So let us try to understand how this mess was created in the first place. In 1921, Indian National Congress passed a resolution for linguistic states as the geographical limits of provinces in British India were made ‘without any logic’. Belgaum was then part of Bombay Presidency, the most prosperous province at that time, which covered parts of today’s Sindh, Gujarat, Western Maharashtra and Northwestern Karnataka. In 1948, Belgaum City Council (BCC) passed a resolution that it wanted to be a part of the proposed Marathi speaking state. Later in 1953, Fazil Ali Commission was appointed by Pandit Nehru to decide on the linguistic states which formed the basis for the States Reorganisation Act 1956. The commission’s methodology was based on the principle that a district should be taken as a unit to decide which linguistic state should it be included and not taluka or village. Only if a taluka within a district had 70% people speaking other language, it would be transferred to the neighbouring state. This flawed methodology is the foundation of the current Maharashtra-Karnataka border dispute… popularly referred to as “Belgaum Border Dispute”. Surprisingly, this ‘formula’ was overruled by the commission itself in all cases expect Belgaum!
In 3 areas in India, “border disputes” became political movements where local people created 'seperatist' parties and won elections on the issue… Bhensdehi & Saunsai in Madhya Pradesh wanted to merge with Maharashtra, Kasargod area in Kerala wanted to merge with Karnataka and the Marathi speaking areas of Karnataka wanted to be a part of Maharashtra. The first two political movements died down in course of time. But Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES) had put up a brave and politically successful fight for 50 years till it became a victim of factionalism in 2005. At its peak it was able to send 9 MLAs to the Karnataka Assembly… currently the tally is zero!
In 1966 on insistence of Maharashtra Government, the Indian Government appointed one-man Commission under the Chief Justice Meherchand Mahajan to resolve the issue. The Mahajan Commission’s scope was also included the Karnataka-Kerala border dispute. Sadly the commission decided to use different yardsticks for the two disputes. The report said that Kasargod area should be given to Karnataka as ‘there were more Kannada students (not speakers!) than Malayalam students’. It had also considered the win of a Kannada candidate in Kasaragod as a reason for merger with Karnataka. However, in case of Belgaum, it didn't take into account, the number of Marathi-medium schools and their students, or the winning streak of MES in elections. Maharashtra Government further argued that 89% of octroi paid in Belgaum was for goods from Maharashtra indicating that economic links of the city were with Maharashtra instead of Karnataka. Even though the 1961 census showed that Belgaum city and surrounding areas had Marathi majority, the commission insisted Belgaum will not be handed over to Maharashtra because it was a ‘cosmopolitan city’. 3M fails to understand why a ‘cosmopolitan city’ should be given to Karnataka when Kannadiga population half that of Marathis!
Maharashtra laid claim to over 800 villages in Karnataka which lay in the Bidar, Belgaum and North Kanara districts and was ready to handover 250 odd villages which had Kannada majority. In sum, Karnataka was to lose 4000 sq kms of land (same size as Mumbai Metropolitan Region). The commission ensured that Karnataka does not lose any land in the deal. Obviously, Maharashtra and Kerala Governments rejected the report… while Karnataka government insisted that the report be implemented or status quo be maintained.
At various points of time, Belgaum, Nipani & Khanapur Municipalities and almost all affected Gram Panchyats and Taluka Panchayats have passed resolutions for merger with Maharashtra. In 2005, when BCC passed a resolution requesting the Indian and Karnataka Governments on transfer the city to Maharashtra, Karnataka Government decided to dissolve the council to quell the protest. To ensure Kannadiga domination on the city, the Karnataka Government decided to conduct the winter session of the Karnataka Assembly in Belgaum. This was considered as ‘rubbing salt into wounds’ by the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti, who decided to mobilise protest through Maha-melava (Grand Gathering) by inviting prominent Marathi politicians in January 2008. R R Patil’s (the then Dy CM of Maharashtra) speech on this occasion was strongly condemned in the ongoing assembly session. This year’s Maha-melava was banned by the Karnataka Government leading to large scale violence in different parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka. To further ‘kannadise’ the city, the government plans to rename it ‘Belgavi’ and lay the foundation stone of ‘Suvarna Soudha’ – a building to house the winter assembly session. During the current delimitation process, care has been taken to ensure Marathi votes are divided. The administration has also ensured that no Marathi speaking official is appointed in the border areas in any central or state government agencies to avoid any bias towards Marathi speaking population. State sponsored Marathi schools are denied Marathi teachers and are provide Kannada teachers instead. During H D Devegowda’s regime some Kannadiga radicals (Kannada Cheluvarigara Sangha) had even suggested that the government should set up industries in Belgaum area so that Kanndigas can be migrated there to alter the demographics… almost sounds like Chinese Government policy on Tibet!
Hutatma Chowk in Mumbai was raised in memory of 105 people who laid down their lives for a ‘Samyukta Maharashtra’… of which 5 were from the disputed Belgaum region! Over the last 6 decades, the Belgaum border dispute has claimed many lives – Marathi as well as Kannadiga. Vijay More, the Belgaum mayor, was beaten up by Karnataka Raksha Vedike mob giving him a fractured arm in 2005!
In 2005, Maharashtra Government decided to reopen the issue through negotiation but was cold shouldered by the Karnataka Government. So in March 2006, Maharashtra Government filed a petition in Supreme Court for resolution of the problem. According to Article 3 of Indian Constitution, if the disputed territory has to be handed over to Maharashtra, the Karnataka Assembly will have to pass such a resolution… which is next to impossible! Probably politicians are not really interested in solving the dispute as it gives them an excuse to do some rabble rousing… but how long can both the states continue to bleed?
Ideally, a fair commission should be instituted to ensure that the border dispute is resolved at the earliest and can even include a referendum in the disputed area to have a full and final settlement between the ‘warring states’!