It was a small protest. A few men with Congress party flags stood at the foot of a statue to Kempegowda, the 16th Century Kannada chieftain who is said to have founded Bangalore, shouting “Dhikkara, Dhikkara (Shame, shame)!”
The protests were against Sanjay Patil, a BJP MLA, and Suresh Angadi, the sitting BJP MP from Belgaum, 500 kilometres north of the state capital of Bangalore, had helped workers of the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (Maharashtra Unification Committee) hoist a saffron flag atop the new Belgaum City Corporation building.
Angadi had done so alleging a Congress ‘conspiracy’ in removing the flag from the old corporation building, atop which it had flown since 1956.
The BJP politicians had to apologise less than a week later, after finding no support from their party. They had joined the the battle of the flags without accounting for one crucial fact: that in Belgaum, the colour saffron does not symbolise Hindutva alone — it also symbolises Maharashtra, which has been claiming Karnataka’s border district since the latter became a state in 1956.
Post-Independence, many state borders were drawn on the basis of language.
At the time, an overwhelming 45 per cent of Belgaum’s residents spoke Marathi. But it was included in Karnakata on the recommendations of a Centrally-appointed committee.
Ever since, the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti has been fighting to have the region included in Maharashtra. It claims Marathi-speakers are still the largest linguistic group there.
The Samiti's sub-nationalism runs into its mirror image in Karnataka, in groups like the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (Karnataka Protection Forum), a hardline Kannada nationalist outfit known and feared for its often violent ways.
The group claims 45 lakh members. Its chief Narayana Gowda, a dark, swarthy man who speaks only Kannada, had issued a statement saying the saffron flag had created tensions between the communities — not Hindu and Muslim, but Marathi and Kannadiga.
The KRV threatened to launch an agitation against the BJP on the issue. In Belgaum, members of the outfit surrounded the BJP campaign office and had to be dispersed by a police lathi-charge.
“We will put the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti in their place,” Gowda said through an interpreter. “The border issue with Maharashtra has been promoted by the NCP and Shiv Sena.”
His outfit, he declared, is “above religion and caste”. Its sole concern is “protecting the interests of Kannada, Kannadigas and Karnataka”.
The dispute has simmered for more than half a century, occasionally blowing up into threats and mini-riots, as in 2005.
A Marathi mayor who passed a resolution asking for Belgaum to be included in Maharashtra had his face blackened. Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray threatened to throw all Kannadigas out of Maharashtra.
It hasn't got to that yet, but the conflict has confused many, including politicians. “We thought the flag represented the Hindu state,” Angadi, a Kannadiga, later said in a statement to the press. “We were fooled.”