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The dispute over Belagavi

Why has the border row over Belagavi flared up? Why has it simmered since the States Organisation Act of 1956?

The story so far: The border town of Belagavi has been a part of Karnataka since boundaries were demarcated on linguistic lines under the States Reorganisation Act, 1956. But the inter-State border dispute between Karnataka and Maharashtra erupts every now and then. In the most recent instance, 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 Legislature session of Karnataka in Belagavi on December 13, 2021. In turn, some Marathi outfits burnt the Kannada flag in Kolhapur in Maharashtra. This was widely condemned by Kannada organisations and the Basavaraj Bommai-led government in Karnataka. 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 icon of Karnataka who fought the British, at Belagavi.

THE GIST

  • The inter-State border dispute between Karnataka and Maharashtra has erupted again. In 1957, unhappy with the demarcation of boundaries, Maharashtra demanded realignment of its border claiming 814 villages, and three urban settlements which includes Belagavi. Karnataka maintained that inclusion of Belagavi as part of its territory is beyond dispute citing the demarcation done on linguistic lines and the later Mahajan Commission Report.
  • The Mahajan Commission Report recommended that 264 villages be transferred to Maharashtra and that Belgaum and 247 villages remain with Karnataka.
  • Belagavi’s demography has changed quite a bit since independence. The core areas and surroundings of the city are predominantly Kannada-speaking people. But around Belagavi a good number of people speak both Marathi and Kannada.

What are the claims of both states?

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, and submitted a petition to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs stating its objection to Marathi-speaking areas included in Karnataka. It claimed 814 villages, and three urban settlements of Belagavi, Karwar and Nippani, all part of Mumbai Presidency before independence. A petition by Maharashtra in the Supreme Court, staking a claim over Belagavi, is currently pending.

Karnataka has consistently argued that 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 later Mahajan Commission Report to substantiate its position. Karnataka has argued for inclusion of areas in Kolhapur, Sholapur and Sangli districts (falling under Maharashtra) as its territory. Karnataka started holding the winter session of the Legislature in Belagavi from 2006. It built 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. The committee could not arrive at a consensus and respective representatives submitted reports to their government. In the subsequent decades, chief ministers of both States have met several times to find an amicable solution but to no avail.

What has been the politics around the dispute?

In the immediate decades of formation of States, no national party, particularly the Congress which has a social base in both States, was willing to take the risk and address the dispute. This helped MES sustain its fight with a single agenda to seek 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 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, the stoppage of the concession given to linguistic minorities strained relations between 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 Sammeala – 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 commission, the Mahajan Commission (Mehr Chand Mahajan, third Chief Justice of India) a few months before the 1967 general elections and its report was released after the elections. It recommended that 264 villages be transferred to Maharashtra and that 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 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.

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