The story so far: The border town of Belagavi has been a part of Karnataka since boundaries were demarcated along linguistic lines under the States Reorganisation Act, 1956. But the inter-State border dispute between Karnataka and Maharashtra erupts every now and then.
The decades-old dispute flared up again in 2022 when Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai said the Karnataka government was considering laying claim to Jath taluk in Maharashtra, evoking a strong response.
The issue soon escalated and strident protests by pro-Kannada and pro-Marathi activists broke out on both sides of the border. This prompted Union Home Minister Amit Shah to forbid the two States — both ruled by BJP-led governments — from claiming any territory or making demands till the Supreme Court gave its verdict.
Despite the intervention, the Karnataka Legislative Assembly on December 22 unanimously passed a resolution to protect its interests and not cede an inch of land to Maharashtra, further stirring the political cauldron. Calling the dispute a “closed chapter“, it held that the Mahajan Commission report is the final word on border.
In retaliation, the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly on December 27, unanimously passed a resolution to legally pursue the inclusion of 865 Marathi-speaking villages from Belagavi, Karwar, Nipani, Bidar, Bhalki and others in Karnataka into the State.
What are the claims of the two States?
The raging boundary dispute between the two States dates back to the reorganisation of states along linguistic lines. In 1957, unhappy with the demarcation of boundaries, Maharashtra demanded realignment of its border with Karnataka. It invoked Section 21 (2)(b) of the Act, submitting a memorandum to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs stating its objection to Marathi-speaking areas being included in Karnataka. It claimed 814 villages and the three urban settlements of Belagavi, Karwar and Nippani as part of the Bombay Presidency before Independence. It filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2004, staking a claim over Belagavi.
Karnataka, meanwhile, has consistently argued that the inclusion of Belagavi as part of its territory is beyond dispute. It has cited the demarcation done on linguistic lines as per the Act and the 1967 Mahajan Commission Report to substantiate its position. Karnataka has argued for the inclusion of areas in Kolhapur, Sholapur and Sangli districts (falling under Maharashtra) in its territory. From 2006, Karnataka started holding the winter session of the Legislature in Belagavi, building a massive Secretariat building in the district headquarters on the lines of the Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru to reassert its claim.
In 1960, a four-member committee was formed by both States, but it couldn’t arrive at a consensus and representatives submitted reports to their respective governments. In the subsequent decades, chief ministers of both States have met several times to find an amicable solution, to no avail.
What has been the politics around the dispute?
In the immediate decades of the formation of States, no national party was willing to take the risk and address the dispute, especially the Congress which has a social base in both States.,This helped Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES) sustain its fight with a single agenda— Belagavi’s inclusion in Maharashtra.
MES-supported candidates, who have been winning one or more seats in the district since the 1957 Karnataka Assembly elections, were defeated in the 2018 Assembly elections. As another election draws close in 2023, MES is keen to revive its political fortunes.
One factor for the renewal of the conflict came from then Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde in 1986 when he made the Kannada language test mandatory for anyone joining the State Government service. Though the decision was apparently aimed at bolstering the Janata Party’s position, stopping the concession given to linguistic minorities strained relations between the two linguistic groups. Later, Hegde had to assure Marathi leaders that Kannada would not be made compulsory in primary education in the border areas.
The dispute strongly resonates in the cultural arena too. For instance, two Sahitya Sammelanas – the 73rd Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelana (ABMSS) and the 70th Akil Bharatiya Kannada Sahitya Sammelana – were held in Belagavi in 2000 and 2003, respectively. Both events prepared the ground for the re-opening of an otherwise muted issue. Well-known scholar Y.D. Phadke, president of the 73rd ABMSS, reminded the audience of the unfinished agenda of incorporating Belagavi into Maharashtra while noted Kannada writer and journalist Patil Puttappa who presided over the 70th Kannada literary meet said the town will remain part of Karnataka.
What were the terms of the Mahajan Commission?
In 1966, at Maharashtra’s insistence, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi established a one-man commissionled by Mehr Chand Mahajan, third Chief Justice of India, a few months before the 1967 general elections, with its report being released after the elections. It recommended that 264 villages be transferred to Maharashtra and that Belagavi (Belgaum) and 247 villages remain with Karnataka.
Maharashtra rejected the report, while Karnataka welcomed it. Karnataka argued that either the Mahajan Commission Report should be accepted fully, or the status quo maintained.
In the following decades, Belagavi has significantly changed on demographic and economic fronts. The middle-class core areas and surroundings of the city are predominantly Kannada-speaking people. But in and around Belagavi, a good number of people speak both Marathi and Kannada. Intercommunity marriages between the two linguistic groups exist.
What was the recent controversy around Jath taluk?
A war of words broke out between BJP leaders in Karnataka and Maharashtra over the border row last month after CM Basavaraj Bommai said the BJP-led government was “seriously considering” laying a claim on Jath taluk and held meetings with a team of senior advocates to resolve the boundary issue with the neighbouring state.
In 2021, all 40 gram panchayats of the drought-prone Jath taluk in Sangli district passed a resolution to join Karnataka, stating that the Maharashtra government was unable to provide water to its people and they were being treated unfairly.
The government decided to grant special funds for the development of Kannada schools in Maharashtra through the Karnataka Border Development Authority. They also proposed a pension for all Kannadigas living in Maharashtra who fought in the freedom struggle, the Karnataka unification movement and the liberation of Goa.
Mr. Bommai said that the border row had become a political tool for whichever party came to power in Maharashtra, and asked the Maharashtra government “to not create disputes between two states” which share cordial relations. He said Karnataka was confident it could tackle legal challenges in court, pointing to the question of admissibility raised by the SC in 2017.
This fuelled tension between the two states, with Maharashtra Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis saying they would not cede even an inch of land to Karnataka. “The Jath resolution was passed in 2012 and is an old proposal. We have not received any new proposal from Karnataka. Maharashtra’s claim on Belagavi, Karvar and Nippani is non-negotiable,” he said.
In the same week, violence broke out at Dhound village in Maharashtra when some pro-Marathi activists vandalised a KSRTC bus in protest against Karnataka laying claim over Jath taluk. In retaliation, a few Karnataka Nava Nirman Sene activists blackened the boards of an MSRTC bus at Balooragi in Kalaburagi district. On November 25, the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) suspended the movement of its buses to Karnataka.
How did trouble erupt in 2021?
In 2021, trouble began after some Kannada activists blackened the face of a leader of the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES) – a Marathi outfit formed to demand Belagavi’s inclusion into Maharashtra during ‘Maha Melava’ rally. The rally coincided with the first day of the Karnataka Legislature session in Belagavi on December 13, 2021.
In response, some Marathi outfits burnt the Kannada flag in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. This was widely condemned by Kannada organisations and the Karnataka government. To settle scores, some Kannada activists poured ink on a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji in Bengaluru. MES activists then vandalised a statue of Sangolli Rayanna, a 19th century Kannadiga icon who fought the British, at Belagavi.