Reviving a border dispute tailor-made for SS (UBT)

Sources reveal that it is mostly the compulsion of Karnataka chief minister Basavraj Bommai who believes raising the border issue will help to rally all Kannadigas behind him

Reviving a border dispute tailor-made for SS (UBT)

Sujata Anandan

When all else fails, nothing unites the people – or politicians – of a state like a border dispute. For years, Maharashtra has been conflicted with Karnataka over the Marathi-speaking areas of Belgaum, Nipani and Karwar but lost their case in every forum in the country since 1956, including the States Reorganisation Commission which awarded those areas to Karnataka.

Bal Thackeray had shot to national prominence over this very border dispute, with the first riots by the Shiv Sena in 1968 that had set the state on fire and earned him three months behind bars. Every time the Shiv Sena felt a weakening of its Marathi maanoos base, they raked up the border dispute and proceeded towards Karnataka, though neither  Thackeray nor anyone else actually stepped into the neighbouring state, wary of risking any more imprisonment.

In the mid-1980s when the issue flared up again and members of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly urged then chief minister SB Chavan to compel his party’s government at the Centre to put pressure on Karnataka chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde  to cede Belgaum to Maharashtra, Chavan did not hesitate to reply, “That is not going to happen. Because just like you all are united about wanting Belgaum for Maharashtra, even our (Congress)  MLAs and MPs are united with those of the Janata Dal and other parties in Karnataka to hold on tight to Belgaum. Even our prime minister (Rajiv Gandhi) will never be able to persuade them to cede ground.”

Yet the issue raised its ugly head from time to time over the decades until in the 2000s then Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy put all allegations of step-motherly treatment to the Marathi-speaking areas to rest by declaring Belgaum would be henceforth the winter capital of Karnataka and his successor BS Yeddiyurappa of the BJP decided to build a grand Vidhan Soudha building atop a hill in Belgaum that would proclaim to all that the city belonged indisputably to Karnataka.

It was a move that was highly necessary, for the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti and other advocates of integration with Maharashtra had been going to town over the neglect of the Marathi-speaking areas and lack of development of the region. However, by the 2000s, the younger generation did not care whether they belonged to Karnataka or Maharashtra, so long as they had access to job opportunities in the two major IT centres of the country – Bangalore in their own home state and Pune in the neighbouring Maharashtra. The movement gradually petered out and all was quiet on Maharashtra’s southern front.

So what has changed now? Sources reveal that it is mostly the compulsion of Karnataka chief minister Basavraj Bommai who finds the ground slipping from under his feet and believes raising the border issue will help to rally all Kannadigas behind him and not just the hardcore Hindutva voters.

The Belgaum dispute is quite dead but Bommai has set the cat among the pigeons by raising the issue of more than 50 villages on the Maharashtra side of the border which he insists wish to integrate with Karnataka. But this is not an issue that can be settled by any chief minister or by a resolution in any assembly. Only an act of Parliament can accomplish this integration and among at least 16 border disputes between states across India, no government past or present has had the gumption to award any border villages to one state or the other for fear of losing ground completely in the state that gets defeated. 

In Maharashtra alone there are five villages on the borders of its Chandrapur district and Adilabad district in Telangana that have been voting twice at every Lok Sabha election since Independence – once for the candidate from Maharashtra and the second time for the one from Telangana. The collectors and election officers of both districts know well to keep a safe distance between their respective voting booths to prevent any clashes and these five villages have two sarpanchs each, one speaking Marathi, paid by Maharashtra and the other Telegu, paid by Telangana. Meanwhile the people of the villages, remote though they may be, know how to blackmail officials of both states – if they force a school out of one, they get a hospital out of the other and so on and so forth and no MP  can object.

Neither the assemblies nor even the parliament has been able to correct this anomaly over the years. However, at the last Lok Sabha election, the Election Commission did issue directives to officers to let the people decide who they will vote for, Telangana or Maharashtra as they would no longer have a double vote at the same election. Nevertheless, the villages continue to belong to both states with official jurisdiction extending to collectors of both districts and two sarpanchs continuing in residence.

Allowing such things to prevail is like a Pandora’s Box, however. Taking advantage of the latest contretemps, the Surgana Taluka Seema Sangharsh Samiti in Nashik district passed a resolution last week saying they were being neglected by the Maharashtra government and wished to merge with Gujarat. However, the Shinde government rushed Nashik guardian minister Dada Bhuse to Surgana taluka and persuaded the villagers to withdraw their demand. But  the same demands are being made by 150 villages on the Karnataka border. In the failure of Parliament to enact a law, only the Supreme Court can resolve such disputes but over the decades it has not ruled on any of the border disputes in India definitively.

However, the issue is now tailor-made for the Shiv Sena (UBT) which, after all, began life with the Maharashtra-Karnataka border disputes. Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena too has jumped onto the bandwagon threatening violence against Kannadigas in Maharashtra, even as banks based in Karnataka with branches in Maharashtra and hoteliers originating from the neighbouring state are under threat. NCP president Sharad Pawar who in past years as a member of one government or the other held himself aloof from such disputes has also warned that if Maharashtrians are subjected to violence in Karnataka, they will not hesitate to retaliate. Karnataka buses have already been painted with signs of Jai Maharashtra by SS (UBT), the NCP has raised the issue in parliament, Kolhapur district on the borders is gearing up for the long haul... Only the Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena led by Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP find themselves between the horns of a dilemma – they cannot allow Karnataka to get away with breaking up Maharashtra, at the same time they cannot act against their party interests in that state. It is not a very happy place to be but the dispute is beyond them to resolve. 

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