Friday, Feb 03, 2023

G N Devy writes: The Karnataka-Maharashtra border tensions are a fallout of competitive politics

The dispute is in the name of language, but it is not linguistic in essence. It is in the name of a border, but it is not territorial in essence. People know that the area will see disturbance when politicians want to unleash it.

Members of the Nationalist Congress Party during a protest over the border disputes between Maharashtra and Karnataka, in Mumbai. (PTI)

The eruption of strong language chauvinism on the border of Karnataka and Maharashtra is neither sudden nor primarily linguistic. It is not as if the people in the Belgavi-Nipani area have run out of tolerance for Marathi or the people in Kolhapur and Sangli for the Kannada language. The number of speakers of both of these languages has been overwhelmingly large. The tradition of bilingualism has been an essential element of the culture of the area. The castes and communities on both sides of the disputed border have their extended families spread on either side of it.

The situation has been so all through the history of Kannada as well as Marathi. Several of the most prominent Kannada writers have been natural speakers of Marathi. They include the great poet D R Bendre, dramatist Girish Karnad, novelist Shantinath Desai, lyricist Jayant Kaikini and singer Bhimsen Joshi, to name only a few. On the other hand, Marathi’s most iconic fiction writer G A Kulkarni spent all his working life in Karnataka and drew upon its landscape for shaping his surreal plots.

Similarly, Kannada theatre influenced the birth of the 20th century Marathi theatre. All of the harmoniums and sitars played by the greatest among Karnataka’s singers have been made in Maharashtra’s Miraj town for the last 120 years. In the past, the bhajans of Tukaram have made their way into the hearts of the Kannada speakers with as much ease as did the vachanas of Basaveshwar’s saint-followers into the minds of Marathi speakers. Thousands of Marathi words are of Kannada origin and a similar number of words in Kannada have assimilated the Indo-Aryan roots through Marathi. The most popular deity of Maharashtra is Vithoba of Pandharpur. A popular proverb in Marathi speaks of his origin as being of Karnataka. The Karnatak “quashida” (embroidered saris) has always enjoyed a place of pride in the best wardrobes of Maharashtra’s beauties; and women in Karnataka have for ages aspired to have a Paithani from Maharashtra as their wedding garb.

If such is the amity and cultural entanglement between the two languages, cultures and states, what is the source of anger that has exploded now?

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If it is not language, is it the sudden memory of a badly mangled territorial border that has irked people? One may so think till one looks at the iterations through which the border definition has passed over the last six decades. It is not necessary to mention that the eastern and the southern borders of Maharashtra have shifted countless times in history since the times of the Satavahana, Vakataka, Rashtrakuta, Chalukya and Yadava kings and also during the Maratha, Peshawa and the Colonial rules. Just before the formation of states in independent India, a large part of north Karnataka was included in the Bombay Presidency, together more with Maharashtra than with southern Karnataka.

State formation in post-Independence India was along the linguistic majorities. On the northern and north-eastern sides of Maharashtra, the starkness of the linguistic divide was diluted by the presence of numerous Adivasi communities that speak languages that are not strikingly different from Marathi or Gujarati, Hindi or Telugu. They play the role of buffer languages. There is no such buffer language between Marathi and Kannada. Hence, despite the bilingualism along the territorial border between the two, the difference stands out and looks starker than it is. However, this is no new discovery.

The almost impossible task of defining the boundary without giving scope for disagreement has gone through many phases of the dispute. Various committees have tried their might to resolve the dispute. Court cases have been filed and fought. Both states have appointed their own commissions to arrive at the maximum extent to which their respective claims can be pushed with the help of logic and argument. Demographic counts have been made for arriving at bilateral resolution and experiments with governance structures and sub-regional recasting of taluks and their representation in the Karnataka Assembly have been attempted. People in the area are used to this and, reconciled, have gone on with their lives. By now, the hardliners have become a thing of the past. The dispute is in the name of language, but it is not linguistic in essence. It is in the name of a border, but it is not territorial in essence. People know that the area will see disturbance when politicians want to unleash it.


Elections in Karnataka are round the corner. In recent times, there has been a lot of news about increased corruption. Roads in Karnataka have caved in during the last monsoon and industries have started migrating to other southern states. Attempts are made to divert attention from these real issues by mobilising the majority against the minority by generating economic blockade, by making hijab and love-jihad as issues. The elections to local bodies did not bring much good news to the ruling party. The ruling combine in Maharashtra too faces an uncertain future. The situation on both sides of the border has plenty for the BJP to get worried about. In this context, appealing to language chauvinism acquires an instrumentalist-political demand. Quite strikingly, when the Union Home Minister made a fresh move to impose Hindi on the entire India, neither the BJP advocates of Kannada in Karnataka nor the BJP advocates of Marathi in Maharashtra felt the need to protest.

The truth is, neither the language nor the people along the state border are an issue for them, as they should be. What matters to the political war-lords is to find a way of diverting the discontent, no matter what harm it brings to the harmony of communities in the area.

The writer is Chairperson, The People’s Linguistic Survey of India

First published on: 10-12-2022 at 07:35 IST
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