Jun 3, 2011

Vokkaligas: Farmers of Karnataka

Vokkaligas: Towering giants vs. suffering farmers

By K S Bhagavan

[Prof K S Bhagavan is head of the Department of English at Maharaja's Degree College, Mysore]


With K C Reddy and Kengal Hanumanthaiyya in an earlier age, and H D Deve Gowda and S M Krishna now, Vokkaligas have a profile tall enough to be seen from any corner of the country. Numerically Lingayats outnumber them, but politically Vokkaligas have had the spotlight on them. But what does this mean in terms of advancement in this age of technology? Sadly, the pinnacles reached by politicians, literary personalities and professionals have not brought about an end to the exploitation of the agricultural masses in Vokkaliga hinterland.

The Vokkaliga community is perhaps the oldest community in Karnataka. Their history dates back to the Harappa-Mohenjodaro civilization. They are basically agriculturists and the significance of this should not be missed. Man was a nomad until he discovered agriculture and settled down. That gave him plenty of leisure time, which he devoted to singing, dancing, painting, magic and other activities. One can therefore safely say that agriculture is the
mother of all culture.

Of course many other communities also followed agriculture as a profession. But few are as wholly identified with the field as Vokkaligas. They are mainly ploughmen, who mostly live in villages, a large number of them poor and illiterate.

Recent studies have shown beyond doubt that almost all kingdoms in Karnataka from ancient to modern times were founded by Vokkaligas.

The Gangas of Talakad ruled the greater part of Karnataka from 240 AD to 1050 AD, i.e., for more than 800 years. The Kadambas reigned from 425 AD to 675 AD. The daughter of a Kadamba ruler was given in marriage to Yadava II of Talakad. A Ganga king's daughter was
married to a Chalukya king. The Rastrakutas ruled from 757 AD to 973 AD and the plough was their symbol. The Chengalvas, the Vydumbaras, the Nolambar, the famous Hoysalas all put their stamp on Karnataka. Kempegowda's name is widely known as the builder of Bangalore. He
and his dynasty ruled for five hundred years, from 1300 AD to the 18th century.

It is clear that the history of Karnataka is, by and large, the history of the Vokkaliga community.

The words, Vokkaliga and Gowda, are used synonymously. The word vokkal is derived from the root okku, meaning thrashing out or treading out corn. Okkaliga is thus a general term denoting any cultivator. But it is used in a narrow sense of a gowda, which means a leader, a headman. This too has a broad connotation, but is used in a restricted sense of a community. It has come to mean a caste.

According to the Karnataka State Vokkaligara Directory 2001, there are 112 subsects among the Vokkaligas. Marriages do take place between one sect and another.

My mother was fond of telling a story when I was a boy and reluctant to do the duties of a farmer:

Shiva, Lord of the universe, after all his creation was over, convened a meeting. There assembled all beings: humans, animals, birds. Shiva asked: "Who will provide food for all these countless creatures? Please respond." No one came forward. Nandi the Bull, Shiva's vehicle, bellowed and gored the earth and said he would work. A man, inspired by the Bull, stood up and proclaimed that he would till the land with the help of the Bull to fulfill the Lord's will. The man who took up the Job of feeding all living beings became Vokkaliga. The legend may differ in certain details in certain areas. But the moral is the same all over. It emphasises the hardwork, generosity and helping nature of the cultivating community.

Vokkaligas live mostly in old Mysore area comprising the districts of Mysore, Mandya, Bangalore, Hassan, Chikkamagalore, Shimoga, Kolar, Chitradurga and Tumkur. In more recent years they have spread over to other districts and states as well.

Vokkaligas may be classified into three broad categories:
Bayaluseeme Vokkaligas, Malenadu Vokkaligas, and coastal area Vokkaligas. They form the second largest community in Karnataka, the first being Veerashaivas or Lingayats, some of whom left the Vokkaliga fold. A big chunk went with Siddarama who embraced Veerashaivism. He was the son of Vokkaliga Muddegowda, according to poet Raghavanka's poem, Siddarama Charita.

Vokkaligas are a ``natural'' or original community from which other castes or communities have branched out — a sort of parent community. Traditionally they are the followers of Shaivism, though there were periods when they, out of necessity, became adherents of Jainism and/or Vaishnavism. They do not have a spiritual mentor like other communities and religions have, not even the equivalents of Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhwa for Brahmins, or Babasaheb Ambedkar for Dalits. But it is interesting to note that the founders of Jainism and Buddhism were tillers. Prof. Shubhachandra, a Jaina scholar, points out that the first thirthamkar was a krishik, i.e. peasant, and the Jains were converted from the Vokkaliga community. Buddha, the founder of Buddhism was the son of a farmer.

That the Vokkaligas do not have a religious leader is their strength and their weakness. It is a blessing because it has not made them narrow-minded and caste-obsessed; a curse because it has left them a highly disorganised lot.

The Vokkaligas know to their cost that the Indian farmer is a victim of the vagaries of monsoon. If rains fail, all the labour and expenditure put in by farmers is wasted. All the products of farmers are more or less perishable —— fruits, vegetables, cereals, food grains, sugarcane, tobacco, etc.

A farmer grows ragi and he sells it at a throwaway price. When it is turned into ragimalt, it becomes very dear. Peasants grow tomato and unable to get a good price, throw them on the roads. The same tomato, changed to sauce or jam, fetches good returns. Since farmers
have no access to modern technology, they remain the most neglected and exploited class. They cannot make both ends meet.

Despite their glorious past under kings and emperors, Vokkaligas remain backward. The Vokkaliga Sangh was established in 1906 to fight for mass education and fair prices for agricultural produce. Some of the objectives of the Sangha were to spread education among
the members of the community and to fight against superstition. Even after a century, these objectives have not been achieved. Probably superstition is more widely common among the educated than among the illiterate gowdas today.

It is only after the Miller Commission Report was implemented (1927) by the great king Krishna Raja Wodeyar The Fourth (1902-1940) that the doors of knowledge were thrown open to all backward classes and SCs and STs. Vokkaligas started sending their male children to school. Female children go to school in cities and towns; not many in villages. Nearly 95 percent of Vokkaliga women are illiterate. Literacy rate among Vokkaligas is not even 30 percent. Without
proper education, the future of the community is bleak.

Fortunately, a number of writers have came up from the community setting standards for others to follow. The greatest of them all is, of course, Kuvempu (1904-1994). He shifted literature from religious to human levels, from the sectarian to the secular. It was indeed a
big leap. His spiritualism itself is bereft of superstition and blind beliefs. After Basavanna and Allamaprabhu, Kuvempu is perhaps the greatest personality inKarnataka. His son Poornachandra Tejaswi has brought in environmentalism as a new force, all-pervasive in his
works.

Kayara Kinjanna Rai is a poet of fine sensitivity and prolific writer. Markandhapuram Srenivasa is a poet in both Kannada and Telugu. His work is useful in crosscultural context. De Ja Gow has
enriched many genres as a biographer, translator, scholar, folklorist and as an excellent prose stylist. HL Nagegowda as a novelist and folklorist has made notable contributions. His Janapada
Loka, near Channapatna on Mysore-Bangalore road is a rare achievement. Besaganahally Ramanna is a brilliant short story writer. Srikrishna Adanahally, an ambitious fictionist, died a
premature death. Karigowda Beechanahally skilfully sensitively handles the short story. Mallika is a leading poet and novelist among Kannada women writers. Her long poem on Swami Vivekananda is a significant work. There are women poets of talent like Saraswathi Gowda, Rathna Kalegowda and Padma Shekar. Saraswathi Gowda's Karthyayini is an important novel in the language.

It is interesting that in a community where the masses are steeped in backwardness, there is such a grand flowering of literary talent. Nor is it confined to literature. Other walks of life too have seen some outstanding personalities rising from vokkaliga ranks.

Dr K V G Gowda is a widely respected economist. He is a super specialist on monetary economics and international finance. His works are acclaimed as definitive contributions to knowledge.

Prof N S Rame Gowda, Vice Chancellor, Karnataka State Open University, is an expert in distant education. K T Shivaprasad is an ingenious painter of rare ability.

B Saroja Devi is among the all-time greats of Kannada cinema. Vajramuni as 'villain', Ambarish as hero, Jai Jagadeesh Jaggesh, Devaraj, Prakash Rai, Thriller Manju and Abhinaya are famous in
their own right.

Nagathihalli Chandrashekar, Nanjunde Gowda and T S Nagabharana are recognised as top film directors. K C Reddy, Kengal Hanumanthaiah, H C Dasappa, Yashodharamma Dasappa and a host of others were in the forefront of that movement.

After independence, K C Reddy became the first Chief Minister. The first general elections were conducted after the adoption of the constitution. In 1952 Kengal Hanumanthaiah became the first elected Chief Minister. His period was known for efficient and clean administration. The historic Vidhana Soudha is a monument to his vision and organisational prowess. When he was the Railway Minister of India he achieved what appeared to be a miracle: the trains ran on time. The next Chief Minister was Kadidal Manjappa. He was in office for two and half months (19.8.1956 to 31.10.1956). After that the Vokkaliga leadership seemed to suffer an eclipse.

Thirty eight years passed and H D Deve Gowda became Chief Minister of Karnataka for two years eight months and twenty days (11.12.1994 to 31.10.1996). The complications of politics sprang a surprise and this ``mannina maga'' found himself catapulted to the gaddi of the
Prime Minister. Just as unexpectedly he was catapulted out of it too.

The fact must be faced that the Vokkaliga community also has many political leaders who have neither commitment to the people nor any kind of vision. The thinking and fighting spirit of a Shanthaveni Gopala Gowda seem to have disappeared for good.

This means that the sufferings of farmers as a community will continue for want of organisational leadership. No doubt the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha is a laudable attempt in filling the
gap. But it needs more political support if it is to succeed in its fight for scientific prices for example. The system of treating villages like colonies of cities — for taking raw materials at low
prices — must stop if Vokkaligas are to advance as a community. In the end the highest religion is that which preaches that all mankind is one.

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