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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 40 New Delhi September 24, 2016

Scene of Linguistic Chauvinism

Saturday 24 September 2016, by Kuldip Nayar

The horrors of partition came to my mind when I saw television beaming pictures of rioting and killing in Bengaluru. It was the same way I felt when partition took place and we, the people living in the newly-constituted state of Pakistan, had to leave our home and hearth to migrate to India.

I never imagined that a cosmopolitan city like Bengaluru could be the scene of linguistic chauvinism, which would go to the extent of killing Tamils by Kannadas. Leading IT firms preferred to open their offices because they considered the city liberal and peaceful. If someone had asked me at that time that such a scene could be repeated at a place like Bengaluru, I would have said: No and never.

Yet this has happened because the people known to be liberal were swept off their feet over appeals in the name of parochialism. Fortunately, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa’s determination not to allow similar incidents happening in the State prevented any reprisals. She rightly deserves the kudos for handling the problem before it could assume a proportion leading to indiscriminate violence.

There is a long-standing dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu on sharing of the Cauvery waters. This is not the first time that Karnataka has refused to abide by the Supreme Court verdict on the amount of water to be released to Tamil Nadu. Earlier, whenever such a situation had arisen, the people of both States had been at each other’s throat. So, what is happening in Bengaluru today is a mere repetition.

But what is the way out? Nobody can challenge the Supreme Court’s decision, but the problem can be solved by sitting across the table and arrive at a solution, particularly when people’s emotions are involved. Since the river water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is a sensitive issue, I recall former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s idea of evolving a consensus to handle the issue.

Knowledgeable circles have been warning the nation against the dangerous consequences of letting the river waters dispute linger on. Karnataka’s unilateral decision to abrogate all the inter-State river water agreements has created a situation, the like of which the nation has not experienced. And to cap it all, all Chief Ministers of the States have been indulging in a slanging match, which does not go well with the idea of a federal structure which the Indian Constitution demands.

Needless to say, it is difficult to find a consensus on the sharing of river waters than on any other subject. The protracted war of nerves between the two States on the sharing of Cauvery waters is a case in point. Consensus can be evolved only when political parties rise above their parochial interests to use their vision to make water into a factor that unites our country. They need to have the necessary will to achieve this noble goal. It is not impossible to find a formula protecting the interests of both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

I had always thought our real problem was population. I did mention this to an American Nobel Prize winner who contradicted me and said: “Your problem is going to be water.” We were discussing the ordeals that India would face in the years to come. Our views did not tally even after a long discussion. What happened at Latur in Maharashtra some time ago has renewed the American’s warning to me. He had also given me an optimistic side: There is an ocean of water under the Yamuna-Gangetic plane waiting to be tapped. I wonder if this is true. Had it been so, the government would have done a scientific study by this time to estimate the collected water. I have not heard of any such plan so far.

India has seven major rivers—the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus, Narmada, Krishna, Goda-vari and Cauvery—and numerous tributaries. New Delhi has set up the Central Water and Power Commission to have a systematic plan to harness not only water but also generate power. This has worked to a large extent but in certain parts of India the fallout has been a series of disputes which even after decades remain unsolved. Nearer home, Haryana, then part of Punjab, has refused to release water to Rajasthan and Delhi. This goes contrary to the stand New Delhi had taken when the Indus Water Treaty was signed. At that time we argued that we wanted more water because we had to irrigate Rajasthan, which has a large part of desert.

Unfortunately, several incongruities are responsible for inter-State water disputes. Even after 70 years of independence, the disputes are far from settled. When the Congress ruled both at the Centre and in the States, the problems never assumed an ugly shape. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which then only commanded a few Lok Sabha members, did not count much. It is a different scenario today. Now that it has a majority in Parliament, the party sees to it that the States run by it get the maximum benefit, rules or no rules.

However, the situation is different in the South. Both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are ruled by parties other than the BJP. New Delhi should have stepped in long ago. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who claims to have united different parts of the country into one unit, looks distant from the problem that Karnataka and Tamil Nadu face. His statements have been general. What is needed is tackling of the country’s problem arising out of language, border or water.

Hindus and Muslims, who were living together for hundreds of years, became strangers soon after partition and had no compunction even in raping women. They were facing on a large scale the situation which Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are encountering on a small scale today. Sometimes I shudder that the disputes among the States may take the shape of some kind of partition. When friends and neighbours could suddenly become strangers because they pursued a different religion, what the Kannadas did on the streets of Bengaluru could well be a page from the history of partition.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com