Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Politics of Belgaum: How malleable is Indian Federalism?

If the Belgaum agitation is taken seriously, India’s federated states will never acquire territorial integrity. The essence of Maharashtra’s claim is that all the border villages in neighboring Karnataka, where even a bare majority speak Marathi, should be handed over to become part of Maharashtra. Over sixty years these demands have been accompanied by violence, threats and the emergence of Pan-Marathi fundamentalist nationalism.

Belgaum is in the news again because Marathi politicians resent an affidavit by the Union of India of 2010 refusing to accept Maharashtra claims to Karnataka’s border villages. In 2004 Maharashtra filed a case against Karnataka in the Supreme Court effectively claiming 865 villages in Belgaum, Karwar, Bidar, Gulbarga in Karnataka on the basis of alleged linguistic majorities in these 865 villages. In Karwar, the claim for 301 villages is based on the claim that Konkani is a dialect of Marathi. Maharashtra’s claim rests on four principles: (i) the villages as a unit (ii) geographical contiguity (iii) linguistic majority and (iv) wishes of the people. Shorn of pretences, if Maharashtra’s claim to annex border villages in neighbouring states where there is a Marathi speaking majority were to be applied as a principle, inter-state border claims would never stop; and resurrected each time border villages show linguistic change. Movements of people across borders would be encouraged and villages colonized to create linguistic majorities to facilitate their annexation. Taking to its illogical conclusion, Indian federalism is invited to permit its States the indulgence of cross border conquest by linguistic head-count supported by noisy, even violent, politics.

It is really not necessary to go into historical controversies over recognizing linguistic federalism in India. Before independence the cause of linguistic federalism was espoused by the Congress’s sessions in 1920, and 1927, the Nehru Committee Report (1926), and the creation of Sindh and Orissa on a linguistic basis in 1936. After independence the Dar Commission and the JVP Committee of 1948 suggested status quo and caution unless “public sentiment was insistent”. This was not intended to be, but became, an invitation to agitation. In 1954-55 the States Reorganization Committee (SRC) recommended a basis for linguistic federalism including separate states also for Vidarba and Telengana – demands for which continue today. But the SRC did not elevate “linguistic (and cultural) homogeneity as an exclusive and binding principle overriding all other considerations, administrative, financial or political”. Even if the ‘wishes of the people’ were ascertainable, they were subject to the “larger national interest”. Linguistic federalism was not an absolute or exclusive basis for federalism.

Indian federalism permits new states to be created out of old ones with the scantiest of consultation with state legislations(Article 3). The absence of territorial integrity was never visualized as permanent. The territorial integrity of these new states was intended to be respected. These provisions were to creatively enable a multi-cultural nation to emerge from an alien empire and 550 odd Princely States. The basis of these revisional endeavours have been founded on language, culture, administrative convenience and peoples’ demands. The defining moment was 1956 when the States Reorganization Commission (1956) effectively responded to Potti Sreeramulu’s fast to death in 1954, overruled Nehru’s cautionary reserve and enabled Parliament to create Andhra, Kerala, Karnataka(then Mysore) on a linguistic basis. Later exercises were based both on language and culture to enable the creation of Gujarat and Maharashtra (1960), Punjab, Haryana (1966) and Himachal and the North Indian States (1971), Sikkim by accession (1975), Goa (1987) and the tribal states of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh (2000). Tribal areas have been designated within States to enable autonomy for these areas (Constitution’s 5th-6th Schedules). Union territories have been created for Delhi, Chandigarh, Pondicherry and various Islands. Questions loom large as to whether UP should be broken into several states, States of Vidarbha and Telengana be created and a mountain State be created out of Bengal.

Nobody visualized continuing border disputes. Maharashtra’s border claims are a way in which an uncompromising and fearful Marathi politics reinforces itself. Over 1955-6, the Maharashtra’s agitation led to 105 killings by police firing. Around that time, C.D. Deshmukh resigned as Finance Minister in support of Maharashtra’s claim. Many methods to resolve these disputes were tried: the use of the Western Zonal Councils (which failed), Committees from the warring states (which failed) and examination of Commissions headed by serving or retired judges (which succeeded).

The Justices Wanchoo (1952) and Mishra Commissions (1953) split Bellary to give three districts to Andhra and the rest to Karnataka. The case was decided on its facts and hardly authorizes compulsory splitting of districts by villages, a view rejected by the Union in 1966. This is equally true of Justice Shah’s efforts on Punjab and Haryana. The fact remains that the Belgaum dispute was referred to the formidable ex-Justice M.C. Mahajan who received 2240 memoranda and spoke to 7572 persons, visiting 17 places, rejected the village unit formula, relying on panchayat boundaries. Interestingly what the Commission presented was that between 1951 and 1961, the Marathi majority in Belgaum slipped into a minority, or bare majority in various areas, and increased in others – with Maharashtra adding and subtracting their claims based on the 1961 census. Demographic movements are inevitable. A right to movement and to settle in any part of India inheres in all persons and community. The Marathi speaking majority in 1951 in some areas had been reduced in 1961 (46%). Unhappy, with Mahajan’s report, Maharashtra resorted to agitational protest.

In determining these questions, do we go to the census of 1951, 1961, 1971, 2001 or 2011. Nothing could be more absurd than redrawing state boundaries after each census! The present agitation arises because of a Counter-Affidavit of 2010 by the Union of India reiterating its stand that “language (is) not the sole criteria” for determining boundaries and “the transfer of certain areas to Karnataka was neither arbitrary and wrong”.

Marathi politics tries to reinforce a false pernicious identity through uncompromising agitation. In 1996, 10 ladies from Belgaum started a hunger strike on the issue Chief Ministers of Maharashtra have kept the issue alive between 1997-2002. The Supreme Court case was filed in 2002. The Supreme Court cannot and should not determine these matters and strike down the 1956 and 1960 Reorganization Acts to unsettle settled demarcations, open Pandora’s box and create new border tensions.

The claim on Belgaum and other areas is part of a pan-Marathi nationalism. The obverse of this agitation is the campaign to threaten non-Marathis in Bombay so that even film stars have been coerced into submission.

The Shiva Sena and MNS claim to be trustees of the Maharatha cause to the hilt. Chief Minister Chavan was anxious not to miss the bus and made the absurd suggestion of making the disputed areas a Union Territory. The agitation will continue in the monsoon session of Parliament. If Chavan’s suggestion is talked through, is there a case for Mumbai becoming Union-territory to make it available for all?

India has a rich multi-lingual and multi-cultural federalism. Freedom of movement has enabled workers and business to travel to all corners of India. New states may and will be created to make Indian federalism more manageable. These border disputes which are fuelled by politically inspired jingoism must stop – now!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I read your articles. It is simple but very accurate info… Many thanks for sharing this one.
    Online Pet Shop