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    South Asia
     Apr 2, 2008

Local pride buffets Bangalore business
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - This city's cosmopolitan culture is coming under pressure in the wake of growing militancy of outfits claiming to represent the interests of the local Kannadiga population. This militancy was on display a month ago when activists of the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (KRV - Karnataka Protection Forum) stormed offices of a multinational company to protest alleged ridicule of Kannada culture by an employee of the company.

It appears that a Canadian employee of Sasken Communication Technologies Ltd, an IT solutions company that employs around 3,500 people, wrote a poem - what he described as "an anthem for Karnataka" - poking fun at local Kannadigas and ridiculing Kannada pride. According to reports, he had emailed the poem to others in the office and had been singing this "anthem" to harass a Kannadiga woman employee. He was apparently joined in the singing every morning by other non-Kannadiga employees.


A video clip of the jeering made its way to a local television channel, which telecast it.

Within hours of the telecast, enraged activists of the KRV were picketing Sasken's offices in Bangalore. They threw stones and destroyed the company's key server room.

"The attack was necessary to remind Sasken that they are operating in Karnataka and should respect our pride and the women in this land," KRV president Narayana Gowda said. The KRV is a pro-Kannada organization, which claims to represent the interests of the local Kannadiga population. Less than a decade old, it says it has more than 10,000 units and about 2 million volunteers across Karnataka.

Sasken responded quickly by sacking the employee. In a bid to make peace with the Kannada activists, it said in a statement that it "respects Karnataka and the sentiments of its people and [is] proud to be a part of this state and in no way supports any activity that is against the interest and sentiments of Karnataka and its people."

The attack on Saskenís offices in Bangalore is not the first time that the KRV has unleashed violence in the name of protecting the interests of local Kannadigas. Nor is it the first time that it has directed its ire against an IT company.

In 2005, hundreds of KRV activists picketed offices of Infosys Technologies, one of Indiaís biggest IT companies and its second-largest software exporter, demanding priority for Kannadigas in appointments to IT companies. The same year, its activists demonstrated outside IBMís Bangalore office to protest the opposition to singing of Kannada songs by a section of IBM employees at a company cultural event.

Bangalore is Indiaís IT capital, with companies in the sector operating out of the city contributing 33% of the country's US$32 billion IT exports in 2006-07. It is also the capital of the southern state of Karnataka. Kannada is the official language of the state and is spoken by the majority of the people. But in Bangalore itself, Kannadigas constitute just 38.7% of its roughly 5.25 million-strong population, the rest being "outsiders", ie people from outside the state.

With a economic growth rate of 10.3%, it is Indiaís second-fastest growing region. This economic boom together with the cityís pleasant climate and cosmopolitan culture is drawing people from other parts of the country. If in the past it was Tamils from neighboring Tamil Nadu who constituted the bulk of the outsiders in Bangalore, today North Indians are pouring into the city. While some are professionals in the IT industry, the bulk are construction workers, carpenters, guards and cooks.

A section of Kannadigas fears that the influx of outsiders has not only altered the demographic composition of Bangalore but also altered its culture. Many outsiders, and even many locals, cannot speak Kannada and prefer conversing in English or Hindi. Bangaloreís culture has become "westernized", locals complain, pointing to pubs and nightclubs "which arrived here with the IT brat pack". Kannada movies are not as popular and do not draw the kind of audiences that English or Hindi movies do. As a result the Kannada film industry is in the doldrums.

Bangalore's culture is losing its Kannada flavor, supporters of the local culture complain, pointing out that it has become "Westernized". One can certainly survive in Bangalore without knowing the local language and most residents, even those who have lived here for decades would identify themselves as Bangaloreans, not as Kannadigas.

It is not just the emotional issue of pride in Kannada culture that is stirring anger among a section of locals. There is an economic angle. Locals feel excluded from Bangalore's economic prosperity. They insist that it is outsiders who dominate the software industry and have gained from the IT boom. Kannadigas feel they are being "Bangalored" from their capital.

Today Bangalore is a city divided. It might be home to 10,000 dollar millionaires but 35%% of its population lives in some 400 slums that dot the city. The divide is largely between the employees of the tech industry and the rest, the affluent and the less privileged. And this divide roughly coincides with the outsider-insider split.

It is visible in starkly different lifestyles as well. Bangalore's techies receive fat paychecks, live in swanky apartments and unwind in nightclubs. They talk differently and live differently. The rest of Bangalore doesn't have prospective employers lining up with better job offers; many people simply don't have jobs.

Bangalore is witnessing financial success but mounting discontent as well. And the discontented - mostly locals - blame the IT industry for their woes. Not only have they not benefited from the IT boom; worse, they are suffering because of it. With IT professionals buying up around 50% of new apartments coming up in the city, property prices are fixed with them in mind, locals lament. This has resulted in soaring rents. Locals also blame traffic jams on IT professionals - "their cars are flooding our streets" is a common gripe. 

It is this discontent among locals that groups like the KRV claim to represent and are actively mobilizing.

In the 1970s, another grouping, the Kannada Chaluvali, was the self-appointed guardian of Kannadiga interests, but it lacked mass support and was a bit of a joke, often dismissed as a one-man army. In the 1990s, a dispute over sharing of water from the River Cauvery with neighboring Tamil Nadu deepened the feeling of victimhood among Kannadigas, providing a shot in the arm to linguistic chauvinism. Anti-Tamil riots developed in Bangalore. Several self-appointed guardians of Kannada interests emerged, the KRV among them. Others include the Kannada Sene, the Karunada Sene, and the Karnataka Gadi Horata Samithi.

In the name of protecting local interests, these groups have engaged in intimidation and mob violence. They have defaced English-language signboards, demanding that Kannada be used instead, and have attacked cinema theatres screening Hindi and Tamil films in Bangalore. Their members have heckled eminent personalities such as Ramesh Ramanathan, head of Janagraaha, a respected Bangalore-based NGO, for not speaking in Kannada at public meetings. Activists have stopped trains and vandalized railway stations to demand more local recruitment.

Two years ago, when a hugely popular Kannada film star - a champion of Kannada culture and an icon for Kannada activists - died, mobs went on a rampage through Bangalore. Almost 1,000 vehicles including public buses and private cars were damaged. The violence cost the city around $160 million, with software firms losing roughly $40 million in revenue. .

The IT sector appears to be emerging as an important battleground. Kannada activists insist that locals account for a small fraction of those employed in IT and IT-related services. Even these are at the lower levels. The management is predominantly north Indian while the techies are from other states in south India, not Karnataka, they argue, pointing out that even contracts to run canteens and provide security go to outsiders.

IT companies insist that they do not hire along linguistic lines. When KRV targeted Infosys in 2005, demanding job quotas for locals, Infosys claimed that a quarter of its employees are locals and that it hires from 46 engineering colleges in the state. KRVís demand was turned down by the government, the IT companies and industry bodies, which insisted that Kannadigas were meritorious enough to get jobs in IT companies and did not need quotas. 

At work, office politics sometimes takes on linguistic overtones. In the Sasken incident, for instance, what began as a case of sexual harassment quickly became a conflict pitting locals against outsiders.

The insider/outsider conflict is an old one in India, with "sons of the soil" feeling besieged by migrants. It has been the central theme of the insurgency in the northeastern state of Assam, for instance.

In Mumbai, India's commercial and financial capital, such schisms have been apparent for several decades, actively fueled by the Shiv Sena, a political party claiming to represent the interests of Marathis, the local population there. It was south Indians, especially Tamils, who were the target of the Shiv Sena in the 1970s. Today, it is the north Indians mainly migrants from the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. This year, activists of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (a breakaway of the Shiv Sena) attacked both Indian taxi drivers and vendors in Mumbai and other cities.

Will outfits like KRV choose the Shiv Sena path? Shiv Sena is a powerful political party and has ruled the state of Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is the capital) in the 1990s. It wields immense influence in local urban bodies and in the police force. An order from its chief Bal Thackeray can bring out thousands of activists to the streets. It has the capacity to paralyze Mumbai, the country's financial center. The recent anti-outsider violence resulted in the flight of hundreds of thousands of people from the city.

In a bid to appease Kannada activists, the Karnataka government has set in motion a process to change Bangalore's name to Bengaluru, the way it is pronounced in Kannada. IT companies are trying to buy peace with Kannada activists by displaying Kannada flags prominently at their offices. Neither the name change not the flags is likely to douse the flames of Kannada chauvinism.

Anti-outsider feelings are growing. The increasing militancy of KRV and other outfits in Bangalore is worrying, as they could be tempted to go the Shiv Sena way. Any excuse is reason for them to bring their cadres on to the streets to engage in vandalism.

What makes IT companies attractive targets of the activists is that any development involving the latter makes international headlines, any "threat" to the IT sector brings the activists instant media attention. No less important, the IT companies are cash-rich. To some Kannada outfits this means that they are in a position to pay large amounts of money to buy peace.

At present the threat the KRV poses can still be dismissed as a little more than a recurring headache, having nuisance value. However, the phenomenal growth of the organization in the short span of a decade and the growing militancy are cause for concern.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

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