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Hindi vs Kannada in Bengaluru viral video: What the liberal defence of the auto driver misses

www.indianexpress.com | March 21, 2023
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Women and genderqueer folks experience hostility and harassment daily when using public transport. Exercises in solidarity must not fall victim to click-bait activism
A recent video of an autorickshaw driver in Bengaluru, defending his right to not speak in Hindi when a young female passenger presumably asks him to speak the language, has gone viral on social media. It has spun off into linguistic nationalism, the familiar, and by now, frankly tiring rhetoric of north Indians failing to learn southern Indian languages when residing in the region, and solidarity with the autorickshaw driver for defending linguistic regionalism.
In a predictable turn of events, it is primarily “liberals” who have been the most strident supporters of the driver arguing for his right to speak in his native tongue. Bengali, Marathi, and southern Indian men have rushed to express their solidarity with the autorickshaw driver, in the process implicitly and also explicitly, supporting his aggressive and reprimanding behaviour towards the female passenger. As a feminist but also someone who is not blind to the privileges bestowed upon me as an upper-caste, upper-middle class, cis-hetero woman, I am worried about this tendency among a certain section of primarily liberal men to justify aggression towards women using the language of solidarity. What we do not see in this video is whether the young woman can in fact speak English — all we hear her saying is “OK, OK,” and getting off the rickshaw as fast as she possibly can.
It would be wise to remind ourselves of some key figures about Bengaluru, a city I called home for six years when I was a newly-minted migrant too. The 2011 census reveals that 40 per cent of residents in Bengaluru are migrants, a figure which, by now, has undoubtedly increased and less than half the population speaks Kannada. Many people who belong to the working class in Bengaluru are from the northeastern states, Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Tripura, and West Bengal. For a large proportion, migration may be a short-term strategy to earn money for a particular goal — building a house, saving for their children’s education or the expenses involved in the marriage of a close relative, usually a girl. Many migrate to Bengaluru also for its excellent educational infrastructure. It is not as if they make no effort to learn the language — I have marvelled at the ability of Odia security guards or domestic workers from Jharkhand to fluently converse in Kannada, while I have struggled beyond being able to provide directions in my broken Kannada, when using public transport.

What is erased in the liberal defence of this incident is the hostility that women and genderqueer folks experience daily. I can recount several instances of microaggressions where my requests were unheard, while the same made by a male companion travelling with me, and not speaking the language, were taken seriously. As a person who has conducted research on gender-based violence for over 20 years, I come to expect this and while it angers me, it no longer surprises me.

Women encounter multiple forms of harassment when using public transport (autos are part of the public transport infrastructure as are app-based taxi services). In fact, while teaching young, female, migrant students, I have also heard first-hand accounts of aggression that they have faced because of not only an inability to communicate in the local language but also by virtue of being young and female. Feminists use intersectionality as a perspective to unpack these everyday transactions where power asymmetries are not obvious and are contingent on the multiple identities we inhabit.

Another aspect that is also erased in the way that this incident has been discussed on social media is that Karnataka is multilingual — Kodava, Tamil, Telugu, Tulu, Konkani, Marathi, Dakhni (a variety of Hindustani) and several tribal languages are all spoken in the region, depending on which part of the state you are in. I wonder whether the woke men on social media would feel differently if the woman in question was someone who only spoke Tulu or if the autorickshaw driver was in Mumbai and insisting that the passenger speak in Marathi. Our empathy no longer seems to be contingent on the issue, but rather on whether we consider the victim worthy of our compassion. In this case, the young, female passenger was not able to elicit liberal compassion because she asked the autorickshaw driver to speak Hindi, a cause associated with the right. Exercises in solidarity mustn’t fall victim to click-bait activism, and this holds true regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum.

-Prof. Sreeparna Chattopadhyay is the Faculty of Sociology at FLAME University.

(Source:- https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/hindi-vs-kannada-in-bengaluru-viral-video-what-the-liberal-defence-of-the-auto-driver-misses-8502593/ )