When the Shiv Sena-BJP split last month, there were muted celebrations amongst the pro-Vidarbha state groups who sensed this to be the perfect opportunity to attain separate statehood.
The demand is nearly seven decades old, supported only by a resurgent BJP, which has a chance to form the government on its own, unfettered by allies like the Sena and headed by a prime minister who is perceived as strong and decisive.
It made sense for the BJP as well. Riding on the statehood demand, the party was looking to win most of the region’s 62 Assembly seats.
But then it all changed. Realising the issue could backfire in the rest of the state, especially the Mumbai-Pune-Nashik belt that has close to 100 seats, the BJP did a course correction. First, Modi announced he would not allow Maharashtra to be divided. On Friday, the party’s manifesto did not even mention the prospect of a separate state. In her two rallies in the region on Saturday, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, too, remained silent on the issue.
What does this mean for those demanding a separate state? The answer varies across the districts and demographics of this region.
In western Vidarbha, districts such as Buldhana and Akola, are not as open to suggestions of separation. One reason is its proximity to Marathwada and its distance from Nagpur. Many believe that Nagpur being the capital is far enough and there would barely be any tangible difference delivered from Nagpur as against Mumbai.
The other reason is the suspicion of the Hindi-sider, a term used to describe Hindi-speaking people, traditionally from Rajasthan and MP, who now occupy many seats of influence across Vidarbha. “There is a deep-rooted suspicion among many here that a separate Vidarbha will be Hindi-speaking state. Many also feel that the fruits of separation will be borne by Nagpur and they’d be neglected further,” said Rajesh Rajore, resident editor of Marathi Daily Deshonnati’s Khamgaon edition.
On the other hand, many, especially in Nagpur and surrounding areas (known as East Vidarbha), see statehood as the only way out. “Had any other region suffered even a fraction of Vidarbha’s problems, there would have been outrage. But, since it is Vidarbha, the government, sitting 900km away, doesn’t care,” said Sudhir Palliwal, a Nagpur-based activist.
Administratively, Palliwal makes perfect sense. But he is in the minority. Palliwal, a sexagenarian, agreed the movement lacks youth support. “But it’s about convincing them. Why would any youth want to migrate all the way to Mumbai and Pune, if they can get the same opportunities here?”
Is that what the youth thinks as well? Not really if you believe 19-year-old Pankaj Giti; He represents the aspirational youngster, currently at the bottom of the developmental ladder. Faced by the overwhelming debt caused because of repeated crop failure, Giti’s father killed himself, leaving the young boy behind with his mother. For Giti, a separate statehood means losing his right to migrate to cities like Mumbai and Pune, among others.
“Today, Raj Thackeray opposes migrants from other states to come to Mumbai. If we get a separate state, he’ll oppose us as well. How is that beneficial for anyone?” he said.