Cauvery, Coffee, and Kannadiga Pride


Cauvery, Coffee, and Kannadiga Pride

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Ifirst saw a mob up close way back in December 1991.

This was nearly two decades before social media became the harbinger of news, good and bad, and 24-hour television and Arnab Goswami were still some years away from being the guiding light to us citizens.

It was around 7.30 pm and I heard a cracking sound. Something had broken and we couldn’t figure out what. When I went to the room, I saw shards of glass all over the floor and a stone lying next to the tape recorder. Some vandals had stoned our windows and left. It was an act of random violence in which no one was hurt except our sense of security.

The next morning was the first and only time I felt truly scared in Bangalore. The city had erupted over the Cauvery dispute.

Mobs doing the rounds, burning Tamil signboards, stoning homes that had Tamil names, and threatening any Tamilian they could find, made headlines.

One such mob arrived at our apartment. They were a bunch of vandals, nothing more, hooligans, who seemed to have found a reason to go around causing harm without any fear of reproach. A bunch of around 30 men stood on the road, threatening to throw stones. How stoning an apartment could further their cause is something no mobster will ever have an answer for. A few neighbours got together and went out to reason with the mob, but in spite of numerous pleas, they threw more stones and broke another window of my house. There was no sign of any police.

Half an hour later, just like in the movies where the police enter after the damage has been done, a patrol car went around asking residents to stay indoors.

That was my first and last mob encounter.


The violence that marred Bangalore in ’91 was different from what went down earlier this week. The 1991 riots created a deep-rooted fear in the lives of Tamilians, many of who have been living in the city for years now. The anger of the locals against their neighbour was palpable. It wasn’t a good time to be a Tamilian in Bangalore back then. After the ’91 tension, a lot of people refrained from using Tamil; they were reluctant to reveal identities. My dad’s colleague Sridharan, who had a distinctively Tamilian name, changed the nameplate outside his house to Sridar, a distinctively Kannadiga one.

But it’s been 25 years since that bloody riot which left 18 people dead.

In these 25 years, a lot has changed. Bangalore has become Bengaluru. The city has transformed. It has ceased from being a city where you could traverse its breadth in half an hour, to a city where career decisions are taken over how much time will be spent in traffic. It has changed from a city of mainly Kannadigas and Tamilians to being home to people from all corners of India, lured by high-paying jobs, fancy pubs, spacious homes, and good weather. In these intervening years, as the city stretched and pulled itself to accommodate the “outsiders”, the physiognomy of Bangalore changed and a wholly cosmopolitan countenance evolved.

But in all this stretching and integrating, coexisting and compromising, something had to give way – in this case, it was the patience of the local Kannadiga, who is slowly losing his identity.

This countenance was a gracious one. It did not impose its ways and its language upon you. The city allowed you to get by without knowing a word of Kannada. Auto drivers, conductors, shopkeepers picked up rudimentary Hindi, others spoke in English. Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi films dominated the entertainment landscape.

All of this is vastly different from culturally snooty places like Chennai where the Tamil identity rules the land, the language, and the expression. As a Tamilian, I know how we expect outsiders to make an effort to integrate into our milieu. There’s not an iota of chance to change ourselves for the the outsider.

In all of my 30 years in the city, I have never felt remotely conscious of my Tamil identity, I have never compromised because of it. After I go for a run, I alternate between going to Adyar Anand Bhavan, a chain that had its restaurants attacked when the violence broke out, to get my fill of Tamilian-style sambar, and Mysuru Coffee Thindi to get my share of Kannadiga-style sambar. Both sambars coexist happily in the city.

But in all this stretching and integrating, coexisting and compromising, something had to give way – in this case, it was the patience of the local Kannadiga, who is slowly losing his identity. Hence, the demand for bus signboards in Kannada. Hence, the demand for prioritisation of Kannada films over others.

And there’s nothing outrageous about this demand. Be it Chennai or Ahmedabad, be it Thiruvananthapuram or Guwahati, the local language and everything associated with local tradition and culture is in your face. Without the knowledge of Tamil, you can’t survive in Chennai. Without knowing Assamese, you can’t bargain in the fish markets of Guwahati. Is loss of identity a price you pay for cosmopolitanism?

Beneath the veneer of its numerous monikers – start-up city, IT city, and pub crawl city – there is a “local city” with a mildly disenchanted populace that seeks to reinstate its statehood, assert its origins, whenever the occasion presents itself. Cauvery is only one such occasion.

Though on the surface, the events of the last two weeks may resemble the violence of ’91, they don’t. The mobs this time resorted to random acts of violence that wasn’t so much about attacking Tamilians than about giving Kannada the importance that it should be given. Water is not at the heart of this unrest, neither is the cultural face-off between Kannadigas and Tamilians. At the heart of the issue, is local pride and identity. And I, a Tamilian, think it deserves to be preserved.