For a few weeks now, Kannada actor and social activist Chetan Ahimsa has been at the receiving end of endless abuse, attacks, fights, and a barrage of police complaints for which he has already appeared multiple times for hours-long questioning. All this because he has initiated a dialogue on caste and Brahminism, and has continued to remain outspoken, unscathed by such bullying.
Many of his statements—including the very terminology and critique of Brahminism—are derived from longstanding anti-caste critiques propounded by innumerable anti-caste activists and widely revered personalities like Ambedkar, Periyar, Basavanna and Kuvempu. Despite mostly quoting such existing critiques, explicitly explaining the distinction between Brahminism and Brahmins, and clarifying that his fight is against the former, and holding many privileges himself, the harassment he is being subjected to is in itself a proof of increasing Brahminism in most positions and institutions of power, which has tried to suppress all progressive voices of dissent in recent years.
It is important to place Chetan’s comments in context because they have not been made in vacuum. These comments have come at a time when the larger political atmosphere in India, and especially in Karnataka, has necessitated such a discourse. In both places, the political ideology that has subsumed the socio-cultural ideology of Brahminism has been in power for a while now, both in government and other influential institutions such as mainstream press and media. Such an ideology has been able to receive democratic legitimacy repeatedly through the electoral process, even though historically oppressed communities have an arithmetic advantage, mainly because it has been able to lure them through clever social engineering and aggressive religious polarisation. The most effective way to raise awareness about this among the public, and especially among the oppressed communities, is to bring the contradictions within this social engineering agenda to the fore, that will not only expose its hollowness but also its ultimate objective: to perpetuate their oppression. This is exactly what Chetan is doing and why it is very important.
In Karnataka, the state government has recently established development boards for various forward and intermediate castes—going against the very principle of social justice—in order to appease these communities for electoral gains. At a time when the state’s finances are in a precarious situation with mounting revenue and fiscal deficits and debt to GDP ratio, hundreds of crores have been allocated to these development boards. When the same amount could have been better used to save and aid lakhs of lives and livelihoods that have been lost and affected due to two successive waves of the pandemic and lockdowns that have accompanied them, the opportunity cost of diverting funds to these development boards is enormous.
These development boards have been doing anything but welfare. Take, for example, the Karnataka State Brahmin Development Board, which has been spearheading a political assertion of the Brahmin community, supported to a large extent by leaders hailing from other dominant and intermediate castes, who among themselves hold and wield all political, social and economic power in the state. Even though it was the previous coalition government led by former Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy that established the Board, it has been empowered to a great extent only by the current BS Yediyurappa led government. It has since initiated schemes that monetarily incentivise endogamous marriages, when the established practice by state and union governments has been to incentivise inter-caste and inter-faith marriages.
The board also successfully ensured removal of chapters related to Jainism and Buddhism from Karnataka’s state board school textbooks as it said some contents in those chapters hurt the sentiments of the Brahmin community. It was also at the forefront of outrage against the recently released Kannada film Pogaru, because it contained a fight sequence where the protagonist kicks a priest. The board threatened protests against the movie if the makers don’t apologise and remove those scenes. Even though the film had got Censor Board clearance and been released, the makers had to succumb to pressure and not only remove about two dozen scenes from the movie, but also issue an apology. Even the protagonist, who hails from an OBC community and is a popular A-list star, had to issue a separate apology, something A-list Kannada stars are never expected to for any issue. In a way, the ease and swiftness with which an apology was extracted from them also shows the extent of internalised Brahminism that is prevalent not just within the Kannada film fraternity but also the larger Kannada society.
This is not to say that there aren’t progressive voices within the Kannada community. We have had a vibrant anti-caste ‘Bandaya’ literature movement, founded by the likes of Devanuru Mahadeva and K Siddalingaiah, the latter whom we only recently lost. They have spent their whole lives articulating the struggles and resistance put up by their communities among other things—often using stronger expressions than the ones Chetan has used—to convey their lived experiences through prose, poetry, protest. While some of their accounts also shed light on instances where they were attacked by fringe elements, they still enjoyed protection and patronage from the state as well as support from the civil society. However, it is only in recent years that such a distinction between the fringe and mainstream has blurred and many voices of resistance and dissent are actively being suppressed and harassed, and some even silenced, as was the case with MM Kalaburgi and Gauri Lankesh.
The mainstream press and media, which should act as strong conscience keepers of the society and ensure its progress forward, have been monopolised by subscribers of this regressive ideology, with exceptions being few and far between. The running joke among people that the state-run 30-minute news programme is more credible than a dozen private news channels put together is a commentary on its sad-state of affairs. To get a sense of the deeply entrenched Brahminism within this space, one need not look beyond the controversies Kannada media creates every time former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah consumes meat.
Coming to the Kannada film industry, it is not that there are no progressive individuals but just that they have little clout and influence to speak their mind either on issues pertaining to the film industry or larger socio-political issues, without fear of repercussions. Most film-related issues are resolved in a khap-panchayat manner by those occupying positions of power within the industry, with women being at the receiving end of such diktats more often than not. This is because of the inherently patriarchal and feudal structure of the industry that has put a few men on a pedestal at the cost of everyone else who remains at their mercy. Unfortunately, there is no progressive collective within the industry—like the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) in Kerala—that aims to challenge this status-quo. In fact, there was one such attempt through a collective called FIRE (Film Industry for Rights and Equality) that Chetan had co-founded with a few others from the industry, but that also eventually fell apart.
Since the film industry is also highly dependent on the state government for its sustenance and safeguarding its business interests, it more or less conforms to the existing political atmosphere as it cannot risk being in the government’s bad books. With most of the stalwarts of the industry long gone, there is dearth of leadership within the industry that can take on the government of the day and still stand its ground, like what was seen during the Gokak Chaluvali of the ‘80s. This obligation to conform to the political status-quo goes against the very essence of cinema as a medium: to hold a mirror to society and make people question the status-quo. In the prevailing political atmosphere, there are also additional costs like public backlash that discourages those from the industry from speaking up. Unless progressive individuals come together and form many thriving collectives for different objectives—both artistic and political—they will not be able to freely voice out their opinions about larger socio-political issues either.
Kannada society in general is in dire need of a vibrant, progressive movement that encompasses all prominent fields: politics, art, cinema, literature, sport, civil society, etc. Even though there are progressive individuals in all these fields and more, there is a pronounced absence of solidarity between these individuals that has only benefited and will continue to benefit those hell bent on taking our society back to the stone age. We have to rectify this by standing up for Chetan and also vowing to fight the good fight in our own different ways, while standing in solidarity with each other.
Rakshith S Ponnathpur is a financial and economic policy researcher with a keen interest in Karnataka history and politics.
Views are of the author’s own.