A version of this article appeared on the Huffington Post here.
The Cauvery issue these days is no more about how much water is shared between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu than it is about who owns more oxygen. It is identity politics, pure and simple. There is as much thought put into the particulars of the Supreme Court verdict than there is on what the judges were wearing at the time of the judgement: whether they wore hot shorts and tank tops has about as much to do with the reaction of some people in Bangalore as the fairness of their judgement.
From being about how much water each state’s farmers have, this issue, hijacked by the cultural fascist so called ‘Pro-Kannada’ organisations (as if everyone else is anti-Kannada), has become one of identity: it has become us vs. them, Karnataka vs. Tamil Nadu, all-the-water vs. no-water.
Identity politics, that ancient trigger of every bad facet of human behaviour is once again at work in this city and one of the problems with identity politics is, if you’re against the politics (‘We will give blood, but we will not give Cauvery water’ - sums it up nicely) then you are against the identity itself.
How much do you think the people burning busses know about the availability of water for farmers in Tamil Nadu, or whether Bangalore can manage if some water is released down-river? The answer is very little. These hooligans and goons aren't all hooligans and goons: some are just regular, ordinary people who have become hostage to the emotional, irrational and violent identity politics of the people who have taken ownership of this issue - ‘Pro-Kannada’ organizations. And no, the entire city doesn't shut down in solidarity with these violent goons; it shuts down in fear of violence.
What this has done to this debate is change it from a debate, from a judicial tussle, from a case of facts and investigation, to a state of absolutes. ‘We will give nothing,’ they say, ‘because this has to do with our identity as Kannadigas. If you’re in favour of sharing water, you’re against Karnataka itself.’
They don’t really say that. What they actually do is burn busses and vandalise shops. But this is what they mean: if you even think this is worthy of debate you’re against the Kannada identity, and somehow, as with all cases of identity, it is commonly taken for granted that the next step is violence.
It is difficult to come to any other conclusion other than that a large number of people in this state think violence is a legitimate way to deal with this problem in particular. Otherwise, there would be much greater outrage at these alarmingly frequent episodes, and these violent actors would not be behaving with such impunity time and time again.
This is no conspiracy theory: ask yourself, if the situation has become so predictable, why does it keep happening again and again? Is there political weight behind these violent criminals? Of course there is, because politics in India unfortunately is fundamentally identity driven and it is no different in Karnataka. Perhaps there are people in the police too who think the burning of busses that happen to have different letters on their license plate is a good idea, but even if there aren’t, and the entire police force is made up of rational and unemotional professionals, what can they do against the might of the entire Kannada identity? (To quote one senior police officer who told Huffington Post: "The party in power in Karnataka — irrespective of who it is — is apprehensive about taking them on because they fear it will be perceived as anti-Kannada. So, no clear cut orders are given and the police keep waiting,”)
What can we do? The first thing, is for good, calm and rational citizens to take ownership of the Cauvery water issue back from the bullies and hooligans who currently run it. That means, if you do think the Supreme Court is wrong, protest peacefully, using facts. If you think the court is right, or if you think the case remains to be won by one side or the other, speak up against the people who try to make it about identity and emotion. Second, resist from calling these people ‘activists’: they are no more activists than the people who kill others for eating beef, or being gay. Holding a city to ransom over the threat of violence is not activism: it is bullying and terrorism. Call it that, and you begin to delegitimise their politics, and destroy their credibility.
At the end of the day, once the fires are put out and the goons are in jail, it is the state of Karnataka and ordinary hard-working folk who suffer the most. It is ironic, because these groups who are self-declared ‘Pro-Karnataka’ are the ones who hurt their state by making it unsafe and unstable.