The Bharatiya Janata Party may be in power in Maharashtra and Karnataka, but the chief ministers of both state governments have revived the six-decade-old frontier linguistic dispute and crossed swords. The CMs seek claim to border villages along linguistic lines, all purely for political reasons, experts say.
In Maharashtra, the BJP is working with the Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena headed by Eknath Shinde and Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP as deputy chief minister.
Two years ago, then Shiv Sena CM Uddhav Thackeray also caused quite a stir when he called Belagavi “Karnataka-occupied Maharashtra”.
The latest trigger for the festering issue to turn into a new full-blown controversy was that on 21 November, Shinde appointed a ministerial committee consisting of Chandrakant Patil and Shambhuraj Desai to guard the border between Maharashtra and Karnataka and settle the court case on the border dispute between Belagavi to follow.
The timing of this border dispute which has been unresolved for several years is important as it presents itself as a political point for both warring states on two counts: the Karnataka parliamentary elections to be held in early 2023 and the upcoming Supreme Court hearing on the matter. The recent leadership change in Maharashtra has further fueled the issue but has also put the BJP leadership in an awkward position.
The issue also resurfaces at a time when the Basavaraj Bommai government in Karnataka prepares to hold its winter session at its second legislative assembly complex, Belagavi’s Suvarna Vidhana Soudha, on December 19. The construction of the Suvarna Vidhana Soudha in 2012 in Belagavi was a move by Karnataka to reassert its hold on the region and also address the problems in the Kittur-Karnataka (formerly Mumbai-Karnataka) region.
“We will fight this battle to the end as our government is determined to save our “Nela (land), Jala (water) and Bhaashe (language),” said Bommai, representing Shiggaon constituency which is also in the Kittur falls.-Karnataka region.
To hit back at Shinde’s announcement of a scheme to give pensions to “freedom fighters” in the Marathi-speaking area of the Karnataka border, his counterpart Bommai announced special grants to Kannada schools in Maharashtra and pension for those involved in the Ekikaran (unification) movement of Kannada speaking areas.
Shinde’s move also extended Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Jan Arogya’s plan to these “freedom fighters”.
The flames of the controversy were further fanned when Bommai said Karnataka was seriously considering claiming 40 villages in Jat taluka in Maharashtra. He claimed that villages in the Jat taluka passed a resolution to merge with Karnataka in 2012 when they faced a severe water crisis and the southern state came to their rescue. The Karnataka government devised water conservation plans that have quenched the thirst of these parched villages, he said.
Deputy CM Fadnavis turned his guns back on Bommai and said his government was “determined to acquire Marathi-speaking villages along the border”.
“We will not let an inch of land go from the state to Karnataka…Even if we have to shed blood, we will make sure not a single inch goes from Jat taluka to Karnataka,” thundered the Eknath Shinde Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena-BJP coalition government in answer.
“This is a step taken by CM Eknath Shinde for the sake of Marathi Asmita (pride) in this issue,” said Maharashtra coalition government spokesman Naresh Mhaske.
He added that CM Shinde has entered this battle because he understands the intensity and emotions of the Marathi people. “We have nothing to do with Karnataka CM’s role in this and we fully support the Marathi speaking people caught in this border dispute,” he said.
Since 1960, Maharashtra has claimed that 865 villages along the border including Karwar, Nippani and Belagavi (formerly called Belgaum) should be merged with it. Karnataka filed its counterclaim against 260 villages in Maharashtra which are largely Kannada speaking.
“There is no question of giving up a village in the border districts of Karnataka. We demand that the Kannada speaking areas of Maharashtra such as Solapur and Akkalakot join Karnataka,” Bommai countered.
Political scientist Sandeep Shastri believes that the border issue for Karnataka has been resolved with the report of the Mahajan Commission and that Karnataka’s stance that no further debate is needed is sensible. However, he adds that Maharashtra needs to keep the border debate alive and bring it up intermittently as the commission’s report went against it.
“This time, Maharashtra took a concrete step by offering pensions and benefits that can make an impact in Karnataka. That’s why we see Bommai being forced to respond,” Shastri told News18. “Karnataka could have taken a more strategic position saying it can take care of its people and doesn’t need anything from Maharashtra. Marathi speaking in Karnataka will be well taken care of by the government would have put this debate to rest.”
Despite the ongoing legal battle in the Supreme Court, the Bommai government is playing with fire over this emotional issue ahead of the Karnataka polls, says Mumbai-based political analyst Sanjay Jog.
“Bommai bases his arguments on the claim that the villages in the Jat tehsil passed a resolution in 2012 that they wanted to join Karnataka. Subsequently, the government of Maharashtra has taken a series of initiatives to improve the water situation in those villages. The BJP, which is not in charge in Maharashtra, is in an awkward position to face Bommai, who is from his own party,” Jog said.
Belgaum district, despite having a majority Marathi speaking population, was merged with the state of Mysore, now called Karnataka. The basis was the 1881 census which said that Belgaum had 64.39% Kannada speaking people and 26.04% Marathi speaking. Once the Belagavi decision was made, Senapati Bapat, a leader from Maharashtra, went on a hunger strike to set up a committee to resolve the border dispute. To meet this demand, the central government established the Mahajan Committee in 1966 with representatives from both states.
The commission, in its August 1967 report, recommended transferring 264 villages to Maharashtra and keeping the remaining Belagavi and 247 villages with the southern state. The committee also recommended transferring Sholapur in Maharashtra and Kasargod in Kerala to the then state of Mysore. Maharashtra rejected the report, calling it biased and illogical, and demanded another review which has led to these verbal clashes between the CMs of both states.
“This is just political greatness of parties on both sides,” said Ashok Chandargi, chairman of Kannada Organizations Belagavi District Action Committee.
Chandargi said the state has no strong commission and a border protection commission established three years ago has not met once. Two key members of the committee died during this period, the activist said
“If someone wants to merge some villages with another state, it cannot be based on panchayat resolutions. According to Article 3 of the Constitution, only the parliament is competent to decide on this. Just because Bommai or Fadnavis are making statements, it is not possible,” Chandargi told News18.
The activist added that in 2018, HK Patil was appointed as a district minister to oversee border issues.
“After 2018, there has not been a single minister in Karnataka to deal with the border issue. In Maharashtra, Chhagan Bhujbal and Eknath Shinde were border ministers. With Shinde now the CM, and under him there is a powerful commission to look into this border issue, Karnataka has none. There is a lack of seriousness in addressing the issue,” he said.
Karnataka has now formed a legal team to fight Maharashtra on the border in court. Under the leadership of former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, Bommai is fully prepared to take on the legal battle with his neighbor Maharashtra in the Supreme Court. The legal team will consist of Shyam Diwan, former Advocate General of Karnataka, Uday Holla, and Maruti Jirale in addition to Rohatgi.
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