Marathi response

Published : Oct 20, 2006 00:00 IST

Maharashtra reasserts its position on Belgaum as Karnataka decides to make the city an alternative State capital.


"MARATHI families in Belgaum have a long-standing tradition. The boy in the family will be sent to a Kannada school while the girl will go to a Marathi-medium school. This is because the girl will most likely be married into a Marathi-speaking family in Maharashtra and the boy will stay on in Karnataka to earn his livelihood." This anecdote of practical evolution, related by Dr. Ratnakar Mahajan, Deputy Chairman of the Maharashtra State Planning Commission and member of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), best illustrates the adaptations that native Marathi speakers have had to make in the 50 years since the States Reorganisation Act of 1956 granted the largely Marathi-speaking city of Belgaum to Karnataka.

If there is one issue in Maharashtra that finds support across political parties and political ideologies and has litterateurs in agreement with politicians, it is the matter of the merger of Marathi-speaking areas of Karnataka with the State. People like writer Dr. Y.D. Phadke, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, N.D. Patil and Manohar Joshi, all of whom have frequently and publicly clashed because of diametrically opposed views, are in agreement on this matter. The most notable evidence of this was available in the year 2000 when the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, an annual convention, was held in Belgaum. The idea to move the Supreme Court on the issue was mooted and approved unanimously here. An important step was taken at the convention with the formation of a five-member committee headed by Dr. Phadke. The committee was meant to act as a pressure group to further the merger cause of the State-appointed committee.

This five-decade-old issue has come into focus once again with Karnataka's decision to make Belgaum an alternative State capital. The group that supports Belgaum's merger with Maharashtra, the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES), retaliated by organising a protest rally on September 25 in Belgaum and inviting Maharashtra's Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil to address it. Speaking to a gathering of about 50,000 people, R.R. Patil stated that if Belgaum and other Marathi-speaking areas were not merged with Maharashtra there would be no alternative but to take to the streets.

From the point of view of Karnataka there is actually no dispute since the State accepted the decision of the Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan Commission. Maharashtra rejected the Commission's report and kept alive the merger demand. It says that the Commission has done an injustice to the more than 20 lakh Marathi-speaking people residing in 882 villages and urban centres such as Belgaum, Karwar and Nippani in Karnataka. When Maharashtra placed its case before the Commission, it cited three criteria for consideration: geographical continuity, linguistic majority and the will of the people. Inexplicably, the Commission assigned certain Kannadiga-majority areas such as Solapur, Akkalkot and Sangli to Maharashtra, while Belgaum, Nippani and Karwar were assigned to Karnataka.

Ratnakar Mahajan describes Belgaum as "a very live centre of Maratha [as in Marathi-speaking] power". There is an allegation that the Karnataka government has deliberately and steadily increased the population of native Kannada speakers in Belgaum to alter the original reality of it being a predominantly Marathi-speaking area. The aim, according to those who have been closely following the issue, was to change the balance in the Census records. It was this realisation that led the Marathi Sammelan to urge Marathi speakers to resist being registered as Kannadigas and to insist on Census forms being available in Marathi.

Karnataka's refusal to be drawn into a conflict has meant that the issue has grown dim in public consciousness. It no longer has the wide support it once enjoyed. In 1957, during the first elections after the reorganisation of States, the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti (an umbrella organisation of anti-Congress parties) kept the border dispute alive and derived great electoral benefit from it. Congress candidates in western Maharashtra districts fell by the wayside as parties under the Samyukta umbrella got the majority of votes. But, as Ratnakar Mahajan says, "in subsequent elections the issue faded".

So why does the issue get revived from time to time? Ratnakar Mahajan says: "Politicians from Kolhapur and Sangli have to support the cause, otherwise they run the risk of antagonising voters. The rest of the districts are least concerned." There is also the complication of national versus regional interest. This being a regional issue, national political parties cannot side with their State units. It is a case of "support one and antagonise the other", he says.

Regional parties such as the Shiv Sena and Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena have no such limitations. Knowing this and also seeing the dilemma within national parties on lending support to their State units, the Shiv Sena is trying to capitalise on the situation by playing on the emotive angle and creating the notion that other than the Sena no other party has the welfare of `Marathi manus' at heart.

So far only the Congress has refrained from taking a firm stand on the matter. Even the State Congress, which earlier was in open agreement with the merger, now prefers to take a backseat, saying the matter is in the court. The national executive of the NCP has also refrained from any comment although its State unit has supported R.R. Patil.

No solutions have been found for this long struggle even though every political party in Maharashtra has not only supported the call for merger but also funded the MES. Shankarrao Chavan, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, propounded the closest thing to a solution. His proposal was to create a New Belgaum for Karnataka at the cost of the Maharashtra government. A railway line that divides the city was suggested as the boundary between the two Belgaums. The proposal was never taken up. A more recent solution came up last December when the Maharashtra government submitted a petition seeking Union Territory status for Marathi-speaking areas across the border in Karnataka. It filed the petition soon after the dissolution of the Belgaum City Corporation Council by the Karnataka government.

Interestingly, the solidarity of political parties on this matter seems to be fraying. An interesting sidelight is the embarrassing position in which the controversy has landed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress. With a strong base in Maharashtra, the BJP naturally supports Maharashtra's claim over Belgaum but the State unit now has to downplay its position because the BJP is in power in Karnataka. Naturally, this has not gone down well with its coalition partner, the Shiv Sena, in Maharashtra.

Likewise, there are rumblings between the Congress and the NCP with the Congress realising that the latter was working at odds with the Centre. In 2000, there were reports that NCP leader and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar had said the border dispute should be considered a closed matter by Maharashtra. He later denied this but the reported statement raised the hackles of the pro-merger groups which were doubly angered because Pawar was a member of the high-powered State committee meant to pursue the issue. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil belongs to Maharashtra. Hence, the party has refrained from a definite position on the matter. Fortunately for the State units of the national parties, it is not an election year. Otherwise the regional parties would have made it a campaign issue.

The final verdict on the dispute rests with the Supreme Court. A knowledgeable source told Frontline that there is every possibility of the court returning the matter to Parliament since Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution says that drawing up of State limits is the business of Parliament. However, it is also learnt that the government has taken advantage of a sub-clause in the Constitution that mitigates Articles 3 and 4. Ideally, the matter should be sorted out between the two States.

Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh recently set a precedent in sorting out border disputes. Fourteen villages were repatriated to the eastern district of Chandrapur in Maharashtra earlier this year. The differentiating factor is that this matter was purely an administrative one with none of the emotions that the Maharashtra-Karnataka border dispute evokes.

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