Mumbai: Over the last few days, Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde re-ignited the Maharashtra-Karnataka border row with some well-publicised decisions. So far, he’s reconstituted a high-powered panel on the dispute, announced pension for those “martyred” in the border dispute, and appointed senior ministers to supervise the state’s legal battle in the Supreme Court.
The decisions have sparked a war of words between Maharashtra and Karnataka — two states where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power.
In Maharashtra, where the BJP is in power with Shinde’s Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena, the conflict is a direct result of the ongoing feud between the chief minister and Uddhav Thackeray for claiming the legacy of party supremo Bal Thackeray.
Getting Marathi-speaking areas of the neighbouring Karnataka under Maharashtra has been on the Shiv Sena’s agenda ever since it was founded in 1966.
It was over this cause that the Shiv Sena founder went to prison for the first time in 1969. For the two warring factions, championing Maharashtra’s cause in the border dispute will be seen as taking Bal Thackeray’s agenda forward.
Political commentator Abhay Deshpande told ThePrint that Shinde probably deliberately brought the border row back in focus mainly to take control of the narrative.
“One reason is to claim Balasaheb Thackeray’s legacy. The other is also that issues like these could be used by the Opposition to corner the ruling alliance since there’s a BJP government in Karnataka, too. The Opposition could have brought up the border dispute, saying that Eknath Shinde is compromising on Maharashtra’s interests for the sake of power by not taking action to solve the Maharashtra-Karnataka border dispute,” he elaborated.
Manisha Kayande, a Member of Legislative Council from the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) faction, told ThePrint that Shinde probably brought the topic up “to show that he has a mind of his own and that he isn’t under the control of his alliance partner (BJP)”.
“But, there is a BJP government in the state and at the Centre, and Eknath Shinde should question why the Centre is still not taking steps to resolve the issue,” he said. “Like investments from Maharashtra went to Gujarat, is this government going to allow the state’s territory to go to Karnataka?”
Meanwhile, members from the Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena say that aside from the fact that the chief minister wants to continue Balasaheb’s fight, Shinde is taking the issue forward because he was personally vested in it.
Border row and Thackeray’s ‘legacy’
Getting 814 villages along Maharashtra’s border and Belgaum city — all areas with a large Marathi-speaking population that are currently part of Karnataka — included in the state’s borders has been among the Shiv Sena’s primary political agendas.
Bal Thackeray’s father Keshav Thackeray, popularly known as Prabodhankar, was one of the main leaders of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, which actively campaigned for the creation of Maharashtra and also pushed for the inclusion of other Marathi-speaking areas in the state.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, the Shiv Sena under Bal Thackeray staged violent demonstrations to emphasise its demand for the inclusion of Marathi-speaking areas of Karnataka in Maharashtra.
The Shiv Sena’s first major protest on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border conflict was in February 1969 when then Deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai visited Mumbai.
Just two months before Desai’s visit to Mumbai, Bal Thackeray addressed a rally at Mumbai’s Kamgar Maidan and declared that Shiv Sainiks would not allow any Delhi-based leaders to enter Mumbai if the Centre doesn’t resolve the border conflict and accept Maharashtra’s demand for Marathi-speaking border areas to be part of the state.
When the deputy prime minister visited, a mob of Shiv Sena workers gathered to stop his car in the middle of the road and to demand the Centre’s intervention in the conflict.
The Mumbai Police used force to clear the way for Desai, whose car passed without halting. This was followed by violent protests across the city. Many Shiv Sena leaders, including Thackeray himself, were arrested. With the protests going out of hand, the Congress government in Maharashtra requested Bal Thackeray to appeal to his party men for peace.
The violent protests, however, intermittently continued, with the current Maharashtra CM also having gone behind bars for the cause as a Shiv Sainik.
Shinde and the border row
In his first speech in the legislative assembly as chief minister, Shinde recalled how he and Chhagan Bhujbal — a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader who began as a Shiv Sainik — were imprisoned for protests on the border conflict in the 1980s.
“Bhujbal saheb had visited Belgaum in a disguise. After that, our 100-member team went there. They (Karnataka Police) were picking up people and releasing them in the jungle, but they realised we were from the Shiv Sena and put us behind bars directly in Ballari,” Shinde said.
Shinde went on to describe how he and the other Shiv Sainiks suffered for 40 days. “On Sundays, the prisoners used to get eggs and non-vegetarian food, but when we went there they stopped it…We had a tough time for 40 days but we didn’t get scared, we did our job.”
A Thane-based leader from the CM’s camp told ThePrint that Shinde was always one of the few Shiv Sena leaders to aggressively speak on the border issue.
“Whenever our (Marathi-speaking) people in Belgaum faced any injustice, Shinde saheb was one of the most vocal to speak out. He has also always been in touch with members of the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti about any issues and would regularly go to Belgaum or send his representatives,” the leader said.
Several Shiv Sena (UBT) leaders accept in private that Shinde actively participated in furthering the party’s agenda in Belgaum and would go there almost every year.
This is also perhaps why Uddhav Thackeray appointed Shinde and Bhujbal, both ministers in his cabinet, to coordinate Maharashtra’s legal efforts over the matter in the Supreme Court.
The Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, comprising the Shiv Sena, the NCP, and the Congress, had made visible efforts to revive dialogue over the border row, re-organising a high power committee on the issue, giving more teeth to the Maharashtra-Karnataka border cell, and releasing a 530-page book on the issue.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)