What is the Maharashtra-Karnataka tussle over Belagavi all about?

What is the Central government’s stand?

Updated - January 05, 2020 05:00 pm IST

Published - January 05, 2020 12:02 am IST

The story so far:  In the first week of December, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray appointed Ministers Chaggan Bhujbal and Eknath Shinde as coordinators to oversee the government’s efforts to expedite the case related to the boundary issue with Karnataka. On the floor of the Assembly, Mr. Thackeray said Prime Minister Narendra Modi understands the PoK issue, but not Maharashtra’s border issue. This triggered a response from Karnataka, with the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike condemning Mr. Thackeray’s statement, and also questioning the silence of leaders from North Karnataka region on the issue. Adding fuel to the fire was blackening of Kannada boards in Kolhapur in Maharashtra and stopping of a Kannada film being screened citing law and order issues. The border areas, including Belagavi (earlier Belgaum), the epicentre of the issue for over six decades, remain tense.

What is the controversy?

In 1957, slighted by the implementation of the States Reorganisation Act, 1956 , Maharashtra demanded readjustment of its border with Karnataka. It invoked Section 21 (2) (b) of the Act, and submitted a memorandum to the Ministry of Home Affairs stating its objection to Marathi- speaking areas being added to Karnataka. It claimed an area of 2,806 square miles that involved 814 villages, and three urban settlements of Belagavi, Karwar and Nippani with a total population of about 6.7 lakh, all part of the Mumbai Presidency before independence. The villages are spread across Belagavi and Uttar Kannada in north-western Karnataka, and Bidar and Gulbarga districts in north-eastern Karnataka — all bordering Maharashtra.

Later, when a four-member committee was formed by both States, Maharashtra expressed willingness to transfer predominantly Kannada-speaking 260 villages with a population of about 3.25 lakh and total area of 1,160 square miles in lieu of accepting its demand for 814 villages and three urban settlements, which was turned down by Karnataka.

What was the basis of Maharashtra’s claim?

Maharashtra’s claim to seek the readjustment of its border was on the basis of contiguity, relative linguistic majority and wishes of the people. If the claim over Belagavi and surrounding areas was based on Marathi-speaking people and linguistic homogeneity, it laid its claim over Karwar and Supa where Konkani is spoken by citing Konkani as a dialect of Marathi. Its argument was based on the theory of village being the unit for calculation and enumerated linguistic population in each village. Maharashtra also points out the historical fact that the revenue records in these Marathi-speaking areas are also kept in Marathi.

What is Karnataka’s position?

Karnataka has argued that the settlement of boundaries as per the States Reorganisation Act is final. The boundary of the State was neither tentative nor flexible. The State argues that the issue would reopen border issues that have not been contemplated under the Act, and that such a demand should not be permitted. Initially, Karnataka was open to adjusting the border in the 10 mile belt from the drawn boundary. Karnataka also points out that when Congress, which redrew its circles on linguistic basis in 1920, included Belagavi in the Karnataka Provincial Congress Committee. Besides, the States Reorganisation Commission vested Belagavi with Karnataka.

Did the States make an effort to find a solution?

In 1960, both States agreed to set up a four-man committee with two representatives from each State. Except on the issue of contiguity, the committee could not arrive at a unanimous decision, and respective representatives submitted reports to their government. Between the 1960s and 1980s, chief ministers of Karnataka and Maharashtra have met several times to find a solution to the vexed issue but with no avail.

How has the Union government responded?

Under sustained pressure from Maharashtra, in 1966, the Centre announced setting up a one-man commission under former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India Meher Chand Mahajan to look into border issues between Karnataka (then Mysore state) and Maharashtra. The commission was also asked to look into Karnataka’s demand for integration of Kannada-speaking areas in Kasargod in Kerala.

While Maharashtra reiterated its demand, Karnataka sought areas in Kolhapur, Sholapur and Sangli districts from Maharashtra, and Kasargod from Kerala. The commission received more than 2,200 memoranda and met over 7,500 people. It submitted its report to the Union government in 1967. After much delay and debates over the content, the commission’s report was placed in Parliament in 1972. The commission rejected Maharashtra’s claim over Belagavi city while recommending transfer of about 260 villages in the border to Maharashtra and about 250 villages in Maharashtra to Karnataka. Maharashtra said the report was inconsistent and an unfair application of its own principle. It also said the report was not a final word on the issue. Karnataka, however, agreed to the report.

Last week, in response to Mr. Thackeray’s statement, Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa also reiterated that the Mahajan Commission report was final and “the question of transferring even an inch of land does not arise.”

Besides the commission, the Centre made several proposals including setting up of a new border commission, conducting opinion poll, bifurcation of Belagavi city, the epicentre of violent protests, and also handing over of Marathi-speaking villages without Belagavi city to Maharashtra, none of which received favorable response from either State.

What has been happening on the ground?

As Maharashtra stepped up pressure for integration of Marathi-speaking areas, the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES) — launched in 1948 — spearheaded the movement in Karnataka. Since the formation of the State on November 1, 1956, MES observes the foundation day as a “Black Day”. The period between the 1960s and 1980s saw violent protests and frequent lockdown of Belagavi city, and tension on the border. MES, which still holds sway in Belagavi City corporation, has been on the decline over the last two decades. In fact, the MES-led council also adopted a resolution to merge with Maharashtra forcing State Government to dissolve it.

The MES, which in 1994 sent five legislators in the 224-seat Assembly, drew a blank in the 1999, 2008 and 2018 Assembly elections. If the delimitation exercise that redrew the constituency map realigned local politics, changing preferences towards national parties and emergence of English — seen as a gateway to better job prospects — has hit the linguistic movement in recent times. The agrarian politics along the Krishna river bank in Belagavi district has also put the merger issue on the backburner. The MES also did not get political backing in Uttara Kannada and Bidar districts, and is also affected by factionalism. But the MES has kept the Shiv Sena, which often raises the border issue with Karnataka as in the recent case too, and the NCP, both Maharashtra’s regional parties, from dominating the narrative in Karnataka.

On its part, to reiterate its stand on the border issue, Karnataka declared Belagavi its second capital, holds its winter session at the newly constructed Vidhan Soudha, changed the name of Belgaum to Belagavi and also held the World Kannada Summit there — all in the last 15 years. In 2004, Maharashtra approached the Supreme Court for a settlement under Article 131(b) of the Constitution. Karnataka has questioned the suit. With one of the judges recusing, the court has to set up a new bench.

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