On Wednesday, (November 30), the Supreme Court will hear arguments about the maintainability of a petition filed by the Maharashtra government, challenging some provisions of the State Reorganisation Act, 1956 and demanding 865 villages from five districts of Karnataka.
In Karnataka, tensions are high, especially in Belagavi district, which borders Maharashtra, and the police have beefed up security arrangements.
Maharashtra and Karnataka have sparred over the inclusion of some towns and villages along the state border ever since the State Reorganisation Act was passed by the Parliament in 1956. The Act was based on the findings of the Justice Fazal Ali Commission, which was appointed in 1953 and submitted its report two years later.
On November 1, 1956, Mysore state – later renamed Karnataka – was formed, and differences between the state and the neighbouring Bombay state – later Maharashtra – erupted. Maharashtra was of the view that the northwestern district of Karnataka, Belagavi, should be part of the state, leading to a decade-long violent agitation and formation of Maharashtra Ekikaran Samithi (MES), which still holds sway in parts of the district and the eponymous city.
Amid protests and pressure from Maharashtra, the Union government set up a commission under retired Supreme Court judge Justice Meharchand Mahajan on October 25, 1966. S Nijalingappa was the Karnataka Chief Minister then and VP Nayak was his Maharashtra counterpart.
The report was expected to be a binding document for both states and put an end to the dispute. The commission submitted its report in August 1967, where it recommended merging 264 towns and villages of Karnataka (including Nippani, Nandgad and Khanapur) with Maharashtra, and 247 villages of Maharashtra (including South Solapur and Akkalkot) with Karnataka.
Though the report was tabled in 1970 in the Parliament, it was not taken up for discussion. Without the implementation of the recommendations, demands of Marathi-speaking regions to be part of Maharashtra and Kannada-speaking regions to be part of Karnataka continued to grow. MES made it a poll issue in many parts of Belagavi and won successive elections from constituencies in the district.
According to Kannada activist Ashok Chandargi, the issue led to political polarisation in border areas of Belagavi, with many people aligning with parties based on language. However, this waned around 1999 as MES was decimated in the polls and did not win a single seat in the border areas.
Why tensions rise in Belagavi in winter
In 2007, Karnataka started building the Suvarna Vidhana Soudha (Legislative Assembly) in Belagavi to assert its control over the region. The building was inaugurated in 2012, and the winter legislature sessions are held here annually.
The border issues springs up every time the Karnataka Assembly session is held in Belagavi. In 2021, during the Belagavi session, the city had turned into a tinderbox. An MES activist’s face was blackened by Kannada activists for organising an event demanding the merger of Belagavi with Maharashtra. Days later, the statue of freedom fighter and Kannada icon Sangolli Rayanna in Belagavi city was vandalised.
This year too, there are fears that Kannada and Maratha groups will be up in arms over the border issue during the session. On December 3, two ministers of Maharashtra government — Chandrakant Patil and Shamburaje Desai — are scheduled to visit Belagavi. Kannada groups, meanwhile, have demanded the Karnataka government to depute its own delegation of senior ministers to Kannada-speaking regions of Maharashtra.
Maharashtra approached the Supreme Court in 2004, challenging the State Reorganisation Act. It demanded 865 villages and towns from five Karnataka districts to be merged with the state. The five districts are Belagavi, Karwar, Vijayapura, Kalaburagi and Bidar.
However, almost two decades after the petition, its maintainability remains challenged. Karnataka has resorted to Article 3 of the Indian Constitution to argue that the Supreme Court does not have the jurisdiction to decide the borders of states, and only Parliament has the power to do so. Maharashtra has referred to Article 131 of the Constitution, which says that the Supreme Court has jurisdiction in cases related to disputes between the Union government and states.