Perched on his handcart in the light drizzle on a day that the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES) has called a Belgaum bandh, Kudoba Shinde is doing brisk business selling mangoes in the Marathi-dominated Maruti galli in the centre of town.
Neither the rain nor the half-hearted stone-throwing workers belonging to MES, which wants Belgaum annexed to Maharashtra, has kept either him or his customers indoors, though most shops have downed shutters to avoid unnecessary trouble.
Kudoba smiles when asked if he is not afraid that he might lose life or property for not responding to the bandh. “Who will enforce it? They are all outsiders with no local support who are messing up Belgaum. They just foment trouble and run away when it gets too hot. So why should we lose out on account of their petty politics?”
That cynicism cuts across Marathi speakers of this town on the borders of Maharashtra and Karnataka. The MES is so discredited even among its own supporters that in the last elections it failed to win a single seat from the Marathi-dominated areas (these went in equal measure to the BJP and the Congress).
Today, the separatists have no voice in the Karnataka Assembly at all and neither the Congress nor the ruling BJP is sympathetic to their cause.
To make matters worse for them, the younger generation is largely indifferent to their cause. Most votaries of Maharashtra are over 70. The younger lot couldn’t care less about which state they belong to so long as they qualify for jobs in Bangalore (Karnataka) and Pune (Maharashtra), two of the fastest- growing IT centres in India.
And it is increasingly becoming obvious, even to the most zealous supporters of Belgaum’s integration into Maharashtra, that their dream will probably never be realised.
They have lost their case in every forum, including the States Reorganisation Commission, for the last 56 years, but some people are still hoping that the Supreme Court, which is hearing their latest plea, will deliver a favourable verdict.
When the Belgaum issue was raised during UPA 1, the separatists had hoped that then home minister Shivraj Patil would side with his fellow Marathi-speaking people. But he was typically diplomatic and it soon became obvious that the government was rooting for a status quo.
The more resolute response from P. Chidambaram in UPA 2, Belgaumis believe, came at the instance of Law Minister Veerappa Moily, who is a former Karnataka CM and will never compromise his home state’s position on the issue.
“So, the only way we will get to be with Maharashtra is if Maharashtra’s leaders fight on our behalf with the Centre,” says T.K. Patil, the MES Belgaum city president, in a rare moment of candour.
But with at least 16 border disputes across India, the Centre seems to be in no mood to set a precedent by carving Belgaum out of Karnataka and giving it to Maharashtra, despite the Congress’s own Chief Minister Ashok Chavan making a case for his state.
Then, the MES has been accused of keeping the Belgaum region deliberately backward. The party even turned down an offer to set up a Belgaum bench of the Karnataka High Court, which then went to neighbouring Dharwar – in the belief that if it allowed development, the younger generation would be content to remain with Karnataka.
But that is precisely what is now happening – ever since former Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy decided to turn Belgaum into the state’s winter capital.
Development is coming in full measure to this region (including an Assembly building that will be the pride of Karnataka) bringing about fresh migration of Marathi-speaking people from the neighbouring Kolhapur district in Maharashtra who find better opportunities here than on their own side of the border.
T.K. Patil, too, knows that Belgaum is almost a battle lost for its Marathi-speaking population. So, this Ashadh Ekadashi (which fell on July 22) he was headed for Pandharpur (in Maharashtra), where every CM unfailingly makes an offering to the state’s deity, Lord Vithoba, each year. “I am going to sit beside Chavan and offer my own sakhda (offering) for Belgaum,” Patil says.
That is fitting. For, clearly, only an act of God can now rescue the nearly lost cause of Belgaum.