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Signpost dare, batons light a border fire

Police detain a protester in Belgaum on Sunday. (PTI)

July 28: Police’s demolition of a signpost that declared a Marathi-speaking Karnataka village as part of Maharashtra and a baton-charge on protesting residents has re-ignited passions in both states where a half-century-old border dispute refuses to die down.

News channels in Maharashtra aired footage of Karnataka police caning Marathi speakers and raiding their homes yesterday in Yellur village, provoking what appeared a veiled threat of retaliation from the Shiv Sena.

Karnataka denied any atrocities, suggested its police were honouring a court prod, and hinted at banning an outfit campaigning for the merger of the state’s Marathi-speaking northern areas into Maharashtra.

Since the language-based reorganisation of India’s states in the 1950s, Maharashtra has been laying claim to 785 Karnataka villages and towns such as Belgaum, Karwar, Nipani and Khanapur, which have sizeable Marathi-speaking populations. The dispute is pending before the Supreme Court.

Nobody seemed sure exactly when the brick-and-cement signboard in Marathi, with “Maharashtra Rajya: Yellur” emblazoned across it, came up in the village, set 15km from Belgaum city.

A Kannadiga RTI activist petitioned Karnataka High Court in mid-July seeking the signpost’s removal. He alleged it was erected by the pro-merger Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti, demolished by pro-Kannada activists in December 2012, and rebuilt.

On July 21, a bench headed by chief justice D.H. Waghela asked the state government to declare what it planned to do, remarking: “When the district administration is afraid to remove the board, what will be the fate of the people?”

The police removed the signpost on Friday, following which an attempt seems to have been made to restore it on Saturday. When the police returned on Sunday, they were allegedly stoned, leading to a baton-charge.

Karnataka chief minister P.C. Siddaramaiah denied his government was targeting Marathi speakers and said the protesters’ “violence” had led to “a mild lathi-charge”.

Two protesters were admitted to hospital and eight others suffered minor injuries. The village was calm today but a ban on the assembly of more than five people will be in force till Tuesday.

Several villages in the border areas are protesting the police action by putting up boards carrying their names in Marathi.

Minister Satish Jharkiholi said the state would look into demands for a ban on the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti, which observed a bandh in Marathi-speaking areas. In a counter-protest, pro-Kannada groups like Kannada Rakshana Vedike marched to the state secretariat in Bangalore.

Political temperatures ran high in Mumbai today, with BJP ally Shiv Sena urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh to step in.

Its rival, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray, scorned the Modi government’s “silence”.

An editorial in Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna seemed to carry an implicit threat.

“In Mumbai, institutions like Karnataka Sangh and Karnataka Bhavan are standing tall but the Karnataka government’s removal of a Marathi board reeks of arrogance,” it said.

“Hotels and businesses owned by Kannadigas have not been touched (in Maharashtra) but Marathi-speaking brothers are being trampled by the (Karnataka) police boots daily. This is as dangerous as (Lashkar-e-Toiba chief) Hafiz Saeed’s terrorism.”