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A letter from Coorg

In a sylvan, robust corner of India, prosperity and education have kept demands for statehood to a whisper, writes Samar Halarnkar.
By Samar Halarnkar | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON DEC 24, 2009 09:26 PM IST

For a man who runs a coffee estate in the sylvan hills of Kodagu in south Karnataka, Raj Subbiah surprises visitors with an ability to banter in 16 languages. I heard evidence of Konkani, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Hindi, Bhojpuri and English.
A compact, mustachioed man, Subbiah was educated at the Bijapur Military School, Karnataka; St Xavier’s College, Mumbai; and Benares Hindu University, Uttar Pradesh. After discarding his life as a management consultant, Subbiah, now in his late 50s, lives alone on his coffee estate in Kodagu, or Coorg to use its anglicised name, with five dogs.

I was recently in Kodagu after a gap of nearly 20 years, and I enjoyed meeting returnees like Subbiah. They embody the talent, wanderlust — and endearing quirkiness — of the Kodavas, a
people given to good living, tradition and independence.

Kodagu has given India two army chiefs, including the late Field Marshal Kodandera Madappa Cariappa, the first army chief of independent India (a year before he took charge, one of his officers was a Colonel Ayub Khan, later Field Marshal and President of Pakistan), several hockey players and model/actors.

Ever since India’s great economic explosion, many Kodavas streamed into the corporate sector, especially the tech heartland of Bangalore. In 24 hours, I met employees from Cisco, 3M and TCS.

With a literacy rate that hovers near 80 per cent, Kodavas do very well when they leave their homeland. This tiny district is as large as the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Only, Delhi has about 15.5 million more people than Kodagu’s half a million.

As the demand for Telangana threatens to split Andhra Pradesh and revive other dormant movements like Gorkhaland and Bundelkhand, it’s interesting to note there were no more than stray whispers from Kodagu, where infrequent attempts to resurrect an old sub-national identity have died from lack of popular support.

Earlier this month, P.T. Bopanna, a former colleague from Bangalore, released a book that he edited: The Rise and fall of the Coorg state. He explores the circumstances that led to what he believes was the “unpopular” amalgamation of the independent state of Coorg with Mysore state (now Karnataka) in 1956.

For decades, the question of statehood — Bopanna argues for autonomy — has been kept alive only on the fringes of the
Kodava imagination. There have been no rebels, no agitations and no violence. Indeed, the demands are more like suggestions, like this one I found on a blog (run out of West Asia, not Kodagu):

“If Telangana in Andhra Pradesh can be carved as a new state, why not statehood for Kodagu? It is no secret that successive state governments have ignored our district for 50 years now. Pathetic infrastructure and no vision to develop Kodagu as well (sic). Participate in the discussion … It can be a healthy discussion between people for and those against statehood for Kodagu. We can make our case heard in our own sweet way.”

I like the our-own-sweet-way bit. It’s very Kodava.

So, statehood isn’t a popular demand, though I agree with the blogger’s point about pathetic infrastructure. The roads were among the worst I’ve recently encountered and at odds with its sprawling coffee, pepper and cardamom plantations, its red-tiled bungalows and rush of cars and SUVs.

This prosperity, the strong hold of education, and the ability to adapt its generations to the changing country beyond, are big reasons why India hasn’t heard of a Kodavaland. States like Nagaland and Mizoram boast of equally strong, if not stronger, education, but no other land in India so strongly combines economic well-being with education.

If it were to be a matter of identity alone, Kodava culture is indisputably distinct from mainstream Karnataka. Kodava Hindu marriages have no priests, there is much liquor, dancing and — my favourite — wedding feasts boast of a main entrée called the pandhi curry, a spicy, vinegary pork curry. The men are resplendent in their turbans and ties. Many sport handlebar moustaches, the effect of a martial tradition. The women are beautiful and ramrod-erect in their specially draped Kodava saree.

For all its virtues, Kodagu isn’t all milk and honey.

The downturn and climate change have swept this lush land. The seasons are changing, coffee prices are depressed, and many Kodava techies have been laid off. Drinking is a problem. The Kodavas love their drink, but too many seem to get drunk too fast and too often.

The district’s easy social fabric is showing some evidence of fraying. The Hindu-first political philosophy of Hindutva, which has strong roots in neighbouring Mangalore and across Karnataka, appears to be taking hold among the Kodavas.

Muslims and Christians are widely evident in Kodagu, and though there are no riots and obvious hate, there are rumblings of “love jihad” (a term borrowed from neighbouring Kerala, where some young Muslim men are accused of “luring” Hindu girls into marriage). This month, a nationwide investigation into the affairs of Thadiyantavide Naseer, a Keralite who is the main accused in Bangalore’s serial bombings, led to new suspects in Kodagu.

But as long as Coorg’s returnees keep streaming back, it’s unlikely the district will become a Gujarat or a Telangana.
“We are like the elephants born in Nagarhole (a neighbouring forest reserve),” reasoned one slightly sozzled Kodava. “All their lives they roam, into Tamil Nadu, into Kerala and God knows where else. But they all return home to die.”

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