Maharashtra-Karnataka border dispute flares up again

Ashraf Engineer

July 29, 2023


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

The decades-long border dispute between Karnataka and Maharashtra flared up again when, a few days ago, close to 10 gram panchayats in Kaagal taluka of Kolhapur district passed a unanimous resolution demanding a merger with Karnataka. What’s surprising is that these are Marathi-speaking regions that are echoing the demand of Kannada-dominated areas of the state. The resolution followed allegations of negligence against the Maharashtra government in providing basic civic amenities such as water to these areas. In the past, there has been similar action by Jat in Sangli district, Akkalkot in Solapur district and 10 villages in Deoni taluka of Latur district. What is the border dispute all about and what comes next?


The trigger for the Kaagal resolution was the Maharashtra government’s decision to supply water from the Dudhganga River to Ichalkaranji, a town with 5 lakh residents. This was strongly opposed by the Dudhganga Bachao Kruti Samiti, which represents the Kaagal gram panchayats and feels that water should be supplied to the panchayat areas instead. The samiti said that merging with Karnataka would ensure regular water supply to the panchayat areas.

Kaagal, residents pointed out, suffers from a severe water shortage even during the monsoon. If water from Dudhganga is diverted to Ichalkaranji, this shortage would worsen.

Kaagal is close to the Karnataka border and more than 90% of its residents are Marathi-speaking. What’s ironic is that it is within Maharashtra’s but people in this region rely on Karnataka for services such as education, for which they travel to the nearby town of Nippani.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, scurrying to placate the villages, offered a Rs 1,900-crore development package and assured essential amenities within a year after the resolution passed in Jat taluka.

As I said earlier, the resolution to merge with Karnataka is not an isolated incident. Last December, 11 gram panchayats of Akkalkot expressed a similar desire, prompting the police to issue notices to them. These panchayats cover around 42 villages and have a significant Kannada-speaking population. The reasons cited were similar: lack of development.

Eleven panchayats covering 25 villages in Jat taluka and 10 villages in Deoni taluka have also presented similar resolutions to district collectors in the past.

Last year, then Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai said Karnataka was thinking of laying claim to Jat taluka, prompting angry protests by both pro-Kannada and pro-Marathi activists. Union Home Minister Amit Shah then forbade both states from claiming any territory before the Supreme Court gives its verdict on the matter. Incidentally, at that time, both states were BJP-led but Karnataka has since elected a Congress government

Despite Amit Shah’s directive, the Karnataka Assembly passed a resolution to not cede any territory to Maharashtra, further stirring the pot. Not to be left behind, the Maharashtra Assembly passed a resolution to legally pursue the inclusion within the state of 865 Marathi-speaking villages from Belagavi, Karwar, Nippani, Bidar, Bhalki and others that are within Karnataka now.

So, what’s the dispute all about?

The town of Belagavi has been part of Karnataka since state borders were demarcated along linguistic lines under the States Reorganisation Act of 1956. But, neither Maharashtra nor Karnataka has fully accepted the border and the dispute flares up regularly.

In 1957, Maharashtra demanded a rethink of the border. In a memorandum to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, it claimed 814 villages and three urban areas of Belagavi, Karwar and Nippani as part of the Bombay Presidency before Independence. In 2004, it filed a petition in the Supreme Court claiming Belagavi.

Karnataka is in no mood to relent either, maintaining that Belagavi is part of it and that it is beyond dispute.

In 1966, at Maharashtra’s insistence, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi established a one-man commission led by Mehr Chand Mahajan, the third Chief Justice of India. The commission recommended that 264 villages be transferred to Maharashtra and that Belagavi, then known as Belgaum, and 247 villages remain with Karnataka.

Naturally, Maharashtra rejected the recommendation while Karnataka welcomed it. It’s the Mahajan Commission Report that Karnataka regularly cites to argue that Belagavi is part of it.

There was also a four-member committee formed by the feuding states in 1960 but it failed to arrive at a consensus

Karnataka, meanwhile, also argued for the inclusion of areas in Kolhapur, Sholapur and Sangli districts in its territory.

To underscore its claims, from 2006, Karnataka started holding the Winter Session of the Legislature in Belagavi. For this, it built a massive Secretariat along the lines of the Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru.

The politics around the issue are complex because no party in either state can take the risk of ceding territory.

Many governments have sought to up the ante, at least in part as political grandstanding. For instance, in 1986, then Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde made a Kannada language test mandatory for state government jobs. This angered linguistic minorities, forcing Hegde to assure Marathi leaders that Kannada would not be compulsory in primary education in border areas.

Meanwhile, over the decades, Belagavi itself has changed significantly – demographically and economically. While the core of Belagavi remains Kannada speakers, now there are a large number of Marathi speakers in the town and surrounding areas.

As I said, the matter is now in the Supreme Court and both states await the outcome of the case even as they assert that they will not move an inch from their political stances.

What this also means is that the dispute is great raw material for politicians to stoke regional sentiments for electoral benefit. No political party leaves out the dispute in their election manifestos or campaigns. It’s the same in Karnataka. Often, the same party in one state will oppose the view of its unit in the other state. The irony is delicious.

Meanwhile, the ramifications of the stalemate can mean, as we’ve seen in Kaagal, frustration and anger on the ground.

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