Belagavi for Kannadigas and Belgaum for Maharashtrians — the border district in Karnataka is yet again hogging the headlines as politicians from Karnataka and Maharashtra are engaged in a high-decibel war of words over its ownership.
Belagavi is the second largest district of Karnataka by population. Nearly 60 per cent of the population in the district are Marathi-speakers while the rest are Kannadas.
Originally known as Belgaum, the Marathi-majority district that was part of the Bombay Presidency during British times became part of Karnataka in 1956 when linguistic states were first formed in independent India.
Maharashtra, however, has been demanding the return of Belgaum apart from the towns of Karwar, Nippani, and around 800 villages — totalling 7,000 acres — of Karnataka territory on the grounds that they are Marathi-speaking areas, a claim that Karnataka has been stoutly rejecting.
Even as it recommended the transfer of 264 villages to Maharashtra, the Mahajan Commission instituted by the Central government in 1966 ruled that Belagavi and 247 villages be retained in Karnataka. Predictably, Maharashtra rejected the report while Karnataka welcomed it. The report is yet to be implemented.
For many years the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES), which campaigned for merger of Marathi-majority areas in Maharashtra, was a dominant player in the region. MES candidates used to routinely win Assembly elections to the Karnataka Assembly from several constituencies.
The MES also controlled the Belagavi municipality. However, over the past several years it has lost steam and has been overtaken by the BJP.
In 2007, Maharashtra approached the Supreme Court where the matter is pending.
Meanwhile, not willing to leave anything to chance, Karnataka constructed a new Legislative Assembly building at Belagavi in 2012 and Winter Sessions of the Assembly are held here every year.
The region often sees conflicts between Kannada and Marathi activists. However, this time, the stakes are high as the war of words is raging between Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai and Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, both from the BJP.
Currently, the political dispensation in both the states is headed by the BJP, which is the ruling party in Karnataka and also a senior partner in the coalition government of Maharashtra. The party is also ruling the Belagavi city corporation.
The issue flared up again in the third week of November when the Maharashtra government began renewing efforts to buttress its claims in the Supreme Court as well as lobby with the Central government. The Eknath Shinde-led Maharashtra government also extended several social benefit schemes to people in the disputed region.
Reacting to Maharashtra government’s moves, Bommai declared that his government is prepared to battle it out in the Supreme Court.
“There is no question of leaving even one inch of our land,” Bommai declared while reiterating that there is no dispute since the Mahajan Report is very clear and it should be implemented.
In a tit-for-tat move, the Karnataka Chief Minister demanded that Kannada-speaking areas of Maharashtra such as Solapur be merged in Karnataka as per the recommendation of the Mahajan Report. He has also called for an all-party meeting to discuss the matter in the coming week. The last word, clearly, hasn’t been spoken on the lingering dispute.