Who is most ‘virtuous’ of us all? An epic battle for ‘morality’ in Karnataka

Who is most ‘virtuous’ of us all? An epic battle for ‘morality’ in Karnataka

To deflect all unwelcome but unavoidable attention, the party in power has shouted loud and long against Karnataka’s ‘internal’ enemies

A feverish hunt is on for the right kind and quantity of morals that are to be foisted on students in Karnataka. Now that all education, particularly history and literature, has been reduced to ‘moral science’ in Karnataka, and institutions of learning are turning into places of worship, this quest for How Thou Shalt be Virtuous should come as no surprise at all.

But where is one to look in this benighted state where one (VHP member) Sharan Pumpwell proudly owns up to the Godhra riots as the act of brave Hindus as well as the public murder of Mohammad Fazil in Surathkal? This, even as the Chief Minister says quite the opposite. The horizon is blotted by those in authority racing each other to define the Lowest Common Denominator of morality.

Also Read: Why Kannada writer SL Bhyrappa’s Padma Bhushan turned controversial

We could trace the roots of this new assault to the early reduction of Mahatma Gandhi to a harmless old man with a stick, whose disembodied spectacles detect every Open Defecation Free village. Karnataka’s epic battle of black pots and kettles united against the common people is a fresh bid to build self-esteem and respect around those who wield the most un-Gandhian Cane of all. This is difficult without the prop of historical figures Who Did No Wrong.

Statues galore

Karnataka needs Sangolli Rayanna, Kittur Rani Chennamma of Kittur and Kempegowda I and II, who today rule the province of social media. If tall statues can be built to each of these heroes – each no less than 108 feet – and if nearly 8,000 new classrooms can be painted orange, Karnataka’s rulers believe that they might be able to obliterate the Light of Reason – while putting some more money in the pockets of their supporters.

Not quite so easily, however. To begin with the blackest pot of all, the ruling party politician: his (most, fortunately, are men) venality has crossed the boundaries of what is ‘tolerable’ – namely, a gentlemanly, Congress-like 10 or 20 per cent bribe has yielded way to a debilitating 40 per cent. The politician is haunted not just by accusations of corruption – including by entire associations of contractors – but by actual corpses of those who found their demands intolerable. Longtime BJP legislator and Minister K Eswarappa was assigned to the BJP out-tray after a fellow party member and contractor Santosh Patil named him in a suicide note.

Did Eswarappa heed perhaps too keenly the Chanakya Neeti that ‘the straight tree gets chopped first, so crookedness is obligatory for survival?’

BJP legislators

Other ghosts have continued to name BJP legislators, and there is no end in sight. On a different plane, three BJP legislators who could not resist surfing porn in the Assembly in 2012 have managed to put their past behind them, and have returned to positions in the ruling party.

Also Read: Karnataka assembly polls: All surveys indicate Congress edge over BJP

Another Minister, Ramesh Jarikholi, who reluctantly resigned when video evidence emerged of his sexual misdemeanour, is biding his time. He has now promised that the BJP will return to power in Karnataka even if it does not win the elections (he had arranged the 17 turncoats in 2018), adding contemporary gloss to the hoary political repertoire in this Mother of All Democracies.

To deflect all unwelcome but unavoidable attention, the party in power has shouted loud and long against Karnataka’s ‘internal’ enemies. Chief Minister SR Bommai himself has set high the Standards of Mass Distraction when he warned that ‘action and reaction are bound to happen when there is no morality in society’ while justifying acts of vigilantism by Hindu mobs in 2021. Not only did he wash his hands of the responsibility of protecting the people of Karnataka, but he has been singularly prompt while doling out state funds to Hindu activists murdered in rivalries (Rs 25 lakh each to the families of Harsha in Shivamogga and Praveen Nettaru in Mangalore).

No family of a murdered Muslim has been favoured even with a visit. His esteemed colleague, BJP state president Nalin Kumar Kateel, gives an open call to ‘war’ against the internal enemy – he enjoined all to train their sights on love jihad, and not petty municipal issues – a redefinition that would have made of Chanakya proud (who, truth be told, did not have to deal with the said ‘internal enemies’).

Illegal power centres

To turn to the large body of men in orange who wield ‘unauthorised’ power across Karnataka’s cities and village, namely mathadishas/pontiffs of every (social) stripe and (political/economic) size: are they a safer bet? They, too, have been consigned of late to the moral doghouse, after accusations of sexual assault have sent one to jail, and condemned two others, sadly, to suicide. Worse, they have been the government’s bedfellows for too long – given, for instance, the size of the educational empires they run. But when they recently (and at the invitation of government) preached the virtues of sattvik food that would have deprived thousands of school children of a nourishing midday egg supplement, they unwittingly ‘returned’ to history.

For the anxiety about morals in educational institutions has had a long and interesting past, beginning with the 19th-century missionaries who believed that Christianity and the Bible would provide colonial India with the moral rudder they believed it lacked. Meanwhile, a wide range of practices was deemed ‘immoral’: time was, when the ‘evil effects’ of tea drinking were spelled out in innumerable Kannada tracts of the late 19th century. It was as ‘immoral’ for women to read novels in the 19th century as it is for them to own mobile phones today. And of course, the arrival of cinema in the 20th century was an invitation to the Devil’s Devious Designs.

The delicious irony is that Karnataka’s past – and present – has equally been rendered a time about which Thou Shalt Not Know, especially its robust critique of Brahminical Hinduism, or its own well-documented share of intra-sectarian violence. In taking its chowkidari of Brahminical Hindu sentiment very seriously, it disallowed Basaveshwara’s critique of caste hierarchy in textbooks.

Dalit studies

The Bangalore University last week shed the third-semester essay for optional Kannada entitled ‘Dalit Sahityada Tatvikate’ or ‘The Principles of Dalit Literature’ as too hurtful of upper caste sentiment. Meanwhile, the government fosters ‘secular’ ideals by bestowing its largesse on the beleaguered Brahmin, funding not just his ‘development association’ but even ‘reserving’ some government ads for Brahmin-owned papers.

From whence then our moral deliverance? Politicians, pontiffs and principled essayists equally fail the ethics test, since, as Portia (Shakespeare) wisely had it: “It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.” What then is to be inflicted on the young, the Kannada gade (proverb) which has it ‘bElinE eddu hola meyda haage’ (like the fence itself which is eating the crop), or shall we simply give the last word to Sanskrit: Yatha Raja, Thatha Praja?

(The writer is former Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi.)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal).

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