In the early seventies, the then Leader of Opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly HD Deve Gowda moved a privilege motion questioning the politicisation of university campuses and took a swipe at Chief Minister D Devaraj Urs. The ruling Congress took exception to the usage of the word “nasty” by Deve Gowda.
A woman clad in a saree, who occupied the chair of the Speaker and was intently listening to the debate, came to his rescue and stood firmly behind Gowda. Through her ruling, she created a history of sorts in the parliamentary politics of the country. This gritty woman is none other than K S Nagarathnamma, the first woman Speaker of Karnataka Legislative Assembly, whose 29th death anniversary falls today.
Nagarathnamma, who had then been elected on a Congress ticket, rose above party loyalties with the Constitution as her guiding light. Former Prime Minister Deve Gowda still considers Nagarathnamma a “humane and model speaker”. 2023 will be her birth centenary year.
Deve Gowda vividly remembers letter from Nagarathnamma
In 1973–74, Nagarathnamma had chosen Deve Gowda, an expert on issues pertaining to agriculture and agriculture-related technology of the time, for a 60-day tour of the United States of America (USA) to study agricultural practices and engineering projects. Nagarathnamma extended him first-class air travel and a five-star hotel stay facility.
Deve Gowda was interested in studying agricultural practices across the globe. So he wrote to Nagarathnamma that he would travel in economy class and stay in a budget hotel, and make use of the funds thus saved to go around the world to study agricultural practices.
Nagarathnamma instantly agreed and granted Deve Gowda permission without raising any objections. Such was her attitude in educating the legislators. Octogenarian Gowda still vividly remembers the content of the letter and the response from Nagarathnamma.
An authority on legislative practices
When in the chair of Speaker, never was Nagarathnamma deterred by the presence of stalwarts of Karnataka politics. She stood firmly by the values she believed in and never compromised while discharging her duties.
Nagarathnamma was an authority on legislative practices and understood the contents of the Constitution of India both in letter and spirit.
“Political stalwarts such as Devaraj Urs used to think twice while quoting from the Constitution and citing legislative norms. With her robust voice and oratory skills, she had created a benchmark for the legislature proceedings,” recalled Deve Gowda during one of his conversations with this writer.
Gundlupet people still call her ‘Amma’
KS Nagarathnamma, the first woman Speaker of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, served in that post from 1972 to 1978. People of Gundlupet, the constituency represented by Nagarathnamma seven times, still fondly refer to her as “Amma”.
She carved a niche for herself in Karnataka politics — as a legislator, minister, Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Assembly, and as the Speaker of the Lower House.
Premier art institute in heart of Bengaluru
Nagarathnamma was instrumental in getting space for the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath (CKP) — a visual art complex — next to Kumara Krupa Guest House.
“She was a great patron of art and culture. She got the land in the heart of the city with the support of the then Chief Minister D Devaraj Urs, S M Krishna, and K H Ranganath. Because of her efforts, it has now become a premier art institute in India,” said B L Shankar, present CKP president.
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A pioneer who played tennis and rode horses too
Nagarathnamma hailed from the famous Kabballi family, known for its philanthropy, in Gundlupet taluk of Chamarajanagar district. She got married to K C Subbanna when she was just 11 years old.
K C Subbanna was a philanthropist and opened schools and hostels. He was a member of the People’s Representative Assembly. He died within 10 years of the marriage.
“Widowed at a young age, Nagarathnamma engaged in serving people. She continued her husband’s legacy and took care of the schools and hostels. At a time, when women hesitated to enter public life, she was playing tennis and was a pioneer of her times. She even rode a horse with the then Mysore Mayor Soundaram Venkatesh,” said V Manjunath, Congress leader from Gundlupet whose father Venkataramana Shetty was close to Nagarathnamma.
Nagarathnamma finally entered active politics because of pressure from the people of Gundlupet. Before entering politics, she was vice president of the Bharat Scouts and Guides and a senate member of the University of Mysore.
Gundlupet was carved out as an Assembly Constituency and Nagarathnamma contested as an Independent candidate) in 1957. She became the first MLA of Gundlupet by defeating HK Shivarudrappa of the Indian National Congress. Nagarathnamma retained the constituency for four successive terms till 1972. She was elected as the Speaker of the Assembly the same year.
Nagarathnamma was instrumental in Bangarappa becoming CM
Nagarathnamma grew in politics crossing borders of caste, creed, and culture. Never did she aspire for power.
“Very few people are aware of the fact that Nagarathnamma was instrumental in making S Bangarappa chief minister of Karnataka. After Congress president Rajiv Gandhi unceremoniously removed Veerendra Patil in 1990, he appointed Sarekoppa Bangarappa as chief minister of the state,” said Manjunath, who accompanied Nagarathnamma when she met Rajiv Gandhi at the Kumara Krupa guest house.
“Had she wished, she could have saved Veerendra Patil, who belonged to her caste. But for Nagarathnamma, the state’s interest was more important than caste. She also played an important role in making Abdul Nazir Sab a member of the Legislative Council,” added Manjunath, a loyalist of Nagarathnamma till the end.
Nagarathnamma died in 1993 and in just three decades, people have forgotten her contribution to society. Her memorial in Kabbali is now in shambles. “It is time for the government to conserve and protect it,” said Manjunath.
(Muralidhara Khajane is a senior journalist, writer, and film critic. He is the author of ‘Random Reflections: A Kaleidoscopic Musings on Kannada Cinema’)
(The author wishes to thank V Manjunath, a close associate of Nagarathnamma in her last days, who sent clippings from the booklet ‘Divya Chetanagalu’ and pictures in his possession)