Belgaum Border Dispute

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Prithav Bang provides a brief yet detailed background of the Belgaum dispute which has resurfaced recently.

This district has seen a lot of friction because of its demographic composition which includes both the Marathi and Kannada speaking population. Eventually, this became a tool for the political parties to create a social divide. Further, the ambition to conquer this state led to formations on pressure groups and political parties and at last this was matter was taken up in the Supreme Court and is now sub-judice. The district which I am talking about is Belgaum and I will now describe it socially, politically and territorially.

Belgaum which is officially known as Belagavi is a city in the Indian state of Karnataka located in its northern part along the Western Ghats.

In the Social scenario, as per 2011 censusKannada-speaking population of Belgaum district is nearly 68% of the total population. In Belgaum city, 70% population is Marathi speaking and rest others speak Kannada with a few Urdu speakers. However, the official language is Kannada. According to the Belgaum Gazette published by the British, in the 1881 census, Belgaum had 864,014 people of which 556,397 were Kannada-speaking (64.39%), while 225,008 were Marathi-speaking (26.04%)

In the Political scenario, Abhay Kumar Patil is an Indian politician belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party. He is the Member of Legislative Assembly representing Belgaum Dakshin and was also the Member of Legislative Assembly of Bharatiya Janata Party from 2004-2008.

Historically, Belgaum has been a bone of contention between Maharashtra and Karnataka since 1956, when the recommendations of the States reorganization commission headed by Retired Chief Justice Fazal Ali was passed in the Lok Sabha and made into an Act thereby reorganizing the whole of our country on the basis of linguistic lines in order to preserve the diversity of the country. In these times the issue of Belgaum came up as to which state would get the district, Karnataka or Maharashtra. The Act, which reorganised India’s states along linguistic and administrative lines, included Belgaum in the Kannada-majority Karnataka, the district had most of the Marathi-speaking population hence the ‘Border dispute.’

The Maharashtra government on 23rd June 1957 sent a memorandum to the Government of India to look into the matter of Belgaum. Yashvantrao Chavan was the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra. In response to this request a four member Committee was made consisting of two representatives from the Maharashtra Government, and two from the Mysore state Government. But it failed to reach an agreement.

Maharashtra wanted to apply following points and agreed to hand over Kannada majority villages to Mysore:

  1. Villages as a unit
  2. Geographical proximity/integrity
  3. Marathi or Kannada speakers “relative majority”; in case of villages with no population, it should be merged with that state where the owners of that land reside
  4. People’s wish

Mysore Government, on the other hand, wanted status quo to be maintained.

After 9 years, again the issue of Belgaum was brought up as Maharashtra Legislative Assembly elections were coming up. Maharashtra leader Senapati Bapat resorted to hunger strike demanding the government of India to form a commission which would address this border dispute. At Maharashtra’s insistence, the Government of India constituted the Mahajan Commission on 25 October 1966.

V.P. Naik, Maharashtra’s Chief Minister at that time, announced in public on 9th November 1967 that Maharashtra will adhere to Mahajan Commission’s report, regardless of the outcome. The commission was headed by the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India, Justice Meher Chand Mahajan. The commission, upon review of Maharashtra’s claims, recommended the exchange of several villages in Belgaum district between the two states, but rejected Maharashtra’s claim on Belgaum city.

The Mahajan Commission received approx. 2240 memoranda and interviewed 7572 people and submitted its report to the centre. Maharashtra had asked for 814 villages besides Belgaum of which it was given 262 villages. Mysore State had claimed 516 villages, of which Maharashtra admitted that 260 were Kannada-speaking ones. It was awarded 247 villages including claim to Solapur.

Now, Maharashtra had several refutations to the report the primary one being that the Mahajan commission referred to the 1961 census whereas the Maharashtra Government insisted on the reference to the 1951 census as the dispute had arisen due to the states reorganisation commission in 1956. Maharashtra insisted that Mahajan Commission is not the final verdict on this dispute and ex-Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi himself had asserted about it. The Maharashtra Government rejected the Mahajan Commission’s report claiming that it was biased, illogical and against people’s wish.

Amongst all of this, there was one pressure group which emerged in the late 40s and was the driving force of all the protests. The most important tactic which it used was to enter into the politics of the region in order to take control administrative bodies.

The name of this group is Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti is a social committee based out of Belagav city of India’s Karnataka state. It has campaigned for the merger of Belagavi to the neighbouring Maharashtra state. It claims to represent the Marathi-speaking people in the region.

MES has been a force to reckon with in local politics. In 1962 vidhan sabha elections, MES sent 3 candidates from Belgaum area to the state assembly.

Govind Ashtekar won election to Vidhan Sabha from Bagewadi in 1978 and 1983, though he is officially registered as an independent because MES was not an officially recognized party.

I would now like to bring in the political scenario of 1980s and 1990s when the MES dominated more than 250 gram panchayats and other municipalities and passed several resolutions to transfer Belgaum to Maharashtra. This eventually led to riots in 1982.

Next Political clash came in October 2005 when the MES-controlled BCC, amidst strong opposition by the Indian National Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and few independents, passed a resolution requesting the Karnataka State government and the Supreme Court of India to merge disputed border areas in the districts of with Maharashtra. However, protesting against the resolution the entire opposition parties including Congress, BJP and a few independents boycotted the meeting.

On 10 November, the Mayor was served with a show cause notice by the Karnataka Government seeking why the resolution should not be cancelled under Section 98 and 99 of the KMC Act. On 17 November, the government cancelled the resolution, without waiting for the Mayor’s reply.

On 19 November, T N Chaturvedi, the Governor of Karnataka, criticised BCC during a public function.

The former mayor of Belgaum, Vijay More, a Dalit, broke down in front of the media in Mumbai on while narrating the atrocities heaped on him by 30 Kannada fanatics. The incident which had happened right in the front of Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore when Kannada activists blackened his face and mercilessly beat him up resulting in a hand fracture.

Vasant Patil, former MLA from Belgaum, said for the past several decades the Marathi-speaking population of Belgaum have been putting up with a host of atrocities heaped on them by successive governments of Karnataka. “But we are determined to get justice”, he added.

In December 2005, attempts were also made by Congress led government at the Centre to rekindle discussions on the boundary dispute with the Chief Ministers of Maharashtra and Karnataka and the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but even this effort proved futile.

Finally, on 15 March 2006, the Maharashtra government filed a petition in the Supreme Court. Maharashtra staked a claim over Belgaum city citing, in its opinion “the feeling of insecurity among the Marathi speaking people living in Karnataka, in the recent days”.

Eventually, when no conclusion was reached between both the states, Maharashtra had asked to bring 865 disputed villages including Belgaum under centre’s rule until Supreme court’s final verdict.

On 25 September 2006, amidst vociferous protests by MES, the Karnataka state government convened a five-day Assembly session in Belgaum, for the first time outside its capital, Bangalore, to assert its hold over the border city.

Congress, the opposition party in the Karnataka State dubbed the Belgaum session “a gimmick and a waste of funds”. Ironically, the decision to hold the legislative session at Belgaum was taken by the previous Dharam Singh government, when Congress was in power.

Hence, essentially this is the timeline of political events involving Belgaum in which we can see how different political parties representing different perspectives were unable to reach to a conclusion and in the end the people of Belgaum had to suffer.

In the recent past, the issue of Belgaum was again in news as in late December CM of Maharshtra Uddhav Thackeray called it “Karnataka-occupied Maharashtra”. Wherein, his Karnataka counterpart B.S. Yediyurappa’s retort was that “even an inch of land” wasn’t going ­elsewhere as the issue had been settled.

There was brief tension on both sides of the border—effigies were burnt, inter-­state bus services were halted for a day and a Kannada film screening was ­disrupted in Kolhapur.

Recently, when Sanjay Raut wanted to visit Belgaum to attend a Literature festival, he was allegedly detained by the Belgaum city police. But then there was a clarification by the latter that he was given security and was just being escorted.

Hence, when this topic is resurfacing I feel it is very important for any individual to know the background of the problems and the facts of the case before forming any opinion on it.

– Prithav Bang, Law Student at NMIMS School of Law, Mumbai.

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