The 'Marathi' question in Karnataka's electoral chaos
Will Congress and BJP's 'national' approach help the local pro-Maharashtra party in Belgaum?
With the Karnataka Assembly Elections one day away, the sentiment in Belgaum, a largely Marathi-speaking region in the state, has taken an interesting turn. Several Maharashtra leaders belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress campaigning for their respective parties have been met with resistance from the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES), the local party that has been fighting for the assimilation of the Marathi-speaking border region into Maharashtra. While Maharashtra supports the cause of MES, the approach of the Maharashtra leaders has rendered the MES as well as Marathi speaking population in Belgaum confused.
“The Maharashtra government needs to take the lead in resolving the border dispute. But instead of that, why are Maharashtra leaders coming to Belgaum to campaign against the MES?” questions author Prof. Anand Mense, an active name in Belgaum’s Marathi activist circle.
This year, the MES is contesting elections from five constituencies in the Belgaum district - Belgaum North, Belgaum South, Belgaum Rural, Yamakanmaradi and Khanapur. With a grand display of power right from the filing of candidacy to campaigning, the prospects for MES look promising this time, with the party hoping to win at least three of the five seats it is contesting.
“The chances certainly look good for MES this time. The party is strong and moreover, the Maharashtra-based Marathi leaders campaigning for their parties against the MES is going to be an advantage for the MES. Believe it or not, Marathi people in Belgaum showing black flags at the campaign meeting of Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister is definitely a big deal!” said Mense.
Last week, the MES activists showed black flags to BJP leader and Maharashtra Dy CM Devendra Fadnavis while he was campaigning for BJP candidates Abhay Patil and Ravi Patil. They are contesting Belgaum South and Belgaum North Constituencies respectively. Earlier, MES workers also waved black flags against Congress leader Ashok Chavan, who arrived to campaign for Congress’s Lakshmi Hebbalkar contesting the Belgaum Rural constituency.
“The Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti has been contesting elections in Karnataka since 1957, the first elections that took place after the formation of linguistic states in 1956. Earlier, the Samiti even contested in the other Marathi-speaking regions in the state like Bidar, Karwar, but now, it is limited to the five constituencies in Belgaum. Since the beginning, senior Maharashtra leaders like SM Joshi, Nanasaheb Gore, Bal Thackeray always extended support to MES and agreed not to campaign against the party,” Mense says.
Almost all the political parties in Maharashtra, over the years, have always extended support to the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti. Leaders from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Shiv Sena, Peasants and Workers Party of India have participated in Satyagrahas and protests demanding the assimilation of Marathi-speaking villages on the Karnataka border into Maharashtra. In fact, current Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde also spent 40 days in prison after being arrested in the Maharashtra-Karnataka border dispute protest over Belgaum. Last year, after the Shinde-Fadnavis government came to power in the state, the leaders aggressively made statements demanding a resolution of the border dispute.
"Over the last few years, we see that the Samiti faced several setbacks. During the last elections in Belgaum, there was an internal conflict among Samiti leaders and almost in every constituency that the party contested, another party candidate stood against the party’s officially nominated one. This incurred losses to the Samiti and no seat was won,” says Milind Desai, Belgaum city correspondent for the Marathi daily Sakal.
In fact, the MES has faced challenges on a number of fronts in the last few years.
“Earlier, when the Samiti entered elections, it would contest and win seats in different parts of the Marathi-speaking border region, in Bidar, Nipani, Karwar, etc. However, since 1999, the Karnataka government made several changes to the Assembly areas in the border region which disrupted the Marathi voters here. The division really hurt the Samiti,” Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti leader and former Belgaum mayor Maloji Ashtekar explained.
However, Desai adds that this time, the Saimiti is stronger and has a good chance of winning the elections as the Marathi-speaking population is fed up with the oppression and Kannada imposition by the Karnataka government.
“In the last few years, the imposition has increased tremendously. The offices in Belgaum would always have boards in Marathi and Kannada. Now the Marathi boards have been removed. Similarly, large Marathi boards on shops and hotels are not accepted by the officials, even though they are legal. While the proceedings of the Belgaum City Corporation take place in Marathi as most of the elected leaders are Marathi speakers, the officials issue the orders in Kannada,” Desai says.
He also adds that the permissions to Marathi public meetings are often denied. Moreover, for years, pro-Maharashtra activists have alleged that the Karnataka government is shutting down Marathi schools or not recruiting enough teachers there.
All this has led the Marathi-speaking population in Belgaum to look for a change in their leadership. While even the parties like BJP and Congress have fielded many Marathi-speaking candidates in the region, experts say that it will not work for them.
“Even though these other parties have fielded Marathi candidates, the people here know that they will not be dedicated to their cause. The Marathi people want representatives who will fight for their cause. Before anything else, the Samiti is fighting to protect the Marathi language, culture and script in Belgaum that the government is set out to finish. So people will stand with us,” Ashtekar says.
In fact, Mense adds that the campaigning by the Maharashtra BJP and Congress leaders for their parties will in turn help the Samiti.
“The four-five seats in Belgaum do not really affect the fate of these parties in the entire state, so why do they need to bring in Maharashtra leaders here? They could bring their national leaders and no one would have a problem. However, the Maharashtra leaders have a responsibility towards the people here, to ensure their inclusion in the state. That is why their campaigning against Samiti is not taken well here,” Mense said.
As far as the BJP and Congress are concerned, they say that while they completely support the cause of the inclusion of the Marathi-speaking belt in Maharashtra, they have to campaign for their candidates for the larger victory in the state.
“This time, the people's mandate is in favour of Congress. We support the Marathi-speaking population’s fight for inclusion in Maharashtra. But to defeat BJP, Congress must fight in every constituency,” says Maharashtra Congress Spokesperson Atul Londhe.
It was when the Congress-NCP government led by the late Vilasrao Deshmukh was in power in Maharashtra in 2004, the government filed a petition in the Supreme Court staking a claim over Belgaum.
“If we win, it’s not like we will stop supporting the cause of Balgaum’s inclusion in Maharashtra. We are not hypocrites like the BJP. On the other hand, even if MES wins, the status of Belgaum will not change. It will only change if the Supreme Court rules in favour of Maharashtra. Thus the legal battle is more important than the elections,” Londhe says.
However, Mense says that the legal battle, as well as the elections, are part of the larger battle for the inclusion of Belgaum in Maharashtra and both must be respected.
Ashtekar adds that no matter what government comes to power in the state, it never supports the cause of the Marathi people here.
“Whether it is the BJP government, Janata government or Congress, it has always been against the Marathi-speaking population. They have always repressed the Marathi people, so it does not matter to us what party comes to power in the state. No other party will further the cause of Marathi people in Karnataka, but Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti. People from Belgaum have fought and lost their lives for the cause for decades. But despite this, we are still neglected by the Maharashtra government,” Ashtekar said.
Maharashtra BJP Spokesperson Madhav Bhandari also reiterated that a fight for inclusion is already going on in the Supreme Court and added that this is an Assembly Election, not an election about the language issue.
“Maharashtra BJP leaders have always backed the fight of the Marathi-speaking people in the border region. We are not against their demands. But at the same time, while working as a national party, contesting elections is our right,” Bhandari adds.
Protest on Maharashtra Karnataka border last year.
Experts on the other hand feel that the BJP is fearing a loss of Karnataka this time and trying out as many strategies as possible to keep the state in their hands.
“For the last 20 days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP President JP Nadda have been stationed in Karnataka. Why did a national leader like Nadda feel the need to hold a public meeting in a small hamlet in Khanapur? They are desperate. It is also reflected in the statements of their leaders,” Mense said.
Just two days ago, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavraj Bommai called Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti a party of mischievous elements.
“Statements like these do little to harm the Samiti now. Moreover, it has elicited strong reactions from the Marathi-speaking population,” Desai says.
Meanwhile, several Marathi leaders have continued to extend their support to the Samiti over the last few days. Shiv Sena (UBT) has extended its support to the Samiti, with MP Sanjay Raut slamming the Dy CM for campaigning against the party. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena Chief Raj Thackeray also appealed to the Marathi-speaking population in the border region to vote for the Samiti on Monday.
NCP leader Jayant Patil has been holding public meetings in Belgaum as well as Nipani, where the party has fielded a candidate this time. NCP has been at the forefront of the movement for the inclusion of the Marathi belt in Maharashtra for years.
“All we want from the Maharashtra leaders is not to stand against the Marathi Manus in Belgaum,” Mense concludes.