River on Fire

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The waters of goodwill between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are fast receding

ON THE DAY of the Cauvery imbroglio in Bengaluru, N Shashidev headed home early. An advocate at the city civil court in Gandhinagar, he would have taken Mysore Road for most of the 10-km distance to his home in Chandra Layout, but today, gangs of youth who had sprouted fangs overnight lay in wait all along the road, lustily craving vehicles with TN registration plates. A Kannadiga, Shashidev nevertheless had reason to worry, for he rode his co-brother’s old Hero Honda that had been registered in Tamil Nadu. He stayed on residential avenues as far as possible, but leaving the genteel environs of Basavanagudi and emerging on Chord Road near Deepanjali Metro Station, he knew he had underestimated the situation. There was a fire every few hundred metres and rowdies sieved through traffic, like hunters stalking their quarry in the forest. “There wasn’t a single uniform in sight,” says Shashidev. At about 4 pm, an hour before curfew was clamped on the city, he was waylaid by youth who asked him to walk away from his vehicle, doused it in petrol nicked from parked motorbikes, and set it afire. “They were not interested in harming me, nor were they ready to listen. I tried to tell them that the bike had been bought in Karnataka, but it had to be re-registered in Tamil Nadu during the last Cauvery protests in Chennai. After my co-brother moved back to Bangalore, we never bothered to register it again here,” Shashidev says.

The men purling through Bengaluru’s streets with red-and- yellow flags were not bare-knuckle brawlers but performers repeating a familiar script. It was a manufactured anomie, not the wide-open split between Tamils and Kannadigas that had marked the Cauvery riots of 1991, claiming 18 lives and driving thousands out of Karnataka. On 12 September, as Kannadiga pride outfits once again recycled drought as ethnic chauvinism, they scored many self-goals, among them an unfortunate bystander who was killed in police firing. By the time bloviating TV debaters had accepted the futility of this vile street theatre, and people began to dribble out of their homes, the Karnataka government looked like a catalogue of incompetents that had failed on every count: legal, for it could not convince the Supreme Court of its dire need to retain water despite paying crores in fees to an eminent advocate; administrative, because fear and lawlessness ruled the Knowledge City on Monday, although over 300 arrests were made subsequently, bringing the situation under control the next day; and political, for the state’s Congress government is yet to assuage the concerns of sugarcane farmers, an important vote bank.

In a normal monsoon year, according to the February 2007 orders of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT), Karnataka has to release 192 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu. There is, however, a lack of clarity on distress years, during which the lower riparian state approaches the Apex court or the Cauvery River Authority to arbitrate ad hoc, usually to its advantage, such as in 2002, 2012 and now in 2016. By August, as Karnataka found itself with more than a 30-per cent deficit in its reservoirs that normally store 215.70 tmcft, it became increasingly clear that the Ouroborosian conflict had come full circle, but the two states were none the wiser for it. The self-styled keepers of Karnataka’s cultural consciousness latched on to deep- rooted frustrations and began a reprisal attack on Tamils. Cultural amphibians with a foot in each state were forced to run for cover even if there is no real rift between the communities. This class war between the upper and the lower riparian entities was carried on with equal pungency in Tamil Nadu, where Kannadiga establishments were targeted and every jerkwater village in the overexploited basin turned self-righteous.

As Kannadiga pride outfits once again recycled drought as ethnic chauvinism, they scored many self goals, among them a bystander killed in police firing

A sign of the times, it was a Tamil youth’s Facebook post against Kannada film stars who had shown solidarity with Karnataka’s Cauvery cause that led to the moment of rupture. Coming soon after the Supreme Court’s 5 September interim order directing Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of water—later revised to 12,000 cusecs—to Tamil Nadu for 10 days, it seemed to add to the distress of a state staring at a distress year. The boy was beaten up and the incident filmed and widely shared. Tamil Nadu reacted violently to this video, evoking counter-reactions in Bengaluru. Real-time television, which amplified the tension, was equally culpable for things spiralling out of control.

“Who will invest in Bangalore if we react violently every time there is an unfavourable verdict?” asks N Ramachandran, who runs the Kannada Tamil Harmony and Social Welfare Trust, a Bengaluru-based organisation that is engaged in caulking the cracks between the communities. As a 19-year-old, Ramachandran had witnessed the mob violence of December 1991 following the publishing of the CWDT’s interim order directing Karnataka to release 205 tmcft in the Government of India gazette. Enraged, Kannadiga groups had entered Tamil homes in Bengaluru, Mysuru and Mandya, looted and burned down property, and raped Tamil women who were easy to spot thanks to the yellow thread of their mangalsutra. Over 20,000 Tamils fled the state and settled down in their home districts in Tamil Nadu: Salem, Tiruppur, Erode and Coimbatore among them. Ramachandran later worked with the Karnataka government to track down some of them and distribute compensation. “What has happened now is that even if Tamils don’t fear any threat to their lives, there is a sense of victimisation. They always side with Karnataka on the Cauvery issue, but they are punished for being Tamil,” he says.

About 3.5 million people in Bengaluru are Tamil-speaking, yet they had to wait 18 years before a statue of the Tamil saint Thiruvalluvar could be unveiled near Ulsoor in 2009, when M Karunanidhi and BS Yeddyurappa were heading the two states. “Under AIADMK rule, relations between the states tend to sour,” says Jagadish Shettar, BJP leader and Chief Minister in 2012, when the two states last ran into a stalemate over water sharing. Karnataka had been ordered to release 9,000 cusecs of water a day for 25 days, but this was not acceptable to either state. Shettar invited Jayalalithaa, who was in her third term as Chief Minister, to Bengaluru and talks were held at the Leela Palace in Domlur. “She wasn’t willing to reach a compromise. The talks failed,” Shettar says. Siddaramaiah, however, did not even try.

“We are sad about the failure of the two governments to talk among themselves and sort this issue out,” says R Srinivasan, a 46-year-old trader from Nanjangud in Mysuru district. In 1991, Srinivasan’s family was among the hundreds that fled the town. State police gave the Tamils shelter and protection for three days, after which they were escorted to Tamil Nadu on 17 buses. “We went back to our home town of Usilampatti in Madurai district, but I returned in January after reading the then Karnataka Chief Minister S Bangarappa’s call to Tamils asking them to come back. I had become entrenched in Kannada society and knew no other life,” Srinivasan says, although he worries about a bleak future in a state that is in its sixth consecutive year of deficient rain. With indiscriminate development and climate change threatening to turn Tamil Nadu and Karnataka into deserts of their own making, the least they can do is to keep the waters of goodwill between them from receding.