Explained: The Demand for a Separate North Karnataka State

One of the first mentions of the Kannada Nadu (the land of Kannada) was in a 9th century literary work – Kavirajamargam (the way of the king of poets).

According to the collection of poems, Kannada Nadu was the region between river Godavari to river Cauvery, defining the current state of Karnataka, centuries before the reorganisation of states based on language.

The poem was written by King Nrupathunga, who hails from today’s North Karnataka.

But in 2018, Nrupathunga’s North Karnataka was in the news for its demand for separate statehood. The state is bracing for a bandh called by farmer and student groups to highlight their demand on 2 August.

Why is North Karnataka, once the epicentre for the movement for the unification of Karnataka from the 9th century to the post-independence era, now demanding separation?

The answer lies in the long history of economical and cultural negligence on the parts of the ruling governments operating out of South Karnataka.

What and Where is North Karnataka?

North Karnataka is the region of Karnataka bordering Maharashtra and Telangana, which comprises 13 of Karnataka’s 50 districts. North Karnataka is further divided into two regions – Bombay Karnataka and Hyderabad Karnataka.

Bombay Karnataka comprises of Belgavi, Hubli-Dharwad, Gadag, Bagalkote and Vijayapura. Before independence, this region of North Karnataka came under the Bombay presidency, giving it the name Bombay Karnataka.

Similarly, the region that came under the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad became Hyderabad Karnataka after independence. This region consists of Kalburgi, Yadgir, Raichur, Koppal and Ballari districts.

This water-scarce region of the state has little to offer in terms of the natural resources. Being far away from the seat of power, there are no administrative offices located in the region, expect for Survana Soudha, a replica of secretariat in Bengaluru. But the office is open for less than two weeks every year.

To add to it, the heat and depleting water resources also leads to limited investment taking place in the regions.

First Call for Unification Came from North Karnataka

Before independence, Mysore was considered capital of the Kannada-speaking region, but not all regions speaking Kannada fell under the kingdom. One of the first calls for the unification of Kannada-speaking regions came from Allur Venkatrama Rao, a social worker and journalist from North Karnataka, as early as the 1930s.

Allur Venkatrama Rao. 

He started the Kannada Ekikarana (unification of Kannada-speaking states) movement, which demanded the formation of a united state for the Kannada-speaking populations of Mysore Kingdom, Bombay Presidency and Hyderabad Presidency.

His efforts gave him the title Karnataka Kulapurohita (High Priest of the Kannada family) and made North Karnataka the epicentre for the movement for unification.

The movement started by him eventually resulted in the integration of North Karnataka into the state of Karnataka in 1956.

When Did the Separation Demands Start?

After independence, the seat of power shifted from Mysuru to Bengaluru. However, it remained in the prosperous southern region of Karnataka, far from the Northern districts. North Karnataka, which was the water-scarce region and without any prominent natural resources to offer, was ignored by subsequent governments.

Vaijnath Patil

Although there had been several protests against this negligence, the first signs of real dissidence emerged in the early 2000s. Vaijnath Patil, a social worker, spearheaded a campaign demanding a separate state for the Hyderabad Karnataka region.

Patil and his comrades celebrated Kannada Rajotsava (the state formation day) as a black day and hoisted a "state flag" of Hyderabad Karnataka in several parts of the region on 1 November. The agitation, however, didn’t gain much traction.

Article 371(J) and Quelling of Dissent

In 2012, the Hyderabad-Karnataka region was given special status under section 371(J) of the Constitution by the UPA government.

Under Article 371(J), 70 percent of seats in Medical, Dental, Engineering and similar colleges in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region are reserved for local students.

75-85 percent of the jobs in region are reserved for local candidates and a separate board, along with Rs 2,500 crore, has been provided for the development of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region.

After this move, Vaijnath Patil announced his campaign will not a raise a separate flag in the future.

Why Did the Demand Resurface?

A little over two months after the JD(S)-Congress under HD Kumaraswmy came to power in 2018, North Karnataka was on the boil again. The Separate State Agitation Committee announced a bandh in the northern districts on 2 August to press for the demand.

The lack of new schemes announced for the region in Kumaraswamy’s maiden state budget, on 5 July, was cited as the trigger for the fresh protests by pro-statehood activists.

They argued there was an imbalance in regional representation in the government and administration, pointing out that state cabinet is dominated by ministers from southern Karnataka, most of them from the Vokkaliga caste.

Committee head Somashekhar Kotambari said at press conference in Hubballi: “We will meet intellectuals, litterateurs and launch an intense agitation to press for a separate state.”

Economic and Cultural Imbalance

A group of villagers in North Karnataka’s Raichur district. 

The economic disparity between north and south Karnataka was first highlighted 15 years ago by a high-powered committee chaired by the late Prof DM Nanjundappa. The committee had recommended that an additional Rs 16,000 crores be invested for North Karnataka's development over eight years, starting in 2007.

But despite these investments, according to a report in The Mint, in 2015, most of Karnataka’s poorest districts in terms of ownership of household assets such as cars, motorbikes, TV, radio, access to banking, phones, and bicycles, are in North Karnataka.

And most well-off districts are clustered in South Karnataka.

The report further adds that the proportion of asset-poor households (those without any of the assets specified in the census) is significantly higher in North Karnataka compared to the rest of the state.

Unemployment and lack of good education facilities remain a problem, despite Section 377 (J) providing the region with special status.

Apart from economic parameters, even culturally, the region lags behind. Even though North Karnataka has a dialect distinct from South Karnataka, literature and popular culture is dominated by the Southern variant of Kannada.

Why North Karnataka Won’t Mutate Into Another Telangana

Even though a bandh is called for on 2 August, creating a separate state remains a tall order Unlike in the case of Telangana, which generated most of the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh’s revenue, North Karnataka depends on the prosperous South Karnataka for funds.

Even if a separate state is created, North Karnataka doesn’t have a big city which can accommodate its capital, nor does it have enough industries, businesses or natural resources to sustain a state treasury.

Thus, more than carving out a new state, the agitations are an attempt to draw the people of Karnataka’s attention towards a region of the state often ignored by the rich South.

Many claim there are political motives behind the agitation, with the Lok Sabha elections just around the corner. Several leaders are attempting to use North Karnataka as a political issue ahead of the polls, and the bandh is just the beginning.

However, the fate of this new dissidence will be known on 2 August.

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