With a carefully crafted decision on Lingayats, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has managed to help his party through another catch-22 situation.

Explained: Demand for a Lingayat Religion & the Politics Around it

Video Editors: Sandeep Suman & Vishal Kumar

The Lingayat community – which makes up close to 17 percent of Karnataka’s poppulation – can play a decisive role in at least 100 Assembly constituencies in the state. For the last decade, the community has remained the BJP’s largest vote bank and Lingayats hold the key to BS Yeddyurappa’s return as chief minister.

Keeping this mind, Karnataka’s Congress government on 19 March gave into the Lingayat community’s long-standing demand and recommended that they be considered a separate religion. The decision drew severe criticism, especially that it was an attempt to divide the Hindu community.

This objection came as the result of a common perception that Lingayats are a sub-sect of Hindus. Even the Census of India counts Lingayats as Hindus. This, however, wasn’t always the case.

In the Census of 1871, Lingayats were classified as a separate religious group. But in 1881, on the instructions of the Diwan of Mysore, Lingayats were recorded as Hindus.

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

Over the centuries, differences between Lingayats and Veerashaiavas blurred. Today the term Lingayat is used to refer to both the communities.

However, by the 1990s scholars sought to set this record straight. One such scholar, MM Kalburgi, wrote that in the 12th century, a social reformer by the name of Basavanna rebelled against casteist practices of the Veerashaivas (who essentially follow the Vedas). Basavanna founded a separate religion called Lingayat — which literally means, he who wears the ‘Linga’.

For the Veerashaivas, the Linga represents Lord Shiva, bu for the Lingayats, it represents the whole universe. Also, Lingayats do not follow Hindu religious practices such as yagnas. They pray to the god of their choice in a personal manner.

Also read: Lingayat vs Veerashaiva: Followers Rally Over Rift Between Seers

The differences between these two communities have come back into the limelight with Siddaramaiah’s recommendation.

In an attempt to appeal to both Lingayats and Veerashaivas, the new religion is called ‘Veerashaiva-Lingayat’. Siddaramaiah even added a clause to say that “those Veerashaivas who follow the teaching of Basavanna will also become a part of the new religion.” This was considered a political masterstroke.

Except, BS Yeddyurappa’s sway over the Veerashaiva community cannot be underestimated.

Soon after Siddaramaiah’s announcement, Yeddyurappa said he will stand by the decision of the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha (AIVM), an umbrella organisation of Veerashaivas and Lingayats in India.

This came as a surprise to many as the chairman of the Mahasabha, Shamanur Shivashankarappa, had welcomed the government’s decision.

Also read: Haunted By a Memorandum, Yeddyurappa Plays Safe on Lingayat Issue

But within hours of Yeddyurappa’s statement, Shivashankarappa called for a press conference and retracted his statement. The Mahasabha now opposes the government’s decision. This U-turn is said to be because of Yeddyurappa’s intervention.

Sources tell The Quint that Shivashankarappa, who incidentally is a Congress MLA, is going to defect to the BJP.

Will Yeddyurappa be able to retain his largest vote bank?

As for the Congress, they had nothing to lose in the first place, and even a small shift in the Lingayat vote share will only be a bonus.