Belgaum again

Print edition : October 20, 2006

Karnataka sends out a clear message to Maharashtra and the Centre that the State stands unified on the border issue.

PARVATHI MENON in Bangalore

MAHARASHTRA EKIKARAN SAMITI legislators, in the foreground, with their mouths covered with black cloth during the address of Governor T.N. Chaturvedi at the special session of the Karnataka Legislature in Belgaum on September 28.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

FEELINGS of regional and linguistic identity have always existed just below the surface of politics and culture in Karnataka, and it requires just a small trigger to bring them to the fore. It is the border controversy with Maharashtra that aroused regional passions in recent weeks. The issue was the basis on which an entire special session of the Karnataka Legislature was recently held in Belgaum, a city close to the Maharashtra border and on which Maharashtra has made claims. The primary purpose of the session was to send a message to the governments both at the Centre and in Maharashtra that the State stood united on the border issue. And, as if that message was not strong enough, pro-Kannada organisations called for a State-wide bandh on the same issue on October 4, which brought economic life in the State to a virtual halt for a day.

The border controversy with Maharashtra relates to conflicting claims over a boundary arrangement made by the States Reorganisation Act in 1956. Unhappy with the decisions of the States Reorganisation Commission in respect of the boundary between Karnataka and Maharashtra, the government of Maharashtra (then Bombay) submitted a memorandum to the Western Zonal Council in September 1957 claiming 814 villages in Mysore State on the plea that the majority of their populations spoke Marathi, while conceding that there were 260 Kannada-speaking villages in Maharashtra that should revert to Mysore. Maharashtra also claimed the two district towns of Belgaum and Karwar and the important trading town of Nippani - in total a claim to an area of 7,183 sq km and a population of 6.7 lakhs at that time.

Pressure from Maharashtra led to the setting up of a Commission under Mehr Chand Mahajan, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to decide this issue. Although popular opinion in Karnataka was bitterly against reopening the boundary issue, Karnataka finally agreed to the setting up of such a Commission. It was agreed by both States that the Commission's report would be final and binding. The Commission submitted its report to the Government of India in August 1967. It recommended that 262 villages be transferred to Maharashtra. It, however, rejected Maharashtra's claim over Belgaum, Karwar town and 300 villages in Karwar, Supa and Haliyal taluks. Nippani stayed with Karnataka.

Dissatisfied with the outcome of the exercise, Maharashtra soon rejected the report, a position it has held on to since then. The recommendations of the report were never formally implemented by the Central government. A cause for concern for the Karnataka government, which was reflected in a special resolution moved in the Assembly session in Belgaum, was the action by the Union government in changing its position on the issue. It withdrew an affidavit it had filed in the Supreme Court which stated that the Mahajan Commission Report was final in the matter of the boundary and has sought to file a fresh one.

The reasons why this issue has struck a sympathetic chord in Karnataka are complex. For the Congress, the border question serves to divert attention from the historical neglect of north Karnataka, a factor that the party must be held substantially accountable for. The Congress dominated the region politically and electorally for the first four decades after Independence and virtually presided over the economic backwardness of the region. For the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which are together in a shaky coalition arrangement, the special session in Belgaum was an occasion to go to the people, particularly the people of north Karnataka, with promises of development set in the framework of Kannada identity. The October 4 bandh called by Kannada organisations such as the Kannada Chaluvali Vatal Paksha led by Vatal Nagaraj, the Rajkumar Fans Association and the Kannada Rakshana Vedike was an overwhelming success from the point of view of the organisers.

Although these organisations hardly have a political presence in an electoral sense and are not formal cadre-based parties, they are able, when the situation arises, to exploit a whole range of economic and social insecurities under the slogan of Kannada identity - today under a supposed threat by Maharashtra's claims on the border issue.

These groups have always been particularly effective in Bangalore, a city that has seen waves of migration of non-Kannada speakers right from the days of princely Mysore. Post-1991, Bangalore has seen an explosion in population and an economic growth that has led to widening income disparities. Although the city is among the most cosmopolitan of India's cities, the call given by the pro-Kannada groups for a bandh struck a strong and supportive chord. The bandh in the city was total. The fear of violence, as happened in 1991 during the anti-Cauvery riots and more recently after film actor Rajkumar's death, may have been one reason why people remained indoors and the Information Technology companies stayed closed. However, the tremendous response to the bandh call is also a measure of the insecurities and inequities generated by Bangalore's unique urban development experience and the relative absence of channels of protest.

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