The Bharatiya Janata Party may be in power in Maharashtra and Karnataka, but the chief ministers of both state governments have reignited the six-decade-old border linguistic dispute and crossed swords with each other. The CMs seek claim over border villages on linguistic lines, all purely for political reasons, say experts.
In Maharashtra, the BJP is in alliance with the Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena led by Eknath Shinde and BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as the 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 come to another full-blown controversy was Shinde on November 21 appointing a ministerial committee consisting of Chandrakant Patil and Shambhuraj Desai to monitor the Maharashtra-Karnataka border row and track the court case on the Belagavi border dispute.
The timing of this border row that has been unresolved for several years is important as it presents itself as a political point to both warring states on two counts — Karnataka assembly elections to be held in early 2023, and the upcoming Supreme Court hearing on the issue. The recent change in leadership in Maharashtra has further fuelled the issue but also put the BJP leadership in an uncomfortable situation.
The issue also reemerges at a time when the Basavaraj Bommai government in Karnataka prepares to hold the winter session in its second legislative assembly complex, Belagavi’s Suvarna Vidhana Soudha, on December 19. Building the Suvarna Vidhana Soudha in 2012 in Belagavi was a move by Karnataka to reassert its hold over the region and also address problems in the Kittur-Karnataka region (formerly called Mumbai-Karnataka).
“We will fight this battle to the very end as our government is committed to saving our “Nela (land), Jala (water), and Bhaashe (language)”, said Bommai, who represents the Shiggaon constituency which also falls in the Kittur-Karnataka region.
To hit back against Shinde’s announcement of a scheme to give pensions to “freedom fighters" in the Marathi-speaking area of border Karnataka, his counterpart Bommai announced special grants to Kannada schools in Maharashtra and pension for those involved in Ekikaran (unification) movement of Kannada-speaking areas.
Shinde’s move also extended the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Jan Arogya scheme 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 asserted that in 2012, villages in the Jat taluka passed a resolution seeking to merge with Karnataka when they faced a severe water crisis and the southern state came to their rescue. The Karnataka government devised water conservation schemes that have helped quench the thirst of these parched villages, he said.
Deputy CM Fadnavis trained his guns back on Bommai saying his government was “committed to acquiring” Marathi-speaking villages along the border.
“We will not allow an inch of land from the state to go to Karnataka… Even if we have to spill blood we will ensure not a single inch of Jat taluka goes to Karnataka," thundered the Eknath Shinde Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena-BJP coalition government in response.
“This is a step taken by CM Eknath Shinde for the sake of Marathi Asmita (pride)…I request the Karnataka CM to conduct a survey on the ground of how many Marathi-speaking people are there and also take a vote on their opinion on this issue,” said Naresh Mhaske, spokesperson for the Maharashtra coalition government.
He added that CM Shinde has taken up this fight as he understands the intensity and emotions of the Marathi people. “We have nothing to do with the role that Karnataka CM plays in this and we stand in full support of the Marathi-speaking people who are caught in this border dispute," he said
Since 1960, Maharashtra has been claiming that 865 villages along the border, including Karwar, Nippani, and Belagavi (previously called Belgaum), should be merged with it. Karnataka laid its counterclaim over 260 villages in Maharashtra that are largely Kannada-speaking.
“There is no question of giving up any village in the border districts of Karnataka. We demand that the Kannada-speaking areas of Maharashtra like Solapur and Akkalakot should join Karnataka," countered Bommai.
Political scientist Sandeep Shastri feels that the border issue for Karnataka was settled with the Mahajan commission report and Karnataka’s stand that it requires no further debate is a wise one. However, he adds that Maharashtra needs to keep the border debate alive and keeps bringing it up at intervals as the commission report went against it.
“This time Maharashtra took a concrete step of offering pensions and awards that could have an impact in Karnataka. That is why we are seeing that Bommai is being forced to react," Shastri told News18. “Karnataka could have taken a more strategic stand by stating that it can take care of its people and does not need anything from Maharashtra. Even those who are Marathi-speaking in Karnataka will be well taken care of by the government would have brought this debate to rest."
Notwithstanding the ongoing legal battle in the Supreme Court, the Bommai government is playing with fire on this emotional issue ahead of the polls in Karnataka, says Mumbai-based political analyst Sanjay Jog.
“Bommai is basing his arguments on the claim that the villages in the Jat tehsil passed a resolution in 2012 that they wanted to join Karnataka. Thereafter the Maharashtra government has taken up a series of initiatives to improve the water situation in those villages. The BJP which is not in the driver’s seat in Maharashtra finds itself in an awkward position on how to take on Bommai who is from its own party,” Jog said.
The district of Belgaum, despite the fact that it had a majority Marathi-speaking population, was merged with the Mysore state, now called Karnataka. The basis was the 1881 census, which said that Belgaum had 64.39% Kannada-speaking people and 26.04% were Marathi-speaking. Once the decision on Belagavi was made, Senapati Bapat, a leader from Maharashtra, sat on a hunger strike seeking a commission to be set up to resolve the border dispute. Submitting to this demand, the central government in 1966, constituted the Mahajan committee with representatives from both states.
The commission in its report submitted in August 1967 recommended that 264 villages be transferred to Maharashtra and the remaining Belagavi and 247 villages remain with the southern state. The commission also recommended that Sholapur in Maharashtra and Kasargod in Kerala be handed over to the then Mysore state. Maharashtra rejected the report, calling it biased and illogical, and demanded another review which has been leading to these verbal clashes between the CMs of both states.
“This is just political grandstanding by parties on both sides," said Ashok Chandargi, president of Belagavi District Action Committee of Kannada Organisations.
Chandargi said that the state has no high-powered committee and a border protection committee set up three years ago has not met even once. Two key members of the committee have passed away in this period, the activist said
“If anybody wants to merge some villages with another state, it cannot be based on some panchayat resolutions. Under Article 3 of the Constitution, only Parliament has the power to decide this. Just because Bommai or Fadnavis make statements, it is not possible," Chandargi said to News18.
The activist added that in 2018, HK Patil was appointed the district incharge minister to monitor the border issues.
“After 2018, there has not been a single minister in Karnataka to look after the border issue. In Maharashtra, Chhagan Bhujbal and Eknath Shinde were border ministers. With Shinde now the CM, and under him there is a high-powered committee to look into this border issue, Karnataka does not have one. It is lacking in seriousness in addressing the issue," he said.
Karnataka has now formed a legal team to fight Maharashtra on the border row in court. Headed by former attorney general Mukul Rohatgi, Bommai is fully prepared to take on the legal battle with its neighbour Maharashtra in the Supreme Court. The legal team will consist of Shyam Diwan, former Karnataka advocate general Uday Holla, and Maruti Jirale, apart from Rohatgi.
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