The other tongue: Travails of Marathi speakers in Karnataka
Yellur, near the interstate border, has Marathi speakers in majority. They are grappling to come to terms with Kannada as the language of governance
On either side of the road to Yellur from Belagavi (also known as Belgaum) in Karnataka lie chequered fields of black, cotton soil. Women farmers stooping down in knee-deep water to sow saplings of the aromatic basmati rice, the region’s much sought-after premium yield, is a common sight at this time of the year.
at the entrance of the village stands a community hall built by the ex-servicemen from Yellur, a village that does not wear the look of a typical indian village. cooperative societies, milk dairies, shops, bakeries and Marathi schools dot both sides of the shivaji road, the main lane named after the valiant Maratha ruler.
situated just six kms from Belagavi, Yellur sits at the foot of the rajahansghad hillock. The sylvan atmosphere of village’s location makes it hard to guess that it was once the hotbed of a violent border dispute.
The season of unrest
Four monsoons ago, the people of Yellur were caught up in a fierce conflict with the Belgavi police after the latter took down the signboard reading ‘Yellur, Maharashtra’. “We did so following a high court order. However, the board was reinstated overnight by locals who even closed down the entry to their village by obstructing it with fallen logs and thorny bushes,” says a senior constable at the Belagavi rural Police station while pointing towards photographs from the July 2014 unrest.
as per census 2011, Yellur has a total population of 11,850 people, a vast majority of whom are Marathispeaking. according to 45-year-old Prakash ashtekar, director of the navhind Multi-purpose Multi-state coop, almost 95 percent of Yellur speaks
Marathi, a natural reason why many villagers want to show allegiance to Maharashtra.
almost everyone in Yellur believes the 2014 unrest was flared up by outside faction groups, mainly the Maharashtra ekikaran samiti (Mes), a regional party which claims to represent the interests of the Marathi-speaking people. Vaman Patil, 65, has lived in Yellur all his life. Recalling the conflict which forced a week-long lockdown of the village, he says: “The board has always been there. it all started when a few brainwashed youngsters added Maharashtra to it.”
He believes that the situation was blown out of proportion. “a few innocent people were also made to pay for all the violence,” adds the senior citizen who has sent both his sons to serve in the defence forces.
Prakash is also of the opinion that it was mainly outsiders who defamed the village. “it was someone else who threw stones, but the police lathicharged us all,” he quips. With Firs slapped on over 400 people, the infamous border conflict of 2014 also resulted in several youngsters fleeing the village temporarily.
The police action might seem to have ended the border dispute of Yellur, but a deeper and much complex problem still persisted.
Educated yet illiterate
it has now been four years since the incident that shot Yellur to national limelight. and yet Yellur remains one of the most economically progressive villages in the northern belt of Belagavi. Twelve cooperative societies with large turnover, ten milk dairies that produce over 3,000-5,000 litres of creamy milk every day, four Marathi medium high schools, three large lakes that provide for agricultural infrastructure and a variety of livelihoods that support the hardworking people of Yellur might just be a few highlights that locals boast about. But even the social indicators serve as solid proof of the village’s overall development.
Yellur has a literacy rate of 83.16 percent, much higher than Karnataka state’s average of 75.36 percent. according to Belagavi police, the crime rate of the village is remarkably low. “We settle most of the conflicts at the village level. Tobacco and alcohol are banned here,” notes ashtekar, who heads Yellur’s biggest cooperative society.
established in 1992, the Multi-purpose Multi-state Co-op offers financial support to the villagers in the form of low-interest loans and scholarships for local sporting talents. currently, the navhind society has a staggering ₹205 crore in just fixed deposits. The highly awarded society is also a successful case study for many other cooperatives in Belagavi city.
“in 1986-87, seven of the nine players of the Karnataka kho-kho national team hailed from this village,” says Yc goral, a physical instructor by profession and the president of the navhind Kreeda Kendra. apart from kho-kho, the village has also passionately supported and nurtured many sportsmen in various other indian sports like kabaddi and wrestling.
Most farmers in Yellur grow export quality basmati rice – sonam, shubangi to name a few varieties. others depend on crops like potatoes and soya bean. The village is also well-known for its clarified butter, called ‘Yellur ghee’. apart from farming, Yellur is also home to several skilled construction
“One might ask why we want to side with Maharashtra despite all the development in the village. The Karnataka government might have provided us with enough facilities as well. But we need to preserve our language and culture... We feel like a lion captured in a golden cage.” Prakash Ashtekar Director, Navhind Multi-purpose, Multi-state Co-op
labourers and even teachers who have migrated to places like Kolhapur, ratnagiri and goa.
The villagers of Yellur may be talented, educated and self-sufficient. However, locals believe they are far from realising their true potential. goral, 55, explains: “our youngsters have a genuine problem in appearing for civil service exams like those of
Karnataka Public service commission (Kpsc) and Maharashtra Public service commission (Mpsc). in Kpsc, they struggle with the Kannada language and they can’t give Mpsc exams because they belong to Karnataka.”
a majority of schools in Yellur teach Marathi as their first language. This is followed by Kannada as the second and english as the optional third language. “our children are burdened to learn three different languages. And in the process, often english learning takes a beating,” goral adds.
as Vaman Patil chooses to put it, “in a sense, the people of Yellur are educated yet illiterate because they cannot understand information on various government schemes (which are issued in Kannada).”
sheetal More was washing clothes at the village’s largest lake when she was asked to share the kind of everyday issues women in Yellur face. “Though many people are bilingual in Belagavi, people in government hospitals and offices prefer to speak to us in Kannada. That has been a constant worry every time we visit the city,” shares the 31-year-old, married to a man who hails from a neighbouring village in Maharashtra.
The language of inconvenience
ashtekar explains how despite a decree rolled out under the linguistic Minorities act, almost all government documents are still issued in Kannada. He angrily throws an electricity bill, saying, “look, what can we understand from this?” in contrast, he also shows the passbook issued by the navhind co-op and credit society, which is in Marathi. He shares how almost all organisations in Yellur have to mandatorily employ at least one person literate in Kannada. “otherwise, it is impossible for us to make sense of any government correspondence.”
at the only Kannada medium primary school at Yellur, ib Hemavathi reveals how teachers are frequently requested by parents of the children to read and translate contents of several government-related documents. “They come to us asking help to fill circulars to add their names in the voters list. sometimes they also want us to study for them certain agricultural and property related documents,” says the 36-year-old Kannada teacher.
it was only recently that 27-year-old Mayur Masekar was posted to Yellur as a village accountant. He cheerfully shares how Panchayat members like Vaman Patil encouraged him to learn Marathi to be able to help the villagers better. “Though zila panchayat meetings and deliberations are done in Marathi, all the paper work is in Kannada. sometimes, that acts as a hindrance and restricts people from gaining the real benefits of revenue schemes,” he says.
currently, both the Panchayat and revenue departments rely on either the gram sabha gatherings or the technique of drum beating to disseminate information related to various government schemes.
“one might ask why we want to side with Maharashtra despite all the development in the village. The Karnataka government might have provided us with enough facilities as well. But we need to preserve our language and culture,” shares ashtekar. “We feel like the lion captured in a golden cage. a lion needs to be in the wild, in its natural surroundings,” he adds in a palpable tone, clarifying that their fight is not against the Kannadigas.
However, for Vaman Patil, the issue with Marathi is not about ‘abhimaan’ or pride. it’s about convenience. He feels the local government needs to make sure information reaches the people of Yellur in Marathi. even Prakash feels that administrators need to be more empathetic while deploying government workers in the village. “They need to make sure officials speak at least Hindi, let alone Marathi,” he opines.
Wrapping up, Prakash is quite clear about the kind of expectations he has from future generations. “Three generations of Yellur have suffered because of the language tussle. However, we hope our children continue to grow as educated, hardworking, disciplined individuals while also being rooted to their land and culture.”
As seen in the Google Map, Belagavi (Belgaum) is located close to the Maharashtrakarnataka border
File photo of the board saying ‘Yellur, Maharashtra’, which triggered violence on July 26, 2014
Marathi and Kannada signboards outside the panchayat office in Yellur
The only Kannada medium school in Yellur