Belgaum again

Print edition : December 30, 2011

The Belgaum City Corporation asserts its Marathi identity and the Karnakata government threatens dissolution of the council.

in Belgaum

Belgaum Mayor Manada Balekundri (fourth from left) and Deputy Mayor Renu Killekar (next to her) participating in the "black day" function organised to oppose the Rajyotsava celebrations in Belgaum on November 1.-D.B. PATIL

RELATIONS between the government of Karnataka and the Belgaum City Corporation (BCC) have been strained for more than two decades over the demand for the merger of Belgaum with Maharashtra. In fact, Belgaum has been asserting its Marathi identity ever since it got incorporated into Karnataka (then known as Mysore State) in 1956 when Indian States were reorganised on the basis of linguistic demographics.

In 1984, the newly formed BCC adopted a resolution demanding Belgaum's merger with Maharashtra. The State government immediately issued a notice to the corporation asking why the resolution should not be cancelled. (It was cancelled subsequently.) In 2005, the government sent another notice to the BCC after Vijay More, the Marathi-speaking Mayor, passed a resolution advocating the merger of Belgaum with Maharashtra. Activists belonging to the Kannada Rakshana Vedike (KRV), a chauvinistic organisation, blackened the face of More. The government dissolved the BCC for three years.

Recently, a show-cause notice was issued to the BCC soon after Mayor Manada Balekundri and her deputy Renu Killekar did not take part in the Rajyotsava Day celebrations on November 1, commemorating the birth of Karnataka. They instead took part in a black day' rally organised by the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES), the organisation spearheading the movement demanding Belgaum's merger with Maharashtra. The Urban Development Secretary issued a show-cause notice to the Mayor. Meanwhile, members of a faction of the KRV ransacked the Mayor's chamber.

On being asked why she stayed away from the Rajyotsava function, Manada Balekundri told Frontline that MES members never participated in the November 1 celebrations as they considered it a day of great injustice. On that day Belgaum was made a part of a predominently Kannada-speaking State. Maloji Shantaram Ashtekar, MES (central unit) general secretary, who was the Mayor in 1984, substantiated her statement: It is true that we [MES members] do not take part in the Rajyotsava Day celebrations but a notice has never been served on the Mayor before [for this].

KARNATAKA RAKSHANA VEDIKE activists burning effigies of the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor of Belgaum.-H.S. NARASIMHA KUMAR

When a notice has never been served for the same violation in the past, why has it attracted special treatment this time? The answer lies in a second official show-cause notice sent to the BCC on November 24 seeking reasons why the corporation should not be dissolved according to the provisions of the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act of 1976.

The open threat contained in the notice is interpreted by many Marathi language partisans as another move to infringe on the powers of the Marathi-dominated BCC.

While the notice has highlighted the inefficiency of the BCC (its failure to conduct regular meetings and utilise its budget properly), it has also questioned its decision to scuttle the move to felicitate Chandrashekar Kambar, who was awarded the Jnanpith Award this year. (On December 1, the BCC voted against a resolution seeking to accord a civic reception to the litterateur.) Kambar has become a controversial figure in Belgaum, where he completed his early education.

A native of Ghodgeri in Hukkeri taluk of the district, he has become the target of pro-Maharashtra activists for his statements advocating Kannada as the medium of education and for suggesting that Belgaum be renamed as Belagavi. Further, his criticism of Marathi-speaking councillors for not taking part in the Rajyotsava celebrations led to a war of words with MES leaders and even attracted the acerbic pen of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Thackeray wrote in Saamna, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, that Kambar's statements did not behove a Jnanpith Award winner. Kambar has decided to skip several felicitation functions in Belgaum as the police apprehend a tense situation.

Kambar's statements have been, however, endorsed by the Kannada-speaking people of Belgaum. Siddanagouda Patil, who became the first Kannada Mayor of Belgaum in 1991, said: What Kambar said is that if the Marathi-speaking people only want to learn Marathi, they should go to Maharashtra. I do not think there is anything wrong in that.

The latest fracas in the BCC has only brought back into focus the 55-year-old dispute. Although historically Belgaum was part of the Kannada region as it was ruled by the regional dynasties, it came under Maratha rule when the Peshwas expanded their kingdom to the south. In 1956, Kannada-speaking parts of the Bombay Presidency, the Madras Presidency, Hyderabad and the region of Coorg were added to the princely state of Mysore to form Mysore State. Belgaum, which became part of the Bombay State after Independence, was merged with Mysore though parts of it had a significant Marathi-speaking population. This was resented by the Marathi population in the area, and has since become a raging controversy.

The Mahajan Commission headed by Mehr Chand Mahajan, the third Chief Justice of India, was appointed in 1966 to look into the grievances after the State of Bombay sent a memorandum to the Home Ministry. While it recommended that some villages of Karnataka could be transferred to Maharashtra and vice versa, it maintained that Belgaum city was part of Karnataka. Maharashtra refused to accept the verdict of the commission and so its recommendations have not been implemented.

Another Jnanpith Award winner, V.K. Gokak, became the cause for some disharmony in the 1980s. In 1980, the Karnataka government constituted a committee headed by Prof. Gokak to rethink its language policy. The State had adopted the three-language formula, with Sanskrit as the dominant language in schools at the time of its formation. The committee recommended that Kannada should be given first language status and made the language of instruction in primary schools. Predictably, linguistic minority groups across the State felt threatened. In what came to be called the Gokak agitation, pro-Kannada language groups and non-Kannada minority language groups staged widespread protests. In Belgaum, the agitation turned bloody and continues to live in public memory as a raw wound.

On March 29, 2004, the Maharashtra government filed a suit in the Supreme Court staking its claim for Belgaum (Original Suit No. 4/ 2004). The first respondent was the Union of India while the second respondent was the State of Karnataka. We are making a case for arbitrariness on the part of the Union of India while reorganising States in 1956. It should be noted that our case is against the Union of India and not against Karnataka or the Kannada-speaking people, said Madhav Rao Chavan, an advocate and a member of the legal team handling the case in the Supreme Court on behalf of Maharashtra.

Elaborating the Maharashtra government's stand further, Chavan stated: The basic issue is Article 3 of the Constitution gives Parliament the exclusive authority to make State borders. In the legislative history of Parliament, 27 Bills have been placed before the House with regard to this, of which 23 became Acts. Seven of these pertain to boundary adjustments by taking the village as a unit. If we look at linguistic majority, geographical contiguity and wishes of the people in addition to taking the village as a unit, then it is clear that Karnataka should part with 865 villages spread across four districts of Belgaum, Bidar, Gulbarga and Karwar.

Marathi-speaking people of Belgaum say that they are often denied the rights granted to linguistic minority groups under the Karnataka Official Language Act, 1963, and Articles 14, 29 and 30 of the Constitution. When I go and ask the tahsildar for my records in Marathi, I should get them in my language. All official correspondence is available in Kannada only, says an agitated Anand Mense, who is Professor of Geology at G.S.S College in Belgaum.

Karnataka's stand in this imbroglio is clear. A committee the Karnataka Maharashtra Border Dispute Special Legal Advisory Committee headed by M. Ramakrishna, a retired Chief Justice of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, is responsible for articulating its position. A note prepared on the issue by Justice Ramakrishna has dismissed the claims of Maharashtra. Karnataka even questioned the admissibility of the suit 37 years after the submission of the Mahajan report and suggested that the timing of the suit (on the eve of the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections) was suspicious.

While recognising Konkani as an independent language, the note dismisses Maharashtra's claims over the Konkani-speaking parts of Uttara Kannada district. Disagreeing with Maharashtra's contention that linguistic majority should be the sole criterion for drawing State borders, it invokes the 1948 S.K. Dar Commission's opinion that provinces should be formed primarily on the basis of administrative convenience. Most importantly, the note states boldly: Linguistic minorities live happily in Karnataka and Linguistic Minority Commission Report stated as evidence in support of this. [sic]

SUPPORTERS OF THE Gokak Committee report, which recommended first language status for Kannada in schools, throwing stones at the police in Bangalore in April 1982.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

According to Census 2001, the Urban Agglomeration of Belgaum had a population of 506,480. The city's population figures are projected to cross 600,000 in the 2011 Census. Marathi-speaking people form the largest chunk of the population (around 40 per cent, according to the 1981 Census), while a significant Kannada-speaking population (32 per cent, mainly comprising the Lingayat community) and a large Urdu-speaking Muslim community (17 per cent) make up for the rest. Linguistic affiliation is the primary qualification to get elected, and that remains their main identity, along with religion and caste.

While the MES has broken up into several factions, it retains some cachet and influences the actions of Marathi-speaking corporators. Of the 58 members in the current BCC, 32 speak Marathi (55 per cent), 18 Kannada (31 per cent) and eight Urdu (14 per cent). For a long time, the Marathi members' bloc was solid, but things started changing from the 1990s with the shenanigans of a few members, who formed a multilingual group called the Sarvabhashik Samavichar Vedike (SSV).

Mayor Manada Balekundri is a member of the SSV and is the first Marathi Mayor since 2005. She was preceded by three Kannada Mayors. Even though she represents the SSV, her actions, such as the boycott of the Rajyotsava Day celebrations, are representative of Marathi sentiments. Often chaotic, the BCC's elected council hardly takes a consistent position on most issues. In a chat with Frontline, Netaji Narayan Jadhav, the Marathi-speaking opposition party leader in the BCC, was hard-pressed to explain who the members of the opposition party' were. Ravi Dhotre, a corporator from the Kannada group, said: The council is a sham. There is a total double game' happening there. Local journalists are critical of the council members and describe their politics as anti-development.

Any move to dissolve the BCC will be seen as an action to curtail the sentiments of the Marathi-speaking corporators. The first show-cause notice sent to the Mayor evoked a strong response from the Marathi populace, who by and large felt that the notice to the first citizen' of the city had insulted it. It is a tricky situation for the State government, but in the past few years it has dealt firmly with the BCC. Members of the MES date this new aggression to 2004 when Maharashtra filed the suit in the Supreme Court.

At the same time, the Karnataka government displayed a new zealousness when it projected Belgaum as an important part of the State. The city was declared its second capital in 2006 and an annual session of the State legislature is held there. Work on building a formidable seat for this second capital, the Suvarna Vidhana Soudha, has been under way since 2007. More recently, the World Kannada Conference (Vishwa Kannada Sammelana) was held in Belgaum last March. All these moves are intended to send a firm message to groups such as the MES that Belgaum belongs to Karnataka.

Moreover, the KRV has intensified its activities in the region to match the fervour of the MES. Syed Mansoor, an active member of the KRV, justified the group's actions by stating that the Kannada-speaking people had faced a lot of attacks from the cadre of the Shiv Sena in the past. A continuous source of disharmony between the Kannada- and Marathi-speaking groups is the signboards that have been put up by residents of Yellur village, 15 kilometres from Belgaum, which state that the village is in Maharashtra. The village is very much within Belgaum district, but the local administration does not want to remove the signboards forcibly.

THE SIGNBOARD IN Yellur, 15 km from Belgaum, states that the village is part of Maharashtra.-D.B. PATIL

The situation is complex and no amicable solution seems to exist. The residents themselves are peaceful and there is no visible acrimony in daily relations, but passions are strong on both sides. Ordinary people like Chandrashekhar Talandage, a Kannadiga autorickshaw driver, are clear that Belgaum should remain in Karnataka. His own story is interesting and demonstrates the intricacies of the problem. Talandage grew up in Chikkodi (a Marathi-dominated town close to Belgaum) and studied in a Marathi-medium school. He is not literate in Kannada and reads only Marathi newspapers, but resents the Marathi bias displayed by them. I wish I knew Kannada but I was educated only in Marathi. I have not even visited Bangalore but have gone to Pune and Mumbai, he said. On the other side, Marathi-speakers like Anand Mense who are also fluent in Kannada believe that a merger with Maharashtra is something many people in Belgaum look forward to.

The complex layering of identity provides an idea of the uniqueness of the problem, which has been discussed at some length by Gopa Sabharwal in her book Ethnicity and Class: Social Divisions in an Indian City.

While the people of Karnataka and Maharashtra wait for the Supreme Court to pronounce its verdict, it is the residents of Belgaum who suffer every time the issue flares up. As Subhash Patil, Associate Professor of Political Science at R.P.D. College in Belgaum, put it: Belgaum is under the limelight because of the border issue, but this should not hinder the prosperity and development of the city.

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