North Karnataka Statehood: Interplay between Government and Society Responses

The longstanding demand for a separate statehood in North Karnataka erupted once again in July. The demand that had been dormant for a while, has resurfaced and led to political clashes within the state. The alleged discrimination towards the northern region in the State Budget has triggered a couple of organisations to raise the demand of a separate state for North Karnataka. Three months into his term, Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy has faced the accusation of being concerned only about South Karnataka. Ever since the JDS (Janata Dal-Secular) and Congress coalition government took shape, there have been rumblings that the Vokkaliga Chief Minister will isolate the northern region, as it mostly comprises of the Lingayat population. Even the Lingayat Congress leaders who were thrown out of the Ministry after the formation of the new government with JDS, have joined the criticism against Kumaraswamy by claiming that his is a ‘South Karnataka’ government. Vokkaligas who are mostly concentrated in South Karnataka districts have been loyal supporters of JDS.  Neglecting North Karnataka has been seen as an attempt by the present government to avoid the Lingayats, who form a major chunk of the BJP vote bank. Also, Karnataka has witnessed a historic rivalry between the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats. The fresh demand for a separate statehood in North Karnataka escalated following CM Kumaraswamy’s statement that added fuel to the fire. In a public gathering, he insulted the farmers of northern districts for not having voted for his party during the elections and still demanding for a full loan waiver.

Lack of support from the society

On August 2nd, a bandh was called in North Karnataka in response to the poor budgetary allocation, in Kumarswamy’s Budget presented on July 5th, towards the 13 districts in the north. Lack of representation of leaders from the north in JDS – Congress cabinet added to the protests. But on the ground, there was no fire of separatism to fan. The statehood demand had few takers among writers, intellectuals, artists and farmer leaders of North Karnataka. The bandh called by the Uttar Karnataka Raitha Sangha failed to garner support from the population. The bandh seemed like a normal day for the people of the region who went ahead with their routine without any disturbance. Pro-Kannada organizations, trade bodies, shopkeepers and business establishments refused to join the bandh. Even organizations in Hyderabad –Karnataka region and the six districts in north-east Karnataka, opposed the statehood demand.

Troubled by the talks about dividing the state, the citizens of Karnataka started a social media campaign under the name #KarnatakaVonde (Karnataka is one). To counter the bandh on August 2nd, citizens tweeted #KarnatakaVonde in favour of a united state.

The majority population in North Karnataka, which mainly composes Mumbai-Karnataka and Hyderabad-Karnataka are against the call for separate statehood as this region has per-capita income that is lower than the state average. It also suffers from water scarcity, lack of natural resources and revenue sources to survive as an independent state. Thus it makes no sense for them to form a separate state.

Political Fury

The demand for a separate state snowballed into a political slugfest between the ruling party JDS and the opposition BJP. While BJP state president BS Yeddyurappa, who is also a Lingayat, holds HD Deve Gowda and CM Kumaraswamy at blame for instigating separate state demands, the JDS leaders have countered him by asserting that BJP has vested interests in such a division. To this, Yeddyurappa clarified that BJP is in support of a united Karnataka. However, it was BJP MLAs, B Sriramlu and Umesh Katti who raked up the statehood issue. But after the failure of the bandh on August 2nd, these two BJP leaders went silent.

Retorting to the blame by BJP, Kumaraswamy said that that the issue of the separate state was a “conspiracy” by the opposition BJP in the wake of 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Kumaraswamy also stated that BJP is desperate for power and is trying to divide the state for the sake of votes. In his support, even Congress held BJP responsible for firing Lingayat agitation in North Karnataka by endorsing their statehood demand. Several pro-Kannada organizations under Karnataka Rakshana Vedike also disputed the separate state demand by asserting that it is an unwarranted chaos fueled by BJP for its own political gains.

BJP stocked up the North Karnataka statehood demand on realizing that the party has a fading presence in the south because of the JDS-Congress alliance. This insecurity has led them to mobilize voters in the northern region by turning them against the ruling coalition.

Since the bandh on August 2nd lacked ground support and turned into a failure across 13 northern districts, BJP warned its ministers against making statements on the division of the state. Thus the issue concerning North Karnataka was stimulated by the power hungry political parties and their leaders.

North Karnataka in focus

In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 and on account of the recent agitation in North Karnataka, Kumaraswamy has decided to develop plans and programs for the northern districts. The region has always remained a stronghold of BJP, which won 45 seats in the recently concluded polls. Congress came second with 38 and JDS remained at the bottom with six. This makes it all the more important for JDS to assert its presence in the north.

The coalition has now come to the understanding that effective steps need to be implemented towards the fast-track development of the region before the demand for separation boils. Such a demand may result in crippling consequences for the ruling government. Thus the call for a separate North Karnataka continues to hold on to old wounds, but with new politics.

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