Belagavi: Far from the main electoral theatre among the chief protagonists Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Janata Dal (Secular) that would soon determine who rules Karnataka, a smaller but significant aside is playing out in Belagavi, Karnataka’s second largest district in terms of population.
Here, the Marathi-speaking natives who account for nearly 60% of Belagavi’s total population of 477,000 (per 2011 Census) are furthering their agenda to split away from Karnataka and join the neighbouring Maharashtra. The Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES-the Committee for Integration with Maharashtra), formed way back in 1948, is contesting seven assembly constituencies in Belagavi and Bidar districts. MES’s central committee president Deepak Dalvi was only 13 when Belagavi, called Belgaum then, was merged into the then Mysore state (now Karnataka) in 1956 under the reorganization of state on lingual basis.
“It was a grave injustice done to us that despite being a Marathi-speaking city, Belgaum was merged with Karnataka. While election is a routine democratic exercise and we participate it in as such, we have kept up the fight to get Marathi-speaking parts like Belgaum, Khanapur, Nipani, and Karwar with Maharashtra where they belong," Dalvi said in an interview in Belagavi on the sidelines of a public meeting where the two factions of MES are scheduled to come together. But Dalvi says he is disappointed by the “non-cooperative attitude" of the other faction headed by Kiran Thakur, editor of a Marathi daily Tarun Bharat that champions the cause of Marathi-speaking population in this part of Karnataka.
Dalvi says the MES, which was set up as the vehicle to oppose the plans to attach Belagavi to Karnataka and which grew as a regional political outfit, has been affected by some of the same ills that plague the national parties. “Factionalism, one-upmanship, and ego issues have crept into MES also. But even though there are two factions, there is unanimity over the agenda to follow because we are still more of a movement than a party," he says. While Dalvi does not agree that factionalism has diluted the movement, he concedes that the MES was well past its best years during 1957-1962 when it won all seven seats it contested. In the 2013 elections, the MES won two seats. The same year, more electoral success came when MES won 33 of 58 seats in Belagavi Municipal Corporation.
While for Dalvi and his generation of Marathi activists, the issue of Marathi asmita (Marathi identity and pride) is inherent in the demand to integrate nearly 864 villages of Karnataka, apart from Belagavi, Nipani, Khanapur, and Karwar, with Maharashtra, the Marathi cause also represents economic concerns for the younger activists of MES. Shrinath Pawar, a 30-year-old MES activist, says the Marathi youths do not get jobs in Belagavi and other Marathi-speaking parts of Karnataka even though they formed a large chunk of the population. “In Belagavi district, Marathis account for 40% population. The Karnataka government has made knowledge of Kannada compulsory for government jobs. But there is hardly any Kannada school in the district. We have no problem with learning Kannada but where do we learn the language?," Pawar asks. He says a majority of young MES activists have their own small businesses. He is a commerce graduate but runs an agro products shop.
Three-term MES corporator Vijay Patil says there are other factors also that have severely hit the Marathi cause. “New caste combinations have emerged in the 90s after Mandal Commission’s recommendations. The Marathi population, which earlier used to support us en-bloc, has splintered and some of them now also vote for Congress, BJP, and JD(S). Frequent delimitation of constituencies has also split the Marathi population," Patil says.
In the larger scheme of assembly elections, the Marathi issue has figured only tangentially between the two main protagonists, chief minister Siddaramaiah and his BJP rival B.S. Yeddyurappa. On 28 April, addressing a public rally in Belagavi, Siddaramaiah expressed regrets for not being able to speak Marathi. The BJP chief ministerial aspirant hit back accusing Siddaramaiah of “insulting Kannadigas by saying sorry to the Marathas".