Tensions have flared once again along the Karnataka-Maharashtra inter-state border over the long-standing dispute over the control of Belagavi, a border town in Karnataka. The renewed unrest was stirred by controversial remarks related to the border dispute by politicians in both states.

Parts of the Belagavi district, among some of the other areas of northern Karnataka, are claimed by Maharashtra on linguistic grounds. Kannada and Marathi are the most widely spoken languages in Karnataka and Maharashtra, respectively.

The recent flare-up

Tension between the two states was already building with the Supreme Court scheduling to hear on November 30 a plea by the Maharashtra government on the border dispute.

Ahead of the hearing, Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had sought to assure people of his state that “not a single Maharashtra village will go to Karnataka”. Fadnavis was responding to Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai’s claims that panchayats in Maharashtra’s Jat tehsil near the inter-state border had previously passed a resolution to merge with Karnataka, and that he was seriously considering it. “The state government will take the fight to get Marathi-speaking villages including Belgaum-Karwar-Nipani too to our state,” Fadnavis added.

Bommai called the border dispute a “political tool” used by all parties in Maharashtra. He had also expressed confidence that politicians from Maharashtra will “never succeed” in the long-running legal battle. The matter was ultimately not taken up by the top court on November 30.

Maharashtra ministers Shambhuraj Desai and Chandrakant Patil’s plan to visit villages claimed by their state on Tuesday, meet leaders of the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti, and visit families of those killed in police firing in June 1986 while protesting Kannada being made a compulsory language in schools there, added to the tensions.

Desai and Patil are Maharashtra’s ministers in charge of legal coordination over the border dispute. The Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti is a pro-Marathi socio-political organisation which was established in 1948 to seek merger of more than 860 Marathi-speaking villages into the then proposed Samyukta (United) Maharashtra state. The organisation operates mainly in Belagavi and enjoys support from across party lines in Maharashtra.

The tensions also led to violence. On December 1, pro-Kannada outfits had protested in Belagavi against the alleged beating of a student for waving the Karnataka state flag during a private college festival there. And on Tuesday, activists from the Karnataka Rakshana Vedika, a Kannada nationalist group, allegedly attacked buses and lorries from Maharashtra near Belagavi by pelting stones. The demonstrations were meant to oppose Desai and Patil’s planned visit.

In retaliation to the attack on vehicles registered in Maharashtra, workers from former Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s faction of the Shiv Sena also defaced Karnataka’s state transport buses in Pune. Meanwhile, the Maharashtra government suspended its own bus services to the neighbouring state.

The ministers from Maharashtra later called off their Belagavi visit citing BR Ambedkar’s death anniversary. However, Bommai told reporters he had requested Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde to cancel the delegation’s visit as it could disturb law and order in the area. The optics that the Maharashtra’s ministers had caved in to pressure from the Karnataka chief minister provided Maharashtra’s opposition parties an opportunity to politically embarrass the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shinde-led Shiv Sena faction.

Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament Sanjay Raut who belongs to former Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray-led faction of the Shiv Sena called the Maharashtra government a “coward” for the two-minister delegation not visiting Belagavi. Former Union minister Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party said he will travel to Belagavi if violence in the area does not stop within two days. “Maharashtra has maintained restraint for so long, but people will not keep quiet... if these attacks don’t halt within 48 hours, we will have to take a different stand. Then the Karnataka CM will be responsible for the consequences,” Pawar said.

A contested border

The territorial dispute between the two states has continued for six decades. At the time of India’s independence, Belagavi – then “Belgaum” – was part of the expansive Bombay state than included parts of both present-day Maharashtra as well as Karnataka. The city and the eponymous district and the administrative division were widely called “Belgaum” by both Marathi and Kannada-speaking people (pronounced “Belgaon” in some cases). But the named was officially changed to “Belagavi” in 2014.

The current dispute over the inter-state border between Karnataka and Maharashtra over Belagavi can be traced back to the States Reorganisation Act of 1956. The Act redrew boundaries of Indian states and Union territories along linguistic lines. The Maharashtra government claims that hundreds of villages where the dominant language was supposedly Marathi – the language on which Maharashtra was formed – were wrongly handed over to the Mysore state, where Kannada was the dominant language. Mysore was subsequently renamed as Karnataka in 1973.

Maharashtra challenged the exclusion of Belagavi as well as hundreds of villages in some other border areas such as Karwar and Nipani. However, Karnataka refused to give up any of these areas.

At Maharashtra’s insistence, the Union government constituted the Mahajan Commission in 1966. The commission, headed by former Chief Justice of India Meher Chand Mahajan, recommended that Belagavi should remain in Karnataka. Faced with an adverse recommendation, the Maharashtra government rejected the commission’s report and continued to demand Belagavi’s integration. The Karnataka government sought status quo or implementation of the Mahajan Commission report which it viewed favourably.

In the following decades, the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti gathered significant influence in Belagavi district and the Belagavi City Corporation and kept the campaign for the area’s integration into Maharashtra alive. On the other hand, outfits such as the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike continued to seek maintenance of the status quo and asserted dominance of Kannada speakers in Belagavi.

The Maharashtra government moved the Supreme Court in 2004. It also demanded that the border region should be brought under the Union government’s rule – as a Union Territory – until the top court pronounces a judgment in the matter. The case which was supposed to be heard by the Supreme Court on November 30 remains pending and all of Belagavi continues to be administered by Karnataka.

An emotive issue

The Belagavi dispute remains an emotive issue on both sides of the inter-state border. Political parties in both states have also used the dispute for electoral benefits.

All political parties in Maharashtra, despite ideological differences amongst themselves, have traditionally stood on the same side of the dispute and sought Belagavi’s integration into Maharashtra based on linguistic claims. In 2006, the Maharashtra government submitted before the Supreme Court that its appeal for Belagavi’s integration was based on “the feeling of insecurity among the Marathi-speaking people living in Karnataka”.

Deepak Dalvi, leader of the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti, had told Mint during Karnataka’s 2018 assembly elections that Belagavi’s merger with Karnataka was a “grave injustice” meted out to Marathi people as the city, he claimed, was predominantly Marathi-speaking.

In Karnataka too, all major political parties have sought maintenance of the status quo and retention of Belagavi. Tapping into the public sentiment in the state about the dispute, the Karnataka government constructed a legislature building in Belagavi in 2012 – making it the de facto second capital.

When Thackeray was the chief minister, the Maharashtra Chief Minister’s Office had tweeted in 2021 that “bringing Karnataka-occupied Marathi-speaking and cultural areas in Maharashtra will be the true tribute to those who accepted martyrdom in the boundary battle”. BS Yediyurappa, who was Karnataka chief minister at the time, had condemned Thackeray’s statement and asserted that Karnataka was “not going to give even an inch of land from [its] side”.

Linguistic claims

While the dispute is based on linguistic grounds, such claims themselves are subject of disagreements. While the Maharashtra government claims that Marathi is the dominant language in Belagavi, the Karnataka government claims that Kannada is the most widely-spoken language there.

The demography of Belagavi has also been influenced by decades of migration and the areas remaining under Karnataka’s control since the dispute started. Politicians in favour of Belagavi joining Maharashtra had claimed in the 1940s and 1950s that when India became independent and when the states were reorganised on linguistic basis, Marathi-speaking people outnumbered Kannada speakers there.

Political conundrum

The tensions around the border dispute have presented the BJP and the Congress with a political conundrum. BJP’s governments in both states – Karnataka and Maharashtra – stand on opposing sides of the dispute.

The Congress, which is the main opposition party in Karnataka, as well as former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (United) also oppose Maharashtra’s territorial claims. However, the Congress’ Maharashtra unit supports Belagavi’s integration with Maharashtra. This conundrum is particularly significant ahead of the legislative assembly elections in Karnataka expected to be held in about six months.