Kannada, although the grossly unequal allocation of funds will not be without effects. Specifically, the establishment of the university under the BJP government in 2010, the allocation of 100 acres of land in an eco-sensitive zone for the campus in 2011, and the greenlighting of the project in 2022, all under the same party, should be seen as part of a larger plan to revitalize brahmin/ism and its associated institutions, especially the varna system, which is the central project of the BJP.

This will become clearer if we contextualize the setting up of the university with other projects initiated and supported by the current administration. The saffron party has massively increased the allocation for the Karnataka State Brahmin Development Board, which was first mooted by the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government with a seed allocation of Rs. 25 crores.[xv] This has helped in no small measure to fund regressive schemes such as Maitreyi under which financial bonds of Rs. 3 lakhs are issued to brahmin women who marry “poor” brahmin men who work as priests and cooks.[xvi] The bonds can be cashed if the couple stay married for three years. Second, the government has proposed to free 34,559 Hindu temples from the control of the Muzrai Department, which would not only put revenue-generating temples with control over thousands of acres of land into private hands, but also pave the way for the intensification of caste-based practices of purity and pollution within and around temples (Nair, 2022).These, along with the establishment of the university, are but a few examples that speak to state support for the revival of brahmin/ism.

What I am suggesting here is that the BJP’s ascent to power should be understood as the counterrevolution that Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar charts in his work, Revolution and counterrevolution in ancient India (1987). If Pushyamitra Shunga’s assassination of the Mauryan king, Brihadratha, allowed brahmin/ism access to state power and paved the way for the campaign that whittled down but never completely erased Buddhism, the electoral victory of the BJP, first in 2014 and again in 2019, can be understood as constituting a similar process that seeks to revive brahmin/ism.

Even though the past 75 years have been uneven in terms of the progress achieved by caste-oppressed groups, the period saw Dalit-Bahujan and their issues come to the fore in a way that has not been witnessed in the past 2000 years. The electoral victory of BJP in 2014 has allowed brahmin/ism to capture state power and embark on a counterrevolution to remake society in compliance with the varna system through a combination of caste-based inducements to different savarna caste groups, the demonization and disenfranchisement of Muslims, and rapid privatization of state assets that exacerbate social tensions. The effects of these policies are particularly acute in states such as Karnataka where the party is also in power at the state level. It is against this ideological and historical context that the setting up and expansion of the Sanskrit university needs to be understood. Reading this development solely in the register of language only reveals the tip of the iceberg.

Kannada and caste

I want to end with some preliminary thoughts on what all of this means in terms of how we understand Kannada identity and whether it can become the grounds for elaborating a politics that can resist the onslaught of Hinduism’s most recent avatar–Hindu/tva—which is but a ploy to revive brahmin/ism. As I have tried to show, Kannada identity has been constructed wholly within the terms set by the Indian nation-state and in a manner that is caste neutral, which makes it a conducive ground to establish brahmin/ical hegemony and, by extension, Hindu/tva. As Rao (2010) argues, Kannada activism departed from the Tamil Nadu model that made Tamil the common cause around which different subaltern groups could be mobilized (also see Pandian, 2007). Instead, it has mirrored Maharashtra where linguistic pride and Hindu/tva have become interwoven. While there is some awareness about caste dynamics among Kannada activists, in my personal assessment, there is little reason to believe that this will lead to a sustained analysis of caste as foundational to understanding linguistic identity and politics. I hope I am proven wrong.

The only solution to this conundrum is to center caste in any discussion regarding Kannada. Who is a Kannadiga and what is Kannada identity cannot be treated outside of the question of caste inequality, as has been the case within mainstream Kannada activism. This would also mean elevating Kannadiga Dalits and those from marginalized OBC groups to leadership positions within Kannada organizations, which would facilitate the work of reimagining Kannada identity from an anti-casteist lens. Slogans such as “Kannada vejati, Kannadave devaru, Kannadave dharma” (Kannada is our caste, our god, and our religion) do not take away from the fact that caste divisions are the lived reality of Dalit-Bahujan people’s lives. They remain purely aspirational at best and skew social realities at worst. What is needed instead is a caste-centered approach that turns Kannada into a platform to rally different subaltern groups.

I see two examples—one from the pre-modern and another from the post-independence period—that demonstrate how to undertake such a project. I have already alluded to the latter. The Karnataka Dalita Sangharsha Samiti grew out of gatherings of Dalit artistes, intellectuals, and writers who made Kannada literature their canvas to elaborate Dalit worlds and struggles. The literary gathering soon grew into a political movement that made connections with other progressive and oppressed groups by using Kannada as the common factor to create a common platform (the Dalita Sahitya phase giving rise to Bandaya) while keeping the caste question very much in the forefront. Even though the DSS has lost a lot of its former vigor, it has continued to be a potent force as it intervenes into questions pertaining to Kannada as well as caste/ism.

The 12th century Sharana movement also braided Kannada and caste exclusion to challenge brahmin/ical hegemony. Followers from marginalized as well as privileged castes assembled around figures such as Basavanna, Akka Mahadevi, Allama Prabhu, and others to establish what has since become seared into the Kannada imagination as one of the first experiments to build a caste-free and gender-equal society. The importance of this movement lay in its attack against brahmin/ism in multiple registers. While Sharanas rejected the caste system by practicing commensality and inter-caste marriage, the use of Kannada to produce vachanas or pithy sayings marked another important effort in the register of language. By doing so, not only did they reject Sanskrit but lodged a concerted attack against the caste system in the language of the people. The movement led to an outpouring of literary works from caste-oppressed people and women. Both these movements hold within themselves alternative imaginings of Kannada identity that center anti-casteism. But embracing them would involve centering caste-based exclusion as foundational to any articulation of Kannada identity.



[i]Different numbers circulate about the funds allocated for the Sanskrit university. However, most media reports have put the number at Rs. 320 crore. See

[ii] See

[iii] My use of brahmin/ism borrows from Kuffir Da’s prescient caution asking us not to take the brahmin out of brahminism and to reduce into an abstract ideological category. See Naren Bedide (2018), The Brahmin keeps India in the 18th Century, see:

[iv] The slogan of Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (KaRaVe), perhaps the most popular pro-Kannada organization, is Kannadave Jati, Kannadave Devaru, Kannadave Dharma (Kannada is our caste, our god, our religion).

[v] The 1994 anti-Urdu riots as well as the resistance to embrace Tipu Sultan as a king who made significant contributions to the development of Karnataka, mostly because of his Muslim identity, speaks to this phenomenon.

[vi]Apart from its caste normative foundations, Kannada identity has also been imagined within the terms set by the Hindu-Indian nation-state. Jaya Bharata Jananiya Tanujaate, the official state song of Karnataka composed by Kuvempu, presents Karnataka maate or Mother Karnataka as the bosom daughter of Bharata maate or Mother India. In addition, Karnataka maate is also widely represented as goddess Bhuvaneshwari. Lastly, secular explanations notwithstanding, the yellow-red state flag widely evokes turmeric and vermillion considered auspicious by Hindus. These are just a few examples that elucidate the containment of Kannada identity in religio-nationalistic terms.

[vii] See

[viii] For a good example of media commentary on the issue, see

[ix] See

[x] Former Water Resources Minister and member of the Congress party, M.B. Patil, tweeted on Jan. 22, 2022, that he has received information that the current government is contemplating closing down the Akka Mahadevi University. See

[xi] See

[xii] Basavalingappa is rarely addressed as a Dalit intellectual. But his prescient observation about Kannada literature and the seismic shifts it caused in Karnataka in bringing forth the voice of caste-oppressed people, especially Dalits, can only have come from a Dalit intellectual.

[xiii] See

[xiv] For a representative example of the limitations of work by brahmin Kannada writers who critique caste, see (Manavalli, 2012)

[xv] I have not been able to find the exact financial allocation for the board. However, the board president, H.S. Sachidananda Murthy’s plan to request Rs. 300 crores in 2020 should give us some idea. See




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Redant was born and raised in Bengaluru and currently works in the U.S. His interest broadly revolves around questions pertaining to Kannada identity construction and caste/ism with a specific focus on the intersections between Dalit and Lingayat worlds. He discovered Babasaheb and Basavanna belatedly, but he is glad that they are in his life as they have changed how he understands the world. He hopes to do whatever he can to contribute to the fight against caste/ism even as he learns more about its pervasiveness every day.

Picture courtesy: the internet.