Cauvery water dispute: Vatal Nagaraj has been spearhead of Kannada activism, but his legacy is a joke

Let’s talk about why I love Tamil and Tamil Nadu for a bit.

As a Kannadiga in Bangalore, it may seem like a risky thing to do today, given all the protests over sharing Cauvery with Tamil Nadu. But hear me out. Every Tamilian has a strong sense of identity. There is a love for the language and their culture, but this is not coming at the cost of having to hate some other language. Yes, they protest when the central government tries to shove Hindi down their throats, but those protests are driven more by a need to keep Tamil Nadu, Tamil and not out of any hate for Hindi.

Just see how in the past few years, it has become very common among young people there to jokingly add "ji" to various names. Their movies have better production values, the popularity of their stars is genuine, and heck, they even make better memes out there on the Internet than any other language group. Chennai is a lot like Bangalore (except the weather, of course), in that it has always been cosmopolitan with large groups of people whose primary language is something else. Yet, Tamil has primacy there, and in a manner that is unobtrusive. And if there is one set of politicians, who have consistently and correctly reminded the central government that they cannot make one-size-fits-all rules for the country, it is all the Tamil Nadu leaders.

If one thinks of Tamil activism, one thinks of various causes — social, cultural, linguistic, and one thinks of various leaders with well-pronounced stances on their pet cause. There isn’t any single figurehead, except may be Rajinikanth. (My tongue is firmly in my cheek.)

Vatal Nagaraj has been at the forefront of Kannada activism for over three decades now. Courtesy: YouTube

On the other hand, when you think of Kannada activism, it is very likely that the first image that gets summoned is that of Vatal Nagaraj. With his hat that looks like someone upended a pot on him, cooling glasses, and a toothy smile, he is a caricaturist’s dream. And his actions, or protests, usually are a newsroom producer’s dream. From taking buffaloes to the bus stand, to urinating on the Raj Bhavan’s wall, Vatal definitely knows how to make himself newsworthy.

Vatal Nagaraj has been at the forefront of Kannada activism for over three decades now. But unfortunately, his lasting legacy seems to be some sort of a joke. To quote Rakshith Ponnathpur, someone who is quite vocal about the Kannada cause on social media, "If you are someone who is outspoken about saving Karnataka's interests, your friends and family often taunt you with 'next Vatal Nagaraj neene, haha' in a condescending tone. People have a perception that Kannada activism involves zero seriousness and is a joke which jobless people undertake."

The other big problem is his choice of issues to protest against. Take for instance his protest against Kabali’s release where he went around burning Rajinikanth posters. Outside of the fact that it is sure to attract media attention, there is nothing useful that could have come out of the protest. Given that Kabali in Bangalore was distributed by his friends in the movie industry, it may even have been a PR move for the movie itself, calling attention to its wide release in Bangalore.

Instead, a worthier cause would have been to protest against the cartel that has for years banned dubbing into Kannada, giving specious reasons about how it hurts the Kannada film industry. It is not like there is a shortage of Kannada-interest causes that need attention drawn to it. The use of only English and Hindi in ATMs, for example. Or how a lot of TV channels, like Discovery and National Geographic, have offerings in Tamil and Hindi but not in Kannada. Cartoons even. Vatal Nagaraj’s choice of things to protest against consistently smacks of the trivial and the absurd.

The Cauvery issue is not a trivial or absurd one, of course. However, the bent of activism instead of being about the farmers affected, or the city’s water supply getting affected, is instead centered on the easier straw man of hating Tamilians. Throw stones at businesses run by Tamilians, set fire to vehicles with a TN registration and so on. Where nuance was necessary, all we got from the Vatal camp was nuisance. The Kalasa-Banduri protests on the other hand were messaged much better, going purely by the placards people protesting were holding.

Also, claims of Vatal Nagaraj being a "mass leader" ring a little hollow. Unlike the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike led by Narayana Gowda, or Jaya Karnataka led by former gangster Muttappa Rai, Vatal does not command any cadre. What he does command is a ragtag bunch of "aatakkunTu lekkakilla" (loosely translates to "they exist but they do not count") organisations, some hundreds of them, which muster a crowd of around 2,000 (the current going rate is apparently Rs 500 plus a packet of chicken biryani) when needed.


Representational image. PTI

Vatal’s modus operandi has become predictable. Call for a bandh, get media coverage, devise an appropriate gimmick on the day of the protest (on Friday, it was wearing all-black by the looks of it), get even more media coverage, and call it a day. I listened to his speech on Friday, given that Udaya News was covering it live. It was long, yet he said nothing. It was a bunch of punch dialogues strung together — cut me open, and it is Cauvery water and not blood that flows in me, and so on. It had absolutely no substance. Yet, it got media coverage, possibly at the cost of other more meaningful protests happening elsewhere.

So what is the alternative to Vatal Nagaraj. Karnataka Rakshana Vedike seems like the obvious choice, but outside of their core base, they seem to have an unfortunate image problem. There is Jaya Karnataka, but they have a Muttappa Rai problem. Not too many people will be inclined to believe that the party would serve anything more than Rai’s own commercial interests. Bengaluru underworld is essentially a real estate business, and it will be hard for Rai to shake off his past, both with the gun and with the land deals.

I got talking to Vasanth Shetty, someone who has been involved with various pro-Kannada causes for many years now, and the author of the book Karnatakavonde, primarily to get some perspective on what the history of Kannada activism was, what has worked and what has not. One thing is clear, the only protests that have worked are the ones where the activists have had a clear long-term view of what they wanted to achieve, and targeted their efforts towards those in a position to bring about the necessary changes. This was true of the railway board exams, where all of Karnataka’s recruitment was dominated by people from Bihar. This was true of getting the courts to declare that dubbing into Kannada was perfectly legal.

And Vatal’s bandh-a-day model does not work. Shetty believes that the best way forward would be for a Kannada activist group to enter mainstream politics. "Karnataka Rakshana Vedike is best poised for this, but it does not have to be them. What we need is someone who can understand and represent the cause of Kannada beyond tokenism." He talked of Belgaum where once Kannada newspapers had to be smuggled hidden inside Marathi ones, how people worked towards the goal of getting a Kannada mayor elected. As a move to make a real impact, this probably has gone a longer way than having a Vidhana Soudha replica there.

Rakshith too agrees. "What we need are activists who are constructive, and have enough insight to identify what is causing the problem, and able enough to come up with solutions for those. I doubt if Vatal has ever done anything constructive."

A quick check on Twitter too shows that this is the general zeitgeist among Kannadigas. Yes, we have issues important to us. Yes, Cauvery river sharing too is one of them. But no, we have had enough of Vatal.

I think it is time for the man to finally lay down his hat, remove those glasses, and let someone else take charge.

Updated Date: Sep 12, 2016 13:48 PM

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