‘We are Marathi manoos’: Struggle for identity in Karnataka’s border villages spans generations

‘We are Marathi manoos’: Struggle for identity in Karnataka’s border villages spans generations

Native Marathi speakers account for 50 lakh of Karnataka's 7 cr population, and though the border dispute has been compressed into a debate on language, it has several complex layers.

Milestone saying Yellur in Kannada and Marathi | Sharan Poovanna | ThePrint

Milestone saying Yellur in Kannada and Marathi | Sharan Poovanna | ThePrint

Belagavi: Almost all the signboards in Yellur, a quaint little village en route the popular Rajhans Garh fort in Belagavi, are in Marathi — an oddity considering the region lies in Karnataka, just 12 km south of Belagavi city.

A poster in Marathi by the main road announces the imminent installation of a statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Another smaller sculpture of the 17th-century ruler already stands across the road. Located at the top of a flight of stairs, the spot offers respite from the harsh heat to passersby, even during winters.

Yellur is among the many villages in Karnataka where residents identify with the Marathi language and culture, fueling the long-festering border dispute between the two states.

Chhatrapati Shivaji sculpture in Yellur | Sharan Poovanna | ThePrint

Over the past few years, Yellur has made news several times. Like in 2014, when pro-Marathi activists had installed a board here, indicating that the village was part of Maharashtra even though the closest state border is at least 70 km away. The board was swiftly removed, but Yellur’s identity issues have persisted.

Now, a fresh round of hostilities threatens to boil over as simmering tensions dominate proceedings in the winter sessions underway in both states. This time spurred by Maharashtra Chief Ministers Eknath Shinde’s contentious decision to extend “freedom fighter-like” pension to kin of “martyrs” from Marathi-speaking border villages in Karnataka who died in the border dispute, along with counter initiatives from the Basavaraj Bommai-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in poll-bound Karnataka.

Also Read: How spate of vandalism reignited decades-old Maharashtra-Karnataka tussle over Belagavi

‘Politicians fight, we die!’ 

In the government-run Maharashtra High School in Yellur, all 170 students are taught in Marathi.

“Forget my generation…but my children and those studying Marathi…their entire future is at stake. We are Marathi manoos and that is the only issue, which is why we are demanding our accession to Maharashtra,” says a teacher at the school on condition of anonymity, fearing he could be targeted by the Karnataka government for his comments.

Maharashtra High School in Yellur | Sharan Poovanna | ThePrint

It is not uncommon for the state machinery in Karnataka to crack down on anyone who comments in favour of Maharashtra, claimed several locals who spoke to ThePrint about the border dispute.

The situation is no different in the Kannada-speaking areas of Sangli and Kolhapur in Maharashtra, where a significant share of the local population believes being part of Karnataka will lead to better employment and educational opportunities.

According to unofficial estimates, there are around 2.5 million people living in villages on the state’s border with Maharashtra — from Karwar in Karnataka’s northwest, all the way to Bidar in the northeast — who have remained invested in this dispute for generations.

While it has been compressed into a debate on language, the border dispute has several layers, each more complex than the other.

Poster in Marathi announcing installation of Shivaji statue in Yellur | Sharan Poovanna | ThePrint

But not all those who are Marathi stand with the ‘struggle’ anymore and have since moved on, sometimes even questioning those raking up the issue periodically.

“We should question why this issue keeps coming up only during elections. These people who say ‘Jai Maharashtra’ (pro-Marathi faction) allow their own children to study both English and Kannada and force us poor to keep our children in Marathi schools. They (politicians) fight and we die in the process,” says G.R. Ganachari, a retired cantonment employee who lives in the Marathi-dominated Yellur.

The Maratha community is also another component in this debate who, by some claims, account for around 50 lakh of the state’s nearly seven crore population. This community, scattered across the state and wielding influence in several constituencies, is now demanding greater reservation status since it backed the BJP in both parliamentary and assembly elections, said Manohar P. Kadolkar, the BJP’s first MLA in Belagavi.

This is one of several similar demands raised before the Bommai government by prominent communities like Panchamasali Lingayats, Vokkaligas and Kurubas, among others. On its part, the government risks antagonising one if it favours the other in an election year.

‘This is a public battle’

Formed way back in 1940s, the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES) — or committee for integration with Maharashtra — continues its ‘struggle’ to this day, despite steadily losing political ground to mainstream parties over the decades.

MES leaders cite a conspiracy of delimitation over the decades to scatter the Marathi-speaking population across Karnataka to “keep a check on the community’s power and influence over elections”.

The outfit was in its prime in the early 1960s and 1970s when most candidates backed by it won assembly seats. In 2013, it won two assembly seats and 38 of the 58 in the Belagavi city corporation. However, it has won no assembly seats since 2018 and only two of the 12 Independents who won in the 2021 corporation are known to be affiliated with the MES.

But backed by parties like the Shiv Sena, Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), the MES continues to be the face of the pro-Marathi resistance in Karnataka, calling for protests, making demands and trying to rectify what it calls the “injustice” done to Marathi-speaking people who have wanted to be part of Maharashtra since the reorganisation of states in 1956.

A Chhatrapati Shivaji installation in Yellur | Sharan Poovanna | ThePrint

“Since the BJP is in power in Karnataka, Maharashtra (in alliance with the Shinde-led faction of the Sena) and the Union, let (findings of) Mahajan Commission be taken up for discussion in Parliament. We have kept up our fight since 1956, met chief ministers, prime ministers and we finally went to (Supreme) court for justice,” Prakash Margale, a key MES functionary and former MLA candidate from Belagavi South, told The Print.

He concedes that many MLAs backed by the MES have since joined mainstream political parties like the BJP and Congress, but maintains that their struggle remains unaffected.

“Elections are part of our agenda but this is a public battle. Even if I leave, the public will still fight,” said Margale.

According to Ashok Chandargi, a pro-Kannada activist associated with the action committee of Belagavi district Kannada Organisations, Shinde, too, had taken part in an MES agitation in Belagavi in 1986, which is likely to have influenced his statements on the border row that rekindled tensions earlier this year.

Suvarna Vidhana Soudha in Belagavi | Sharan Poovanna | ThePrint

With 18 assembly seats, Belagavi is the second-largest district in the state in terms of constituencies and the BJP draws most of its elected numbers from the ‘Kittur-Karnataka’ (formerly Bombay-Karnataka) region, though mostly on account of the backing of Lingayats and Marathas, which explains its caution on the issue.

Earlier this month, in a meeting with chief ministers of both states, Union Home Minister Amit Shah himself directed them to not fuel tensions or claim the other’s territory as it portrays the BJP in a bad light and may impact its prospects in the upcoming polls in Karnataka.

“This is a question of their (MES) existence and face-saving since they are losing ground. Because of this, they are provoking the issue,” said Ashok Chandargi, a pro-Kannada activist associated with the action committee of Belagavi district Kannada Organisations.

While it has ceded ground to the mainstream, MES stands accused of pandering to Maharashtra-based parties to keep the issue alive. But sitting and former MLAs from this region — of both the BJP and Congress — remain tightlipped over border tensions flaring up as Marathi-speaking people constitute the biggest chunk of voters in many constituencies.

Data from the 2011 Census shows that native Marathi speakers account for nearly 60 per cent of Belagavi’s total population. 

“Most of the people want to live in Karnataka since there is better development, more opportunities and better subsidies. The MES is losing ground and is raking up the issue to remain relevant,” claimed a senior BJP leader from Belagavi, requesting anonymity. 

But with things as they stand now, the situation is such that even MNS chief Raj Thackeray has called the border row “impossible to resolve”.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: Belagavi is a tightrope for BJP, high stakes on both sides of Karnataka-Maharashtra border