Karnataka’s governor, Thaawarchand Gehlot, on Wednesday sent back to the state cabinet an ordinance that proposed augmenting the use of Kannada language in commercial signboards at a time when pro-Kannada protests over the issue are escalating in the state.
The ordinance, approved during a cabinet meeting on January 5, sought to amend the Kannada Language Comprehensive Development Act, 2022, and put in place a provision that mandates 60% space on signboards must be taken by Kannada language, and the remaining 40% by any other language including English.
While sending back the ordinance, the governor advised the state government to pursue its passage through the assembly, sparking a sharp response from the government, which called his intervention unnecessary.
“The government crafted a law to amplify the presence of Kannada on signboards. However, the governor’s directive mandates its passage through the Assembly. He could have simply endorsed it,” deputy chief minister DK Shivakumar said.
Soon after Shivakumar’s statement, the governor’s office released a clarification saying that the ordinance was not outrightly “rejected”.
“It is clarified that the Governor has not rejected the said Ordinance. Rather, the Ordinance has been returned to the State Government with the advice to present the said Bill before both the Houses of State Legislature for approval, since the notification for summoning both the Houses has already been issued which is scheduled to commence from 12th February 2024,” the statement said.
The decision to bring an ordinance followed violent demonstrations by pro-Kannada groups targeting businesses in Bengaluru for allegedly neglecting the state language. On December 27, vandals from a fringe group attacked numerous business establishments across the city, vandalising signboards and billboards not in Kannada.
The mob attacked stores in the city’s key markets and business hubs, including MG Road, Brigade Road, Lavelle Road, UB City, Chamarajpet, Chickpet, Kempe Gowda Road, Gandhi Nagar, St Marks Road, Cunningham Road, Residency Road, and Sadahalli Gate near Devanahalli.
The governor’s refusal to approve the ordinance comes days after chief minister Siddaramaiah met Gehlot at the Raj Bhavan, and implored him to expedite the clearance of bills passed during the Belagavi session of the legislature in December. Out of the 17 bills passed during the session, the governor has only given assent to five so far.
In several non-BJP-ruled states such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, there has been friction between the Raj Bhavans and the state governments over multiple issues.
Among the pending bills in Karnataka, the decision to revoke the National Education Policy (NEP) in the state could potentially spark controversy. Last week, the People’s Forum for Karnataka Education — Bengaluru-based organisation –presented Gehlot with a petition, ostensibly signed by 1 million stakeholders, seeking his intervention to ensure the continuation of NEP.
While the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is yet to take a formal stance on the signboard issue, a legislator who did not want to be named on Wednesday said that there was no need for controversy over the governor’s action. “Raj Bhavan has already communicated the necessity for passing the bill in the Assembly, and it’s just a matter of a few days. We stand in support of Kannada,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the state capital’s civic body, has initiated a drive to enforce the “60% Kannada” rule for name boards on commercial establishments in the city. As of Saturday, approximately 34,000 notices have been issued by the civic body to non-compliant businesses, with a deadline set for February 28 for changing the signboards to adhere to the 60% rule. However, amid the confusion surrounding the ordinance, uncertainty prevails over this deadline.
Minister for Kannada and culture Shivaraj Tangadagi said that he had received the file from the governor on Tuesday. “He (the governor) has put ‘session’ as the reason (for sending back file). I do not want to politicise it and it is about the language’s pride. I will table it during the assembly session and send it to the governor. I wanted to meet him on Wednesday as I was travelling to other districts. But he has returned the file,” Tangadagi added.