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Lingayat Debate: Cong, BJP Caught in ‘Minority War’ Before Polls

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Those in the Karnataka Congress call it an acknowledgement of a decades-old demand to accord a separate religion status to Lingayats. Those in the BJP dub Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's move as a naked ploy to divide the Hindus and play vote bank politics.

On 19 March, the Karnataka government accepted the recommendations of the Justice Nagamohan Das Committee, which favoured ‘religious minority’ tag for Lingayats and lobbed the file into the Centre’s court for its approval. 

Though this decision has been seen mainly through the political prism, there is a complex religious angle to it as well.

Also Read: Karnataka cabinet agrees to consider Lingayats a separate religion

What is the Lingayat vs Veerashaiva Debate?

At the heart of this controversy is the Lingayat vs Veerashaiva dispute. Lingayats are classified as OBCs in Karnataka and follow the teachings of Basaveshwara, a 12th century social reformer. Basavanna, as he is popularly called, fought against the inequalities in the Hindu social order by establishing a different religious stream.

Veerashaivism on the other hand, is an order of the Shaiva faith, with Lord Shiva as the presiding deity. Basavanna's spiritual and reformist ideas attracted many people from across the country and that included some Shaivite brahmins from present-day Andhra Pradesh.

Over centuries, the practice of Shaivism got mixed up with Basavanna-established Lingayatism.

Veerashaivas and Lingayats started being used as interchangeable terms and both were seen as part of the larger Hindu community. But the puritanical among the Lingayats followed the path shown by Basavanna. This rejected the caste system, idol worship and temples, frowned upon superstitions and instead of Sanskrit, adopted Kannada as the language of communication.

The Veerashaivas however, prayed in temples and believed in idol worship. In effect, Basavanna and fellow Lingayats rebelled against Hindu religion. This is why there has been a demand among Lingayats to be recognised as a religion separate from Hinduism.

Also Read: Rahul Gandhi Rally: Temple Run for Lingayats & 371 (J) for Youth

Politicisation of ‘Lingayat’ Issue

The committee incidentally also gave religious minority status under the Karnataka State Minorities Act to those Veerashaivas who have faith in Basavanna's philosophy. This will mean most of the Lingayat-Veerashaiva community will be out of Hindu religion, barring those Veerashaivas who believe in Hindu rituals.

The efforts to acquire a separate religion status date back to the 1940s when a meeting passed a resolution to say Lingayats are distinct from Veerashaivas and are not Hindus.

But it gained momentum only during the 2011 census, when a few Lingayat organisations campaigned to tell fellow community members not to register themselves as Hindus. More recently, a Lingayat gathering in Bidar in July last year pressed the demand for a separate religious identity.

The decision was contentious and the last Cabinet meeting on 8 March saw tempers rising with ministers crossing swords. That was an indication that even the Congress party was not on the same page with the decision.

While Water Resources Minister MB Patil and Higher Education Minister Basavaraj Rayaredy, both Lingayats, favored accepting the committee report, Municipal Administration Minister Eshwar Khandre and Horticulture Minister SS Mallikarjun – both Veerashaivas – opposed the move.

Also Read: Siddaramaiah’s Lingayat Decision Kills Many Birds With One Stone

All Eyes on Karnataka Polls

On the ground, the Congress is seen as dividing the Hindu community. Even the religious seers were seen in two different camps – some for, others against. By Monday evening, clashes between Lingayats and Veerashaivas were reported from Kalburgi district in north Karnataka.

There is a reason why a majority in the ruling party was in favour of according religious minority status to Lingayats. The community, with a population between 10 and 17 percent (according to two different Census) has traditionally favoured the BJP, motivated to a large extent by the presence of BS Yeddyurappa, the tallest Lingayat leader in Karnataka. Yeddyurappa says that both Lingayats and Veerashaivas belong to the same Hindu community.

Coming just two months before the elections, the Congress move is seen as having been taken with one eye on the EVM. The calculation possibly is that it will make a section of the Lingayats desert the BJP, to vote for the Congress.

The politically and economically powerful community has the potential and the influence to decide the election in about one hundred of the 224 assembly constituencies, most of them in the northern part of Karnataka. One in every four MLAs in the present Karnataka assembly is a Veerashaiva or a Lingayat.

Also Read: How BS Yeddyurappa Emerged as Karnataka’s Lingayat Strongman

Catch-22 for BJP

The lure of a separate religion status also has a financial angle to it. A minority religion status will confer financial advantages in the form of tax waivers, upon educational institutions run by Lingayat owners. For Lingayat students and youths, it would mean reservations in the future in jobs and educational institutions. Now if the Centre sits on it, Siddaramaiah during the election campaign can blame the BJP for denying Lingayats their due.

The BJP’s dilemma is that if it opposes the move, it may alienate those within the Lingayat community that would look for benefits from getting minority status. But on the other hand, the larger Sangh parivaar would not approve if it agrees to what the Congress has done.

It says the Congress has taken the decision even when there was no mass uprising making the demand.

What adds to the BJP's worries is that in 2013, Yeddyurappa was one of the signatories among several Lingayat politicians to a petition to the Centre asking for the community to be counted as a separate religion in the Census. On Monday, Congress flagged Yeddyurappa's signature as proof of his doublespeak over social media platforms.

Cong Plays ‘Minority Card’ – Again

Given the Lingayat clout, this is a bit similar to the Patidar agitation in Gujarat for reservations, that the Congress backed. For years, the Congress is seen to have gained from the Muslim vote bank in India, given the BJP’s position vis-a-vis the minorities.

With the BJP's aggressive brand of Hindutva and nationalism making it difficult for the Congress to take an open pro-Muslim line for fear of being branded a Muslim party, Siddaramaiah has hit back by creating a local religious-political idiom.

This month, the BJP dubbed the CM as ‘jihadi’, thereby raising the Congress hackles. Siddaramaiah has hit back by exposing the fault lines within the BJP's traditional vote bank. The explosive move has the potential to completely backfire on Siddaramaiah or turn out to be a political masterstroke. The summer of 2018 will hold the answer.

(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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