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Do You Speak Angry?

Kannada or Marathi? The Belgaum issue flares up again but are the people up for it?

Do You Speak Angry?
Do You Speak Angry?

Borderline Cases

  • 1956 States reorganised on linguistic lines
  • 1957 Sarabandi agitation; several people from Yellur lost their lives
  • 1966 Mahajan Commission report recommended transfer of 265 villages but not Belgaum to Maharashtra
  • 1973 Kannada made compulsory in judicial procedures
  • 1986 Kannada compulsory in schools, agitation intensifies
  • 2002-04 Shortage of books in Marathi sparks unrest
  • 2006 Maharashtra files petition in SC

Linguistics Minorities Commission has filed 47 reports on the dispute


Pleas Before The SC

  • The imposition of Kannada has inconvenienced the illiterate
  • Preservation of Marathi language and culture at stake
  • Marathis turned into a minority 
  • Belgaum corporation has mostly Marathi corporators
  • Belgaum corporation observes Black Day on November 1, which is Karnataka’s ‘Rajyotsav Day’
  • 865 villages in the region have Marathi majority population
  • Three million Marathis affected
  • State boundaries have changed 22 times since independence
  • Karnataka tried to change the name from Belgaum to Belgavi

(Source: Madhav Chavan, advocate assisting panel in SC)


The drive from Panjim in Goa to Belgaum in Karnataka is idyllic this time of the year. Rainswept roads look out into the lush green countryside. A police checkpost manned by grim-looking cops barely 15 km from town does break the reverie though. A long picket of police vehicles is visible as one approaches Yellur, with people quickly dispersing at the sight of any vehicle.

The Karnataka village, where police allegedly assaulted Marathi-speaking peo­ple over the weekend, figured in the Lok Sabha on Thursday last week with Shiv Sena MPs warning of repercussions in Maharashtra and demanding Union territory status for Belgaum and adjoining areas. The BJP MPs from Karnataka were as vocal in opposing the demand.

It all started with a simple signboard reading ‘Yellur, Maharashtra’. Yellur, of course, is in Karnataka but the signboard had been there for several years now. Belgaum police say they took it down following a recent order of the Karnataka HC. The administration also claims to have taken people into con­fidence and briefed people’s rep­r­esentatives, including local MLA Sambhaji Patil. But it still provoked some people—outsiders, acc­o­r­­d­ing to some accounts—into reinstalling a similar signboard within 24 hours. This time the police went charging in, beating up people, dragging them out of houses and arresting a large number of suspects, triggering a fresh bout of violence. 

The incident has revived an old dispute. The two states have been fighting over the region since 1956, with Maharashtra filing a petition as late as 2006 before the Sup­reme Court, where it is pending. The Mahar­ashtra assembly has taken up as many as 18 resolutions against Karnataka, accusing the latter of acting against Marathi interests. The acrimony has pla­yed out locally even before: the Bel­g­aum municipality, including the Marathi-speaking mayor and deputy mayor, was dismissed in 2011 and again superceded in 2012. But with elections in Maharashtra in October, the Shiv Sena has pounced on the emotive issue and has revived the demand of central rule in the region.

The struggle intensified post-1986 when learning Kannada was made mandatory (incidentally, learning Marathi is mandatory in Maharashtra too). Several leaders, including Sharad Pawar and Chhagan Bhujbal, had then clandestinely reached Belgaum and participated in a satyagraha to support the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti’s (MES) fight.

According to the Marathi people in Yellur and Belgaum, things have become more difficult in the past few years because now all governmental work is done only in Kannada and in no other language—agricultural records, judicial notifications, taxes, circulars, death certificates and so on. And that has intensified positions on both sides.

Photograph by Apoorva Salkade

The Belgaum police say they took down the signboard saying ‘Yellur, Maharashtra’ after the HC ordered it.

On the latest violence, Yellur local Shivaji Patil, who sent his son Nitin away as he was in shock after the incident, says the police acted like they were “they were goondas in uniform. They pulled out my son and beat him up mercilessly. They broke his laptop. They didn’t think twice about hitting the women. They broke the windows, trashed our vehicles”. A two-month-old baby in the same household was hit by a flying glass piece. Every villager in the area had a version of this story. “It was the police who slapped cases on our youth. Who do we complain to now?” asks S.K. Bedre, a retired school principal, whose car was damaged. 

Now this is the version of events by most people in Yellur and also members of the MES. The police have another. “The situation is under control now. The villagers pelted stones and came with lathis and talwars to re-erect the board. If they disobey the administration so wilfully, we have to act, we have to be firm,” says SP Chandragupta.

Emotions are running high. “The HC order was not specifically to destroy the board. As it is, they have not followed the order to the letter vis-a-vis providing documents in minority languages, so why the rush to remove the board?” asks Vasantrao Patil, president of MES. The man may be in his late 70s but he’s rel­e­ntless, addressing meetings, calling to revive an agitation that started five decades ago, and sees fitful flashes of energy. The basic demand is that 865 villages in the districts of Belgaum, Nippani and Bidar be handed over to Maharashtra based on the constitutional principle of language affinity (see box).

However, scratch the surface of sleepy- happy, culturally rich Belgaum and a slightly different picture emerges. The Marathi majority population (49-60 per cent) speaks both languages fairly well. So do the Kannadigas in the city. The Marathi, with the extended ‘hoooo’ and missing gender, sounds very much like Kannada. The converse is true too. Sho­pkeepers, autorickshaw drivers, professionals—everyone is bilingual. 

At the residence of the Kulkarni family, the border controversy comes up in conversation every few months in passing. A Kannada family but steeped in Marathi culture with relatives spread all over, from Mumbai to Bangalore, they speak both languages at home.  “I can speak Kannada and I read and write in it. But I do all my cal­culations only in Mar­athi,” says Krishnaji Kulkarni, the grandfather. “Not just that, there is a mixed version where Kannada and Marathi is used in equal measure and it is neither and both at the same time,” he laughs, loudly demonstrating the “dialect”. 

His son Praveen, who runs a provision store and does translation work on the side (English to Kannada and Marathi and vice-versa), has put his daughter in a Kendriya Vidyalaya to avoid any ambiguity about languages. “Frankly, it never comes up in daily affairs. I understand that there are problems when documents are compulsorily done in Kannada. I am fully with the people who demand that minorities should get governmental work done in their language (which the HC too has ordered, but is yet to happen). Imagine a Marathi speaker at a crematorium filling up forms in Kannada when you are gri­e­v­ing someone’s death and also struggling to complete formalities. That said, the only ones to benefit from the border struggle is a handful of ambitious political leaders, not the people. The social fabric of this city is a very special one. It needs to be understood at all levels.” The family avidly follows Marathi theatre and Praveen rattles off artiste names like Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi, Indira Sant and P.L. Deshpande who either belonged to or lived in Belgaum/Kar­na­taka and contributed in Maharashtra.

His sister and brother-in-law, Vidya and Madhukar Shahapurkar, have retired in Belgaum after spending years in Goa, Bangalore and Baroda. “I worked for Bank of Maharashtra and spoke the language of whichever state I worked in. My son who works in Mumbai was not even aware of the trouble and bandh,” says Madhukar. “I really feel bad that despite Belgaum being close to Goa and Maharashtra and is part of Karnataka, it is Kolhapur, Dharwad-Hubli and Panjim that are prospering. Projects that can create employment and infrastructure do not come here. This place could have been so much more,” says Vidya, ruing that while the rest of country races ahead in the age of globalisation, Belgaum seems to be stuck in a time-warp.

Indeed, in the town everyone seems to get along well. Santosh S., a Marathi cha­­rtered accountant who runs his own company, employs Kannada, Marathi and Dakkhini-speaking Muslim workers. “It is a genuine problem when it comes to handling taxes and documentation if it is only in Kan­n­ada. What if someone gets cheated? What if something goes wrong? We find a way around it because of our experience. But in everyday life, we are great friends. I have friends who are staunch Kannada supporters but we all get together every now and then joke about it. Of course, no Marathi will like it if they are harassed on purpose,” he says, adding that his mother is a Kannadiga and at home they speak both languages. He says things go on normally until something like this flares up. 

“There are many families with mixed backgrounds. In fact, in the past daughters were educated in Marathi and sons in Kannada to ensure matrimonial alliances for girls and government jobs for boys!” laughs Praveen Kulkarni. Finally, the crux of the matter comes down to jobs and family life. Marathis often rue the fact that they are not in the government jobs fray as Kannada is not their first or second language (that being English and Marathi or vice-versa).

Speak easy The Kulkarni family at their residence in Belgaum. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)

“Generations have seen their prospects messed up because of this issue. People have sacrificed everything but for how long? Fact of the matter is there is no agreement among political leaders from Mahar­ash­tra to support us,” says Achyut Mane, a retired professor, activist and an expert on the border issue. He is based in Nippani, a few kilometres from the Mahara­shtra border—here Marathis make up more than 90 per cent of the demographic. Contrary to other places, here the signboards on shops are in Marathi or English. It is near Nippani that buses cross the border on the Kolhapur route (Belgaum-Kolhapur-Pune). Because of the trouble, 20 trips have now been cancelled; buses were damaged in Kolhapur and Kagal. But officials says the situation is normal now.

“Although the spirit is there, the mov­ement has lost steam because several factions have come up over the years. Earlier, MES used to have 7-8 MLAs, now there are just one or two. People have joined other political parties. While every leader supports our cause, no one does anything about it. Can we not have all 48 MPs from Maha­rashtra agree on this, like Telangana?” asks Mane, with practised rhetoric. Probe him a little more and his colleague snaps, “We are like a lamb stuck in a river stream where a tiger awaits on top and downstream a crocodile!”    

“Mixed backgrounds are common here. In the past, daughters were educated in Marathi, sons in Kannada....”

When asked about youth participation, there are conflicting views. Those in Yellur, Nippani and members of the MES say the youth are still committed to the cause. Those in Belgaum are a little more ambiguous. “We have to tell the youth to not get aggressive. It is a Gandhian struggle,” says Dalvi of the MES. “The youth are not very focused because of changing times. We are not on Facebook and the internet. We’ll have to get down to the streets of Mumbai—the CM’s house or Mantralaya—for this one more time,” says Prof Mane, adding that the movement will not succeed unless Mahara­sh­tra gets serious about it. In a sense, it’s an ironical situation that the state they owe allegiance to is the one they need to fight now. (They are also deeply hurt about the statement of MNS’s Raj Thackeray, who  asked that they learn Kannada as long as they were part of Karnataka.) 

In the meanwhile, there are reactions from the other side too. Not just the Karnataka government, which is mulling a ban on the MES, but also the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, which has been openly making belligerent statements. Siddana­gouda Patil, ex-mayor of Belgaum and former member of the state’s Kannada Development Commit­tee, says: “Yellur is part of Karnataka. The state government did not take the board issue seriously earlier. They wanted to solve the problem peacefully and the police only did their duty in removing the board. But some mischievous elements, not all of them Marathis, want this issue to go on. If the Marathi people can accept the Mahajan Commission report, we are ready but they won’t accept it. So then we also have to take a stand.” 

When asked about the provision of doc­uments in Marathi, which seems to be the real issue bothering the majority, Patil says, “The Marathis must learn Kan­­nada. It is the same policy in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. If they want, the district administration will give circulars in English, Urdu, Hindi and Marathi. That’s not a major issue. But look at Akkalkot and Jath in Maharashtra where the local Kannada people are not allowed to have their own schools. They too face the same problem.” However, he grudgingly admits that development in Belgaum has been affected—water supply, roads, agriculture, there are many issues. “But that’s because the Marathi leaders don’t want the place to develop. Otherwise, there is no quarrel between Marathi and Kannada people,” he says.

Meanwhile, at the Kulkarni residence, discussions and repartees conti­nue in several languages. A nostalgic mom­ent is of P.L. Deshpande’s Raos­a­heb, a character sketch of a Kannadiga passionate about music. “Shincha te Mar­athi Kanadi ghal tyachya...,” thunders Raosaheb in a unique dialect asking that the issue be shoved up the neta’s you-know-what. Now only if he was real.

By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Belgaum

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