Basavaraj Bommai
Outgoing Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai. File photo

Statue vandalism, violence echo in Assembly; BJP in a tight spot

The simmering tensions over the defacement of a statue of Karnataka’s historical icon Sangolli Rayanna has spilled over to the state legislative assembly, currently in session in Belgaum on Monday (December 20), with legislators calling for a ban on the political outfit Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES). Pro-Kannada activists meanwhile intensified their protests on the streets.

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The simmering tension over the defacement of a statue of Karnataka’s historical icon Sangolli Rayanna echoed in the state’s Legislative Assembly on Monday with legislators calling for a ban on the political outfit, Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti (MES).

For the ruling BJP, it’s virtually a Catch-22 situation, having been caught between strong identity politics in both states where the party has high stakes.

The vandalism of the statue in the northern district of Belgaum last weekend was seen as a tit-for-tat response after a group smeared black ink on a Chhatrapati Shivaji statue in Bangalore. These incidents had been preceded by the burning of the Kannada flag in neighbouring Maharashtra — all this taking place against the backdrop of the decades-old Belgaum border dispute between the two states which has frequently led to tensions ratcheting up on both sides.

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During a discussion on Monday, legislators, cutting across party lines, called for a ban on MES blaming the outfit for creating unrest over the issue each time the legislature convened in the border district. Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai said a detailed inquiry was being conducted into the acts of vandalism and that those arrested would be booked for sedition and that instructions would be given to invoke the Goonda Act as well. While several persons have been arrested in both cases, the investigation is ongoing, he said.

“There is an attempt to provoke people by vandalising statues,” Bommai said in the Assembly. “Those behind it know that Kannadigas will get enraged when Sangolli Rayanna’s statue is defaced and it will create unrest. Similarly, when a Shivaji Maharaj statue is defaced, there will be a reaction here in Belgaum,” Bommai said.

The current turn of events is also seen to put Karnataka’s ruling BJP in a tricky situation – the party is strong in Belgaum which has a sizeable Marathi population but it cannot also antagonise pro-Kannada outfits aggrieved by the vandalism of the Sangolli Rayanna statue. In turn, the BJP has blamed the opposition Congress for creating unrest besides pointing out that it is part of the ruling coalition in neighbouring Maharashtra.

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Sangolli Rayanna was a 19th-century warrior who headed the resistance against the British following the fall of Rani Chennamma of Kittur.

Bommai also announced that the statues of Sangolli Rayanna and Rani Chennamma would be installed in the Suvarna Vidhana Soudha which is a replica of the state secretariat in Belgaum where the winter session of the legislature session is held every year.

The border issue traces back to the re-organisation of states in 1956 when Belgaum district was transferred to Karnataka. When Maharashtra raised a dispute, the MC Mahajan committee was set up to examine the claim – however, Maharashtra did not accept the commission’s recommendations and moved the Supreme Court in 2004.

“There has been an attempt to keep the issue alive in one way or the other,”. “There’s no question of giving up even an inch of land,” Bommai said. Besides, the state is committed to protecting Kannadigas living in Maharashtra and even ready to support them if they want to join Karnataka, he added.

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