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Belgaum merger: flogging a dead horse

A. Jayaram

Has the Karnataka Government over-reacted by dismissing the Belgaum civic body?

THE BELGAUM Mahanagarapalike, or City Corporation, stands superseded. In taking the action, Karnataka's coalition Government, known for its vacillation, has sent a message to separatist movements in the State: that the integrity of Karnataka is inviolable. Governor T.N. Chaturvedi himself saying at a public event in the presence of Chief Minister N. Dharam Singh that the civic body had overstepped its jurisdiction in adopting a resolution demanding the integration of parts of Belgaum district with Maharashtra, possibly proved a catalyst.

The Maharashtra Ekikaran Samithi (MES) is the only separatist movement in Karnataka today that can be said to have such tendencies. The Codava National Council in Kodagu district that was earlier demanding statehood for the erstwhile Part C State of Coorg has scaled down its demand: it now wants only an autonomous region for Codavas, as in the case of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, the Bodo dominated areas in Assam, and the Gorkha region of Darjeeling in West Bengal. Some fringe groups of Tamil extremists in Bangalore had, of course, demanded that the State capital be made a Union Territory in order to safeguard the interests of linguistic minorities. But that was too far-fetched a call. There have also been intermittent cries for the creation of a State encompassing areas in northern Karnataka as was articulated recently during an agitation for the setting up of a Bench of the Karnataka High Court in Hubli-Dharwad, and for the former Hyderabad Karnatak districts on the ground that they remain backward.

The cry for the integration of parts of Belgaum district with Maharashtra is an age-old one and there is nothing really new in the civic body dominated by the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES) having brought it up now. Resolutions akin to what was adopted by the Corporation Council this month have been brought up whenever a new Council was constituted or a new Mayor assumed charge.

In the latest round, more than the MES it is the erstwhile Congress-Nationalist Congress Party Government of Maharashtra headed by Sushil Kumar Shinde that raked up the issue of the transfer of Belgaum by approaching the Supreme Court. The matter is now in the Supreme Court.

Karnataka has all along continued to swear by the recommendations of the Mahajan Commission report that would seem to have virtually clinched the deal for Karnataka with respect to Belgaum.

The third Chief Justice of India, Mehr Chand Mahajan, comprised the Commission appointed by the Government of India. In August 1967, it rejected Maharashtra's demand for the transfer of Belgaum city to that State.

It also rejected Maharashtra's claim over 814 villages in Uttara Kannada district (formerly North Kanara) including Karwar town on the ground that Konkani, the language spoken by a large number of people there, is a dialect of Marathi. The Mahajan Commission recommended the transfer of 264 villages covering an area of 656.3 square miles from Mysore (now Karnataka) to Maharashtra. These included Nipani town and 40 villages around it. Of the 516 villages in seven taluks claimed by Mysore, Maharashtra itself had conceded that 260 of them were Kannada villages and therefore transferable to Mysore. The Commission recommended the transfer of 247 of them to Mysore.

The Commission also went into the Karnataka-Kerala border dispute over Kasaragod taluk (now it is a district). It recommended the transfer of 71 villages to "the north of the Payaswini and Chandragiri rivers" to Mysore.

At the root of the Belgaum issue and the demand of a section of Marathi- speaking people there is the "Home Land" doctrine. The States Reorganisation Commission headed by Justice Fazl Ali (Senior) and consisting of Hridaynath Kunzru and Sardar K.M. Panikkar had in 1955 observed: "We cannot too strongly emphasise the dangerous character of this doctrine, especially from the point of view of our national unity. If any section of people living in one State is encouraged to look upon another State as its true home land and protector on the sole ground of language, then this would cut at the very root of the national idea." Justice Mahajan cited this approvingly in his report.

The hold of the MES over the Marathi population in Belgaum is actually on the wane. There is hardly any prospect of the issue snowballing and leading to any kind of popular unrest in the region. All that the protagonists are doing now is to flog a dead horse.

There was a time when it was routinely winning five seats in the Legislative Assembly. Today it has just two — Khanapur (represented by Digambar Patil) and Uchhgaon (Manohar Kinekar). The MES legislators hardly participate in the proceedings of the House beyond ritually raising pro-merger slogans during the Governor's address to the joint session.

The Mahajan Commission rejected the view that the success rate of the MES in the elections is a guide to public opinion. "I do not think that the election results are conclusive on this point. Different considerations weigh with the voters at the time of the election and these are well known. In these elections the Congress did not join issue with the Samithi on the basis of language."

There is the view that in superseding the Belgaum Council the Government overreacted to a routine demand and that its hands were forced by some Kannada organisations that have limited popular support.

The action of some members of a new Kannada outfit known as the Kannada Rakshana Vedike who assaulted and humiliated former Belgaum Mayor Pandurang More at the Legislators' Home in Bangalore has by and large been condemned. Those who disapproved of it include the Jnanpith awardee U.R. Ananthamurthy.

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