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HomeThePrint EssentialHow spate of vandalism reignited decades-old Maharashtra-Karnataka tussle over Belagavi

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

The past week has seen statues defaced and clashes between Kannada and Marathi groups, with the legislature promising tough action as an old border dispute flares up.

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Bengaluru: The Karnataka legislature Monday passed a unanimous resolution to file sedition charges and invoke the ‘Goonda Act’ in response to a spate of vandalism and violence as a longstanding border dispute with Maharashtra flared up over the past week.

“We won’t give up an inch of land to anyone. In fact, if people in Kannada-speaking villages of Maharashtra need our help, we will help them build a livelihood. We are also ready to include those villages in Karnataka if the people pass a resolution to that effect,” Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai told the Legislative Assembly.

He quickly acknowledged that he was aware of the controversy his statement could create. Bommai then introduced a resolution condemning the desecration of statues of several iconic historical figures — Sangolli Rayanna, Kittur Rani Chennamma, Basavanna and Chhatrapati Shivaji — in the state, as well as the burning of a Kannada flag in Maharashtra and the retaliatory violence that followed.

Pro-Kannada organisations continued to protest outside the Suvarna Soudha legislature building in Belagavi, demanding action against pro-Marathi groups for defacing statues of Kannada icons. In a bid to calm tensions, Bommai Monday also announced that statues of Kittur Rani Chennamma and Sangolli Rayanna would be installed in the Suvarna Soudha complex.

The clashes between Marathi and Kannada groups have sparked a debate about regional pride — both inside and outside the legislature. While opposition parties have demanded that the pro-Marathi organisation Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES) be banned, Karnataka’s BJP government has said the law should take its course. 

While its coalition with the Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra government has put the Congress in a spot over the linguistic conflict, the BJP’s closeness with MES and strong association with Maratha icons like Shivaji has made the situation tricky for the ruling party, too.

Also read: NCP workers in Maharashtra protest against Karnataka CM Bommai amid tensions over Belagavi row

What caused the spate of vandalism

MES — once a powerful force in Belagavi whose prominence is now dwindling —  is a political party whose goal is the merger of parts of Karnataka, including Belagavi city, with Maharashtra.

It has been staging protests since September 2006 when Karnataka’s legislature session was held in Belagavi for the first time. In 2012, Suvarna Soudha — a secretariat built by the state government to assert its control over Belagavi in an attempt to put an end to the border dispute — was inaugurated, with successive governments holding winter sessions of the legislature there.

Last week, a protest by MES members against holding a Karnataka legislature session in Belagavi on 13 December sparked off a chain of events as the decades-old border dispute flared up.

In a spate of vandalism and retaliatory actions, members of the MES and pro-Kannada organisations have been clashing with each other, reigniting the border dispute between the two states.

More than 30 people have been arrested in Karnataka thus far, and the Karnataka government has also demanded the arrests of those who burnt a Kannada flag and damaged properties belonging to the Kannada-speaking population in Maharashtra. A report on the violence has been sent to the Union home ministry. 

These incidents led to prohibitory orders being imposed in Belagavi and the legislature passing a resolution to bring charges against those implicated under the sedition law and the ‘Goonda Act’.

History of conflict

The border dispute between Karnataka and Maharashtra is decades old. Two Acts, one commission and multiple petitions in courts later, the dispute remains a bone of contention between the two neighbouring states.

In colonial times, several districts that are now part of Karnataka — Vijayapura, Belagavi, Dharwad and Uttara Kannada — were under the erstwhile Bombay Presidency. This status quo continued until 1956, when states were reorganised along linguistic lines. 

Under the States Reorganisation Act, 1956, Belagavi and 10 taluks of the Bombay Presidency were deemed to be part of Mysore state, which was renamed Karnataka in 1973. The decision was based on an 1881 census that identified 64.39 per cent of the population of Belagavi as Kannada-speaking and 26.04 per cent as Marathi-speaking.

These numbers, however, were rejected by the Marathi-speaking population in the region, who claimed that they now outnumbered Kannada speakers. The Maharashtra government registered its concerns with the Union government in 1957.

Maharashtra invoked Section 21(2)(b) of the States Reorganisation Act to raise an objection to Marathi and Konkani-speaking regions being added to Karnataka. In its memorandum to the Union home ministry, Maharashtra claimed an area of 2,806 square miles in 814 villages and the three urban settlements of Belagavi, Karwar and Nippani, on the grounds of continuity, linguistic majority and ‘people’s wishes’.

The ‘yet to be implemented’ Mahajan commission report

The Union government in 1966 set up the Mahajan Commission to look into the border disputes and claims between Karnataka and Maharashtra. The commission, headed by former Chief Justice of India Mehr Chand Mahajan, submitted its report in August 1967 after receiving 2,200 memorandums and meeting more than 7,500 people. It was 1972 by the time the report was tabled in Parliament.

The report recommended the transfer of 264 Marathi-dominant villages from Karnataka to Maharashtra, but insisted that Karnataka would retain Belagavi and 247 villages. Maharashtra rejected the report and sought a review, but Karnataka accepted it. 

Decades have passed since then, but the Union government is yet to formally implement the recommendations. Meanwhile, Belagavi has turned into an epicentre of violent clashes over the years due to the border dispute.

In 2004, the Maharashtra government approached the Supreme Court seeking a settlement of the dispute under Article 131(b) of the Constitution — which gives the top court original jurisdiction in disputes between states, or states and the Centre — claiming 814 villages from Karnataka. 

The case is still pending before the apex court. In 2019, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray appointed two ministers, Chhagan Bhujbal and Eknath Shinde, to supervise the state’s efforts to expedite the petition.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: Karnataka to pass anti-conversion bill as Hindutva groups target Christians & churches


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