This week’s extracts are about:

  1. How the writing systems of languages in South Asia have been used as political tools and markers of identity
  2. How the formation of Maharashtra and Karnataka as linguistic states forced single-language identities onto a bilingual population in Belgaum

From The Identity Politics of Language and Script in South Asia, Carmen Brandt (2014):

In many parts of the world, the writing system of a language hardly attracts any political attention. For instance, most European languages are written in the same script – the so-called Latin or Roman script – and neither the English, French nor German nationalists would today claim this writing system only for their own language, or name it the English, French or German script. By contrast, there is hardly any South Asian region where writing systems do not play the role of a demarcator between languages, an identity marker, and/or an alleged stabiliser for small languages.

The fact that most Bengalis will refer to the script of their language exclusively as the ‘Bengali script’, though it is used for many other languages as well, e.g. Assamese, Bishnupriya, Chakma, Meitei, Santali, etc. gives a glimpse of the dominant role of the Bengali language in the eastern part of South Asia. Whereas some of these languages had their own script or only an oral literary tradition until literacy was spread among its speakers, Assamese has, like Bengali, a long literary tradition in this script which Assamese speakers naturally refer to as the ‘Assamese script’. In fact, the term ‘Eastern Nagari’ seems to be the only designation which does not favour one or the other language. However, it is only applied in academic discourses, whereas the name ‘Bengali script’ dominates the global public sphere. Still, when the International Organization for Standardization officially declared this writing system the ‘Bengali script’, the uproar among Assamese intellectuals came as no surprise.

Eastern Nagari Script
Reads Purbi Nagôri Lipi in Assamese (top) and Bengali (bottom)

Certainly, the common name of this script is not owed to any rightful entitlement based on historic developments. It is rather solely the result of the predominantly Bengali perception of this script [and] writings of Bengali linguists during colonial times. [Many] Bengalis also tend to perceive languages written in the same script (the Eastern Nagari) as inferior, since those languages are allegedly written only with ‘borrowed’ letters.

[There] are also cases in which the Eastern Nagari was enforced on languages that already had a literary tradition in their own respective scripts. A more recent example is Sylheti, a language which was dominantly written in Sylheti Nagari and only after 1971 degraded to the status of a dialect for the sake of a greater Bengali identity in independent Bangladesh. Not only was Sylheti’s status as a language challenged, but its speakers were also discouraged from using its script which as a result is hardly in use today. Conversely, the attempt of Bengali administrators during British colonial times to introduce Oriya education in Orissa only in Eastern Nagari ultimately failed.

From Land, Language and Politics, Mahesh Gavaskar, 2006

The unification of Karnataka was politically one of the most excruciating processes in the reorganisation of states along linguistic lines. Except for the old Mysore state, the rest of present-day Karnataka has been carved out of four erstwhile regions – the Bombay-Karnataka, Hyderabad state of the Nizam, Madras province and Coorg – wherein Kannadigas cohabited with other language groups. Though this feature is shared by other linguistic states, the fact that the  Kannadigas do not constitute a sweeping majority in Karnataka, even after its formation, is often not recognised. In fact, being constructed out of five distinct regions, other language groups have a conspicuous presence in Karnataka, with the Kannadigas constituting just over 60 per cent of the total population.

The Marathi-speaking people had a notion of ‘Maharashtra Dharma’ (though lacking the idea of territorial boundaries) as articulated by Swami Ramdas, a contemporary of Shivaji. But having lost historical pre-eminence, it took the 20th century to dawn for Alur Ventaka Rao from Dharwar to formulate ‘Karnatakatva’, a unifying ideology for Kannada-speaking people in terms of territory and culture.

Historically, a narrow chunk of land stretching north-east from Belgaum [now renamed as Belagavi] to Solapur has had a mix of Marathi-Kannada population to varying degrees. Rani Chennamma, who achieved fame fighting the British in the 1820s at Kittur, 40 km south of Belgaum, hailed from Kakati, a northern suburb of Belgaum, and is now part of Kannada heroic folklore. A battery of Kannada newspapers Vijay Karnataka, Prajavani, Samyukta Karnataka and Kannadamma have a sizeable combined circulation in the city and the district, though nowhere matching the circulation of Tarun Bharat, by far the largest circulating Marathi daily in the border region.

Belagavi (Belgaum) District

The monolingual state formations though born out of popular demand, were bound to do injustice to bilingual populations situated at the confluence of distinct linguistic cultures. In fact, monolingual states have split the bilingual identities, forcing the population to identify either as Marathi-speaking or Kannada-speaking. Significantly, Baburao Thakur, the founder of Marathi daily Tarun Bharat and later a leader of the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti, was initially opposed to monolingual state formations. Under the influence of the Gandhi-led Congress, he along with Kannada-speaking workers was involved in launching Marathi and Kannada primary schools in Chandgad, Khanapur, Belgaum, Chikkodi, Bailhongal, and Saundatti in the 1930s-40s. But with monolingual state formations becoming a norm, the political salience of bilingualism evaporated, and Thakur eventually abandoned his nuanced stand.

In a ‘monolingual’ Karnataka, with English and Hindi reserving the two slots, the hidebound implementation of the three-language formula in education has further aggravated the fight between Marathi and Kannada for the third slot in the border region. With monolingual state formations, the porous boundaries between linguistic cultures have ossified, and sadly, an influential section of the intelligentsia, underestimating this aspect, has only helped in hardening monolingual identities.


Brandt, Carmen. “The Identity Politics of Language and Script in South Asia.” Depart 17, 2014, pp. 24–31.

Gavaskar, Mahesh. “Land, Language and Politics.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 38, no. 12-13, 22 Mar. 2003.

Bonus Content

Watch a 2 minute news report that demonstrates how resistance to the imposition of Kannada takes the form of a demand to merge the district with Maharashtra, unfortunately reinforcing the idea of single-language identities.