Bengaluru: In early January last year, Bengaluru’s inter-state bus station was host to a rather unusual award ceremony: two donkeys, bedecked in shawls and beads were garlanded by Vatal Nagaraj, a six-time legislator representing Karnataka Chaluvali Vatal Paksha who also leads the Kannada Okkoota.
The award, cheekily named the Rajyotsava award after the second-highest civilian honour in Karnataka, honoured various domestic animals including donkeys, dogs, buffaloes, cows and oxen as, “they are more loyal than human beings, hard-working, disciplined and obedient," he said on that occasion, adding, “No applications invited, no applications received. And no juries set up to choose the candidates; the most unique award ceremony in the world."
But donkeys are not the only unusual prop he has used to leverage his political perspective and drive protest movements—pots, brooms, slippers, vegetables, burqas, bullocks, chariots and even toilets have been fair game. Always dressed in white, with a bucket hat and dark glasses, he has led pro-Karnataka movements for decades, and claims to have staged 10,000 protests so far. “I have planned 200-250 protests every year and have called 2,000 state-wide bandhs," he has said, according to a 9 September report in the Hindustan Times.
Nagaraj was the face of the 9 September bandh to protest against the Supreme Court direction to release 15,000 cusecs of water to neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
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On Friday, hundreds of small groups waving the red and yellow flag of Karnataka made their way to Bengaluru’s Freedom Park, shouting slogans. Nagaraj took the mike and addressing them, declared, “Cauvery is ours." Crowds cheered that he criticised chief minister Siddaramaiah, Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalitha and noted jurist and legal representative of Karnataka, Fali S. Nariman.
The protest will not be over with the bandh, said Nagaraj. “We are going to Krishna Raja Sagar (KRS) dam on tomorrow (Saturday). We will not relent until we get justice," he told Mint on Friday.
“All big people (celebrities, politicians) say they will support the protests. But they show their faces for a day and then disappear. Vatal Nagaraj is devoted to the Kannada cause," said Puttaraju, a cab driver who was at the Freedom Park protest.
Linguistic chauvinism was Nagaraj’s green card to politics. People associated with him say Nagaraj is the only person to have won elections based on the language agenda. During the Gokak agitations—a language rights agitation in the 1980s that sought to make Kannada the first language of the state lead by actor Rajkumar—he overshadowed many prominent Kannada scholars with his “militancy-like protests," says a serving government official, who has been associated with the man for several years, on condition of anonymity.
V.K. Gokak, a Kannada scholar and Jnanpith awardee had recommended in the 1980s to make Kannada the first language in Karnataka over Sanskrit, which threatened to overshadow the local language. The Karnataka government headed by chief minister R. Gundu Rao was forced to accept the recommendations after the agitation gathered strength.
Nagaraj stole the show, recalls the official. “Many youngsters were attracted by this style," he added.
An unapologetic maverick, his election manifesto for the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP, the city’s civic authority) in 2010, certainly reflects some unconventional reforms. He promised a Donkey development board, free haircuts and free buttermilk and juice to people. “Vatal’s vows: vote for me, save my ass," was the headline of the New Indian Express on the day.
“I have fought for Kannada for 53 years now. From early 60s till now, there is a lot of awareness on the language and culture," Nagaraj says, who rattles off names and dates from memory.
On 7 September 1962, Nagaraj and his supporters were arrested for burning Alankar Talkies in Bengaluru which was screening a Hindi movie. Nagaraj claims the then Superintendent of Police who was wearing boots, kicked him. “Chief minister S. Nijalingappa admitted that it was a mistake to kick a man who had fought for Karnataka," Vatal says of the incident. “I don’t know my own age or year of birth; I celebrate Boot yettu (kannada for hit) as my birthday every year in a new way," he says laughing.
Nagaraj’s theatrics may be laughable but they do manage to make headlines, “He may be eccentric, but he is there for Kannada," L. Nagaraju, a mechanic taking part in the protest at Freedom Park told Mint. However, there are others who believe that because he turns every protest into a joke, he ends up diluting the importance of serious issues.
But his protests have had little or no impact on government or policy, another retired government official said, requesting not to identified as he feared being targeted by Nagaraj’s supporters. Remembering how Nagaraj would felicitate all chief ministers and later talk badly of them behind their backs, the official who worked in the chief minister’s office in the 1990s says, “He is an exploiter. He has exploited Kannada for his personal gain and Vasooli (extortion of money)."