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Explained: Latest flashpoint in Belagavi border dispute between Maharashtra and Karnataka

The latest flashpoint is following a series of minor incidents over the last week that have inflamed pro-Kannada and pro-Marathi passions on the two sides of the border.

Written by Johnson T A | Bengaluru |
Updated: December 23, 2021 11:39:27 am
Bengaluru: Police stnd guard in front of Krantiveer Sangoli Rayanna statue during a protest against the vandalisation of Rayanna statue in Belagavi, in Bengaluru. (PTI)

An inter-state dispute between Karnataka and Maharashtra dating back to the period of Independence and the reorganisation of states on linguistic lines in 1956 has reared its head again in the Belagavi region of Karnataka. The latest flashpoint is following a series of minor incidents over the last week that have inflamed pro-Kannada and pro-Marathi passions on the two sides of the border.

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The Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti – a socio political party representing the interests of the Marathi-speaking population in the Belagavi region with the single-point agenda of unifying Marathi-speaking villages in Belagavi with Maharashtra (in opposition to the reorganisation of states in 1956) – is pitted against pro-Kannada groups in Karnataka who believe Belagavi is now a Kannada-speaking district.

With mainstream political parties in Maharashtra and Karnataka tending to take a partisan position, with their Marathi and Kannada-speaking vote bases in mind, the issue has in the past generated political heat on both sides of the border.

Why prohibitory orders have been imposed in the Belagavi region of Karnataka since December 18

A series of minor incidents involving activists of the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti and pro-Kannada groups in Karnataka and Maharashtra since December 13, when the winter session of the Karnataka legislature began in the north Karnataka district of Belagavi, has inflamed passions between Marathi and Kannada language chauvinists in the two states.

Since 2012, when Karnataka legislature sessions began being organised in the Belagavi region of Karnataka, the MES has organised a protest rally called the Maha Melava rally outside the Suvarna Soudha – the venue of the legislature meeting to press for unification of Belagavi with Maharashtra. Incidentally, the Suvarna Soudha in Belagavi, a replica of the Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru, was built at a cost of Rs 400 crore by the state of Karnataka to integrate the region into the state and quell the challenge of pro-Marathi groups for integration with Maharashtra.

On December 13 this year, when the winter session of the Karnataka legislature was scheduled to begin in Belagavi, the MES organised a protest rally outside the Suvarna Soudha – without a formal clearance from the district police and authorities. The Belagavi district administration however rejected permission for the rally fearing clashes between pro-Marathi and pro-Kannada activists.

A Shiv Sena leader, Vijay Devani, from neighboring Kolhapur who was traveling to participate in the MES rally, was sent back by the Belagavi police on the grounds that the rally had been canceled.

Despite the absence of permission to hold the rally, MES activists gathered at the venue and were involved in a confrontation with Kannada activists from the Karnataka Navanirmana Vedike. The pro-Kannada activists threw black ink on the faces of MES leaders Manohar Kinekar and Deepak Dalvi. The MES leaders, who were almost ready to clear the venue, went on to deliver speeches at the site.

The MES called for a Belagavi bandh on December 14. The bandh call did not evoke much response in Belagavi with the exception of a few Marathi localities in the border city.

A Karnataka flag was, however, burnt in protests held in Kolhapur in Maharashtra at the time and this issue was raised in the Karnataka legislative assembly by an MLA from the Janata Dal (Secular) party M Annadani – who moved a censure motion over the burning of the Karnataka flag.

After this incident, reports emerged of a statue of the Maratha warrior icon Shivaji Maharaj being smeared in a locality in north Bengaluru by pro-Kannada activists. In a retaliatory action, pro-Marathi activists are alleged to have damaged a bust of the Kannada warrior icon Sangolli Rayanna in Angol in south Belagavi on December 17. A crowd of pro-Marathi activists also gathered near the Sambhaji circle in Belagavi on December 17 – following news of the alleged desecration of a Shivaji statue in Bengaluru – with some miscreants throwing stones on Karnataka government vehicles. The incidents of December 17 led to the Belagavi district administration imposing prohibitory orders.

What is the nature of the dispute over Belagavi between pro-Marathi and pro-Kannada groups?

The essential claim of the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti and pro-Marathi groups is that Belagavi is a largely Marathi-speaking region with many parts being exclusively Marathi speaking and that the region should be a part of Maharashtra instead of Karnataka which is a Kannada-speaking state.

The MES and other groups claim that nearly 45 percent of the district is Marathi speaking while pro-Kannada groups argue that the Marathi population is only around 35 per cent which is on par with the Kannada-speaking population of the region.

At the time of Independence, the region of Belagavi (the Belgaum) was part of the Bombay presidency. The MES came into existence in 1948 with the sole aim of pushing for integration of Belgaum with Maharashtra during the reorganization of states. The region was, however, integrated with the state of Mysore (now Karnataka) during reorganisation of states on linguistic lines.

After the reorganisation of states, the MES became a political force to reckon with in Belagavi on account of its support among the sizable Marathi population in the region – which has enabled it to consistently win seats to the Karnataka legislature and even control Belagavi city on occasions.

The MES won as many as six seats in the Karnataka assembly from Belagavi in 1962. In 2018, the MES failed to win a single seat in Belagavi in several decades as its vote base drifted towards the BJP and the party also suffered divisions. The current inflaming of passions over incidents that have occurred in the last week is expected to provide the MES a degree of political revival in Belagavi.

The MES enjoys the support of pro-Marathi political parties in Maharashtra like the Shiv Sena and also the Congress party. Chief Ministers of Maharashtra have often backed the integration of Belagavi with Maharashtra. The Mahajan Commission constituted by the Government of India in 1966 said some villages of Belagavi can be integrated with Maharashtra but rejected claims on Belagavi city.

In one of the worst incidents of violence over the border dispute, as many as nine people died in 1986 in police firing in Belagavi during border agitations backed by political leaders from Maharashtra.

The Maharashtra government has challenged the integration of Belagavi with Karnataka and the matter is in the Supreme Court. Maharashtra and MES have also in the past sought declaration of Belagavi as a union territory. The MES in 2005 passed a resolution when it was in power in the Belagavi City Council to approach the state and centre for integration of Marathi areas in Belagavi with Maharashtra.

The Karnataka government of the Congress and JDS ordered dissolution of the BCC over the move.

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Kannada activists blackened the face of the MES mayor of Belagavi Vijay More over the resolution.

Successive Karnataka governments have passed multiple resolutions endorsing the Mahajan commission report which gave Belagavi to Karnataka excepting for around 200 border villages. Political parties in Karnataka including the Congress have frequently demanded a ban on the MES in the state.

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