It is not at all surprising to see two neighbouring sovereign States engaged in border disputes. The disputes between India and Pakistan or India and China have led to multiple wars. However, the border disputes within India, between neighbouring states, are common too. One such longstanding dispute is between Maharashtra and Karnataka, which became a flashpoint recently.
On 21 November, Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde convened a meeting to discuss the border issue and announced pension for "freedom fighters" living in the areas on the Karnataka side that Maharashtra claims as its own. It also announced healthcare benefits for them under one of its schemes and appointed two senior ministers, Chandrakant Patil and Shambhuraj Desai, to pursue the case legally.
And Began the War of Words...
Shinde's announcements drew a sharp reaction from Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai, who retaliated by claiming that villages in Sangli's Jat taluka have passed a resolution that they want to move to Karnataka as Maharashtra government has failed to solve their water problem. “The state government is seriously considering it,” he added.
He further announced special grant for Kannada schools in Maharashtra.
“There is harmony between the two states and we treat all language-speaking people equally. It is our duty to protect the interests of the Kannadigas who are settled in large numbers in Maharashtra.”– Basavaraj Bommai
Bommai's statements created a furore in Maharashtra's political circles. Deputy CM Devandra Fadnavis, who belongs to the same party as Bommai – Bharatiya Janata Party – countered the Karnataka CM saying that the resolution he is talking about is from 2012 and the Jat taluka's water problem will be solved soon as the Maharashtra government is planning to expedite the Mhaisal water scheme.
"Along with Belgaum, Karwar and Nippani, the villages on which we have staked claim, we haven't staked this claim now. We have been fighting for it in the Supreme Court (for a long time)... No matter what claims they make, not a single village from Maharashtra will go out and I expect that we will get our border area back."– Devendra Fadnavis
Chief Minister Eknath Shinde too dismissed Bommai's remarks.
"I will not let even an inch of land from Maharashtra go anywhere. And it is the responsibility of our government to solve the problems of those 40 villages in the Jat taluka."– Eknath Shinde
Nationalist Congress Party's Ajit Pawar, Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) chief Uddhav Thackeray, and Opposition Leader in Legislative Council Ambadas Danve were some of the other leaders who reacted on the issue.
However, it must be noted that these barbs by political leaders on the two sides are not new, rather these periodic heated exchanges have been going on for decades.
The Antecedents of the Dispute
Maharashtra celebrates 21 November as Hutatma Din, a day to remember the martyrs who lost their lives for samyukta Maharashtra. After a long agitation by Marathi speakers for uniting Mumbai city with Maharashtra, on which both Marathis and Gujaratis had staked claim, the Jawaharlal Nehru government finally relented and a Marathi linguistic state was born on 1 May 1960. The state for Marathi speakers was carved out after separating Gujarati-speaking areas out of the Bombay Province and adding the Marathi-speaking areas of Vidarbha and Marathwada from the neighbouring provinces.
The Kannada speakers had got a state for themselves in 1956 itself, in the Nehru government's larger exercise of carving out states on linguistic lines. In this exercise, the Mysore state was significantly enlarged by adding Kannada-speaking areas from other provinces, including villages and towns from the Bombay Province.
The then Bombay government, in 1957, took objection to the Bombay Province areas being transferred to Mysore, or Karnataka, as it was renamed in 1973. Maharashtra government since then claims that 864 villages in Karnataka and towns like Belagavi, Nipani, Karwar, etc, should be moved to Maharashtra as they are (or were at the time of formation of Karnataka state) Marathi-majority areas.
Shahir Anna Bhau Sathe, who was at the forefront of Samyukta Maharashtra movement, composed a song in celebration of Maharashtra getting Mumbai. However, in this now iconic song 'Majhi Maina Gavavar Rahili,' he laments that the fight for Samyukta Maharashtra was still incomplete as areas like Belgaum and Karwar were yet to be made part of the state.
Karnataka government, on its part, has consolidated is hold over the disputed areas on its side, especially the city of Belagavi. It built a legislature building, Suvarna Vidhana Soudha, in the city in 2012, which is being used for the legislature's winter sessions. The name Belagavi itself is a recent one, which was changed from the Marathi-sounding Belgaum in 2014. And there has been a talk since the past few years to make Belagavi the second capital of Karnataka.
All Efforts at Reconciliation Have Failed
The Union government set up a commission to resolve the border dispute in 1966 under the chairmanship of former chief justice Mehr Chand Mahajan. The Mahajan Commission, in its report submitted the next year, recommended that 264 villages should be transferred to Maharashtra while Belagavi and 247 other villages should remain with Karnataka.
While the Karnataka government welcomed this report, the Maharashtra government rejected it, calling it biased and illogical.
In the recent past, the Maharashtra government approached the Supreme Court in 2006, reiterating its claim over 864 villages along with Belagavi. The case is currently pending in the Court.
The politicians have turned the Maharashtra-Karnataka border dispute into an emotive issue and the muscular statements such as 'we will not cede even an inch of land' are made keeping their home constituency in mind rather than the welfare of the border villages. Language is an integral part of people's identity and an expression of their culture and hence it is a delicate issue and should have been handled with care. Even now, if the dispute is to be solved amicably, either the Union government or the Supreme Court will have to take lead in the matter, keeping the best interests of people in the disputed areas in mind.