A dispute revived

Print edition : December 16, 2005

Tensions are rising in Belgaum district after the Karnataka government dismisses the Belgaum Municipal Council for passing a resolution seeking the district's merger with Maharashtra.

RAVI SHARMA in Belgaum

A signboard in Yellur village close to Belgum claims that the village is located in Maharashtra.-RAVI SHARMA

THE Maharashtra Ekikaran Samithi-controlled Belgaum City Council (BCC) was dissolved by the Karnataka government on November 21, under pressure from Kannada chauvinists and following a legally contentious speech by the State's Governor criticising the Council. All this was in response to a provocative resolution by the Council, which called for the transfer to Maharashtra of Belgaum district and other areas of Karnataka where the Marathi-speaking population is in majority.

The dismissal may have done just what it set out not to do. For, rather than dousing the demands from a section of the Marathi-speaking population living on the Karnataka side of the Karnataka-Maharashtra border, especially in Belgaum district, for the transfer of around 3,000 square miles (7,770 sq km) of territory to Maharashtra, where they claim that the Marathi-speaking population is in the `relative majority', it has resurrected the MES' political fortunes and its pro-Marathi movement, catapulting a six-decade-old issue back to the front pages of newspapers, and set the Karnataka government on a possible collision course with the Maharashtra government.

According to the MES, of Belgaum's eight-lakh population, nearly 43 per cent is Marathi. Kannada groups dispute this and claim that the figure has come down to around 35 per cent, with Kannadigas making up around 32 per cent.

Political observers who have studied the issue are of the view that it would have been better if the government had just suspended or cancelled the impugned resolution. Successive governments in Bangalore have tried not to antagonise the Marathi-speaking population that resides in the border areas by ignoring acts such as the flying of the Bhagwa (saffron) flag atop official vehicles and buildings (a saffron flag has fluttered along with the national flag on the Council building since 1956), or business establishments displaying Marathi signboards, or even stone plaques declaring the village belonged to the "kingdom of Maharashtra".

According to a senior bureaucrat, the government could have allowed the Council to function for seven months until it completed its five-year term and then kept it in suspended animation until the situation became normal.

In fact, it is not the first time that the BCC has passed a resolution asking for Belgaum and other areas to be merged with Maharashtra. The first resolution was passed in 1948 when the Belgaum Municipality, saying that as "the mother tongue of [the] majority of the public residing within the Belgaum Municipal District [was] Marathi, and as the medium of instruction in educational institutions [was] Marathi, and as the correspondence relating to business and other transactions in the city [was] mostly in Marathi, [the] Municipality [had requested] the Indian Dominion, Indian Constituent Assembly and the Boundary Commission to include the Belgaum Municipal District in Samyukta Maharashtra only".

Similar requests, termed as "demands" more recently, were made in 1984 (elections were first held to the BCC in December 1983), 1990, 1996 and 2001. Other municipalities, such as the one in neighbouring Khanapur, where a `relative majority' Marathi-speaking population resides, and more than 250 MES-dominated gram and taluk panchayats have also passed similar resolutions, many of them in very recent times. Is the government contemplating dissolving all `erring' panchayats?

Karnataka Chief Minister N. Dharam Singh, speaking to Frontline over the telephone from New Delhi after he apprised Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil on the dissolution of the BCC, said that if he had not taken action, Kannada organisations would have protested. He said that the organisations would have accused the government of "being weak and scared to take action against a city council just because it was controlled by a linguistic minority and was located in a border area".

According to H.K. Patil, Karnataka's Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs, the government is hoping that the action would set an example and dissuade the panchayats from toying with the idea of passing similar resolutions. He said: "The Corporation had no regard for the Constitution or respect for the Karnataka Municipal Corporation (KMC) Act, violated the Flag Code, did not take up any developmental work.... We couldn't allow these wrongs to keep happening. They (MES) are only trying to emotionalise the issue and keep it in the public eye for their own narrow political ends."

UPPING the ante, a delegation of leaders of the MES visited Mumbai and met Maharashtra leaders, including Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. Subsequently, Vilasrao Deshmukh wrote letters to Dharam Singh and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressing displeasure over the action taken against the BCC.

A protest by Kannada Sainya activists in Gulbarga against the Belgaum City Council resolution.-

According to Manohar Kinekar, an MES-backed Member of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly from Uchhgaon constituency, the demand that areas where the Marathi-speaking population is in a "relative majority" should be merged with Maharashtra was supported by all political parties in Maharashtra.

While admitting that he was "not fully satisfied" with the Maharashtra government's support for the MES cause, Manohar Kinekar admitted that the MES had to depend on Maharashtra if it were to intensify its agitation. "A resolution condemning the dissolution of the BCC and a request to the Government of India to solve the border dispute will be passed by the Maharashtra Assembly during the forthcoming session which starts on December 5. A delegation of Maharashtra leaders will also submit a memorandum to the Prime Minister. Any future agitation that we are planning will be done simultaneously with Maharashtra," he said. The MES is also looking at the possibility of taking recourse to various legal avenues to challenge the dissolution.

H.K. Patil, who sees Vilasrao Deshmukh's letter to Dharam Singh "as not a good augury in a federal set-up", views the dissolution and its aftermath, "not as an inter-State dispute but as a problem between the Karnataka government and an erring municipality".

There is little doubt that the BCC, which is a 58-member elected body whose primary function - the State government insists its only function - is to handle civic issues concerning the city of Belgaum, had erred on a number of occasions during its over-four-year tenure. In its order (GO No. UDD 111 ACB 2003 Bangalore, dated November 21, 2005) the Karnataka government, among other things, charged the Council with not taking any decision to raise revenues, review lapses and take corrective measures in revenue mobilisation; discussing religious issues that could have provoked communal clashes; endorsing the sporting of saffron flags on the official cars of the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor; not performing its duties (having held just 28 meetings since 2001, of which 12 saw no resolutions being passed); failing to implement the mandatory self-assessment scheme relating to property tax collection (which all corporations in Karnataka were required to implement from November 2001); illegally locking the office of the BCC Commissioner; and unruly behaviour of councillors during BCC meetings. The Mayor and his Deputy have also been charged with providing unsatisfactory replies to show-cause notices sent by the State government in May 2003 with regard to the Council not discharging its duties and irregularities in its functioning.

But what really irked the government was the October 27 resolution under the chairmanship of Mayor Vijay Pandurang More, "requesting" the State government and the Supreme Court to merge disputed border areas in the districts of Belgaum (including Khanapur, Nippani and, most important, Belgaum city), Uttara Kannada (including Karwar and Haliyal) and Bidar (including Bhalki, Aurad and Basavakalyan), where the Marathi-speaking population was in the relative majority, with Maharashtra. According to the government this resolution was in violation of Section 18 of the KMC Act.

The controversy took an ugly turn when Vijay More, former Belgaum Mayor Shivaji Sunthakar and former legislator B.I. Patil were manhandled in Bangalore by a group of Kannada Rakshana Vedike activists. The three were standing outside the Karnataka Legislators' Home when the incident took place. The attackers tore Vijay More's shirt and daubed him with black paint.

On his return to Belgaum, Vijay More was served with a showcause notice (dated November 10) seeking why the impugned resolution should not be cancelled under Section 98 and 99 of the KMC Act. On November 17, before receiving a reply, the government cancelled the controversial resolution. Another showcause notice, dated November 17, sought an explanation from the Mayor as to why the BCC should not be dissolved (for passing the controversial resolution) in exercise of the government's powers under Section 99 of the KMC Act.

Governor T.N. Chaturvedi further queered the pitch when, on November 19, during a public function, declared that the BCC had "overstepped" its jurisdiction by passing the resolution.

A sprinkling of Kannada organisations led by some linguistic chauvinists demanded that the BCC be dissolved, during a meeting with Dharam Singh. They set November 22 as the "deadline". They threatened to go ahead with the plan for a State-wide bandh they had called for November 24 if no action was taken. On November 21, the government dissolved the Council.

According to Maloji Astekar, secretary of the MES, the government's action was illegal. "The BCC passed the resolution in keeping with the provisions of the KMC Act, 1976, and the Fundamental Rights enshrined under Article 19(1) of the Constitution. The resolution is in the form of a request and expresses the wishes of the people. It is not executable nor is it against the interests of the Corporation. It is the duty of the BCC to provide civic amenities to the people, but if the people are not getting these amenities because of the step-motherly treatment from the State government, then such a resolution merging these areas into Maharashtra is in the interest of the people and also the Corporation. The Karnataka Government's own report has admitted that there has been no development in the area because of the territorial dispute. Given these circumstances the resolution is lawful," he says.

Madhavrao Chavan, a member of the MES' legal team, said: "As per Section 77 of the KMC Act, the proceedings of the Council are to be confirmed. In the present case the proceedings on the day of the resolution are yet to be confirmed. Therefore, it is not justifiable and legal to say that the BCC exceeded its powers and scope of jurisdiction. Further, both the cancellation of the resolution and the dissolution of the Council were done without giving 15 days' time as is stipulated in the notice to enable the Mayor to submit his explanations."

The MES is, among other things, demanding that the Governor be recalled and the government dismissed. Meanwhile, Kannada associations both in Belgaum and other parts of the State are pleased with the government's move. Umadevi Thoopanavar, president of the Kannada Cheluvarigara Sangha (Belgaum), said: "This should have been done much earlier. But we rarely get any support from the Government of Karnataka or the self-styled protectors of the Kannada language. When H.D. Deve Gowda was the Chief Minister (1994-96) we submitted a memorandum asking for the setting up of large industries so that 20,000 to 30,000 Kannadigas would come here and settle down. But nothing happened. By emotionalising the issue, the MES is disturbing the harmony in Belgaum and other border areas. They have also repeatedly attacked Kannada newspaper offices and properties belonging to Kannadigas. We wish that the Marathis who are in Karnataka learned Kannada. Aren't the nearly one lakh Kannadigas living in Sholapur, Jatta, Akkalkakot, and other places in Maharashtra fluent in Marathi?"

But Shantaram Kugaji, a gram panchayat member of the MES from Yellur village (close to Belgaum) said: "How can our strength be Kannada? We don't want it to be our strength."

The common refrain from many Marathi-speaking people is that Marathi teachers are not being sent to their schools (Kannada teachers are being sent instead), that they have no employment opportunities in Karnataka since they do not know the language, they are harassed by the police, and none of the important court or land records is in actual practice translated into Marathi despite the Officials Language Act, 1963 and 1981, clearly stating that areas where the linguistic minorities constitute 15 per cent or more of the local population arrangements have to be made to translate government circulars, orders, extracts and land records into the minority language.

A letter, DO No RB Kannada CR 09/2000-01, dated September 13, from Belgaum Deputy Commissioner Shalini Rajneesh, states that while suitable instructions have been given to the local authorities for the translation of documents into Marathi, it has not happened since "at present there [is] a shortage of hands in the Revenue Department and that the present staff strength [is] overloaded with the basic work to be carried out in the official language, that is, Kannada".

Unfortunately, the bandhs called by the MES to protest against the attack on Vijay More and the dissolution of the BCC in Belgaum, Khanapur and Chikkodi, was a replay of the bloody incidents of 1986 when in the `seema ladai' (border agitation), nine persons lost their lives and large-scale arson took place in the city. The 1986 agitation was spearheaded by leaders such as Union Minister Sharad Pawar (who was then general secretary of the agitation) and S.M. Joshi.

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