On Independence Day this year I was driving from Bangalore to the small temple town of Melkote. At traffic lights within the city we were hailed by vendors selling the National Flag. When we got to the highway, we passed boys on motor bikes waving the tiranga jhanda. Clearly, the Supreme Court order allowing private citizens to display the flag has had a cathartic effect. Bikes, cars, tourist buses—that day all had jhandas, big and small, made from eco-friendly cloth or out of polluting plastic.
These displays of middle-class patrotism were interesting, but more interesting still was what we found when we left the main road to Mysore. After the town of Mandya we turned right. For the next hour-and-a-half we drove through a well-watered countryside. At one crossing we came young men on cycles, handkerchiefs in mouth as they raced along the road. Following them was an ambulance. This was not the Tour de France, yet, judging by the looks on the competitors’ faces and at the assembled crowd, it was a race looked forward to as eagerly, and competed for with a comparable intensity.
For the rural folk of Karnataka, as for its townspeople, the 15th of August is a day for celebration and commemoration, an occasion to enjoy as much as to remember. Shortly before we reached Melkote we passed a bullock-cart with a group of little boys in it. This was not in itself an uncommon sight, until one looked at how the boys were dressed. One wore a suit and clasped a book; a second wore a loin-cloth but was bare-bodied, chest upwards; a third wore a tightly buttoned-up tunic and had a turban on his head. Fortunately, one of my companions was a scholar who had grown up in the area, and was thus able to decode what the apparel represented.. As we passed the cart he observed: ‘Ambedkar, Gandhi, Visvesvarayya: when I was in school we would have had the other two, but not Ambedkar’.
I do not own a camera, and in fact do not know how to use one. Normally this does not matter, since a historian deals for the most part with people who are dead. And in any case for this column I can draw upon the The Hindu’s magnificent photo library. But that day I wished I had a camera with me. Even if I couldn’t use it one of my fellow travellers would have known how to. I cannot therefore bring you a picture of those boys in the bullock-cart. But I can try still to suggest what the picture I saw said.
When we passed the cart it was close to eleven o’clock in the morning. The boys were very likely returning from a school function, where they had taken part in a play or fancy dress parade, this after having sung Jana Gana Mana and hoisted the National Flag. That one boy was dressed up as Gandhi was scarcely a surprise. For the Mahatma did more than anyone else to help bring about our political freedom. He united Indians of different castes and religions, and inspired them in three major movements against colonial rule. On this anniversary of the end of the British Raj, one had thus first to remember the ‘Father of the Nation’ which has come to replace it.
That another boy was dressed up as Mokshagundam Visvesvarayya was not surprising either. For ‘Sir M. V.’ (as he was known) is a legendary figure in these parts. As Chief Minister and Dewan of Mysore, he helped make this princely state a beacon of progress, in vivid contrast to its decadent and backward counterparts. Visvesvarayya built schools, railways, industries, and, above all, canals. It was he who supervised the network of canals that runs through the Mandya and Mysore districts, a network that has dramatically transformed a previously arid and dearth-prone area. Till the early twentieth century, the peasants of Mandya were illiterate and unorganized. With the aid of Kaveri water they became prosperous. Education followed, and then, political ambition.
For some decades now the Vokkaligas of the Mandya-Mysore belt have exercised a dominant hold over Karnataka politics. This is an outcome Sir M. V. could not have foreseen, although without him (or his work) it would not have come about. Little wonder that they venerate him here, that they put up his portrait in their homes, and speak of him in their schools.
Gandhi is a figure of national importance; Visvesvarayya an authentically ‘local’ hero. Till the 1980s these were the two icons the people of Mandya chose to remember on Independence Day. Now they have been joined by a third. The celebration of Ambedkar is a consequence of the assertiveness of the Dalit movement in Karnataka. This movement has drawn into its fold students, writers, professionals and politicians. Through it the Dalits have come to acquire a dignity and pride that is unprecedented but by no means overdue. In past times, they and their leaders were mocked both by Brahmins and by dominant peasant castes such as the Vokkaligas. That schoolchildren can now openly pay tribute to Ambedkar is a sign of how much this has changed.
The historian cannot fail to notice that the ‘holy trinity’ of Mandya heroes diverged from one another on some key social issues. Visvesvarayya and Gandhi famously disagreed on the path of economic development independent India should follow. The engineer exhorted: ‘Industrialize—or Perish!’. The Mahatma answered: ‘Industralize—and Perish!’. Gandhi and Ambedkar had a long and inconclusive argument on how best to eradicate the evil of Untouchability. Gandhi thought one could get rid of it and still save Hinduism; Ambedkar believed that the only hope for the Dalits was to take themselves to another religion. While (so far as I know) Ambedkar and Visvesvarraya never met, had they done so they would surely have disagreed on the question of reservation for low castes, which one cautiously supported, and the other emphatically rejected.
If, indeed, these are the three Indians most revered in modern Mysore, then the curious thing is that not one is a native of the region. Gandhi was a Gujarati, Ambedkar a Maharashtrian. And although Visvesvarayya was born in the Kolar District, his first language and mother tongue was Telugu, not Kannada.
I like to think that the anointing of these three ‘outsiders’ as heroes is characteristic of the inclusive spirit of the Carnatic Plateau. This is a soil that has proved inhospitable to chauvinism. Consider that Melkote, my ultimate destination that day, was a village rescued from obscurity by the migration there of the eleventh century saint-teacher Ramanujacharya, fleeing persecution by Saivite rulers in what is now Tamil Nadu. The locals gave him refuge, and honour. Ramanuja repayed this by showing some broad-mindedness of his own, notably by admittting Dalits to his temple.
Politicians and ideologues demand that we choose among our heroes. They do not permit the co-existence in our pantheon of such combinations as Tilak and Gokhale, Gandhi and Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru, Nehru and Patel, Gandhi and Bose, Gandhi and Bhagat Singh. But the truth is that these individuals were all patriots of an unusual intelligence and integrity. While they lived they might have disagreed on this subject or that. But now, long after they are gone, surely one can celebrate them collectively, without setting up oppositions that may have had some meaning in their time but none in ours? In this regard, we urban intellectuals could take some salutary lessons from the villagers of Mandya.