#KarnatakaElections: Politics of privilege driving Lingayat movement?

For many Lingayats, ‘minority religion’ tag is more about reaping government aid than seceding from Hinduism.

WrittenBy:Amit Bhardwaj
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In Karnataka, the Lingayats are fighting a battle to get the status of a separate religious community. They claim that the religion of the followers of 12th century philosopher Basavanna should be recognised as Lingayatism.

The Jagatika Lingayat Mahasabha (JLM) – the organisation behind the massive Lingayat movement backed by intellectuals and Lingayat sect gurus – argues that they reject the very ethos on which Hinduism is built.

Whether it is polytheism, Vedic practices or the sanskaras of life – Lingayats not only differ from Hindus on these grounds, they also consider Siva as the only God.

The tag of a separate religion, they believe, will fetch Lingayatism minority status. It would enable the sect to get aid and grants from the central government, helping them run and expand Lingayat institutions. It would also help them get reservation in government jobs.

Cut to May 9, 2018. A half-page advertisement issued by Rashtriya Basava Sena on bahalf of the JLM, in a prominent Kannada newspaper, says it is the responsibility of the sect “to support the government (of Siddaramaiah) which has united the sub-castes of Lingayats in one Lingayat religion”.

It further appeals to the sect voters to be “grateful to the government” which took steps towards according constitutional status to the 900-year-old sect.

The story is not over yet. The ad presents a telling comparison. The JLM asks in the ad: “Who is he” who became ‘chief minister with the support of the Lingayats’ and tarnished the image of the sect by being corrupt. It further asks: “Who is the man” who intends to become the chief minister by blocking the privileges or facilities of the Lingayats.”

These allegations are targeted at BJP’s chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa. Before the Lingayat movement hit the state, Yeddyurappa was, without a doubt, the tallest Lingayat leader in Karnataka. The sect makes up 15-17 per cent of the state’s population and wields strong social capital.

This attempt to galvanise the sect days before Karnataka goes to polls was made by listing the privileges – educational, religious and financial – the community hopes to enjoy when Lingayatism is accorded the status of a religion.

The advertisement also said Lingayat youth would get 50 per cent reservation in institutions run and managed by the community. They would be eligible for fee waivers, and reservation in government jobs.

It also spoke about how the Lingayat establishments, educational institutions for instance, would become eligible for government grants and aid. Importantly, after the minority status is granted, the government will not be able to interfere in the affairs of these institutions. Similar pointers were mentioned under the Religious and Financial privilege list.

But the question is, why galvanise the community in the name of such benefits?

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If the claim of being a different religion stems from the Lingayats’ ideological and cultural differences with Hinduism, why is that not emphasised in the advertisement released just days before the polls?

The Lingayat-Veerashaiva divide

Lingayats are the followers of the revolutionary 12th century philosopher Basavanna or Basava. It is believed that their population is spread in states such as Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. In Karnataka, however, they not only form 15-17 per cent of the population, but are also socio-politically strong.

Basavanna, himself a Brahmin, revolted against Vedic practices and expressed his utter disregard for the discriminatory shackles of Hinduism such as the Varnashrama system. Rejecting Vedic practices, Basavanna said, “Vedakke Vareya Kattuve, Shastrakke Nigalanikkuve. Agamangala Moogu Koyyuve.” – Do away with the Vedas, shackle the Shastras and the Agama (a collection of Hindu scriptures).

Dr MM Kalburgi, shot dead in August 2015, was among the staunchest voices to claim that Lingayats were not part of Hindu religion. Kalburgi based his claims on his research on Basavanna and his philosophy.

Former bureaucrat SM Jamadar, a Lingayat intellectual, told Newslaundry: “We were never part of Hinduism. The fundamentals of Hinduism are based on the Vedas, which we don’t honour, don’t believe and don’t accept.”

Lingayats reject the Karma theory, Jamadar said. “The Karma theory,” he added, “comes with a defined caste-based occupation system which we reject. Unlike Hinduism, for us, no work is higher, no work is lower. All tasks are equal.” The parasitical life is shunned in Lingayat religion. One must work to live.

The Lingayats’ demand for a separate religion peaked around July last year. The JLM, a movement led by Janata Dal (Secular) MLC Basavaraj Horatti, held several rallies which were attended by lakhs of Lingayats, including the youth. The swamis or gurus of different influential mutts built additional pressure on the state government, eventually getting the Siddaramaiah-led Congress in the state to request the minority commission to form an expert committee to look into the demand.

This is when the split between the Veerashaivas and the Lingayats started to widen.

The Veerashaiva, a priestly caste, consists of a significant population of the Lingayat sect in Karnataka. But followers of the Basava Tatva form the majority. When in March 2018, the expert committee report recommended that the Lingayats and Veerashaivas who follow Basava Tatva be accorded minority status, the Veerashaiva Mahasabha rejected the proposal and maintained that the Lingayat and Veerashaivas were one and the same and that the Veerashaivas existed even before Basava started his religion in the 12th century.

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The head of Shivanand Mutt (Veerashaiva Mutt) in Gadag district refused “to comment on these issues ahead of the election” but the Lingayat head of Tontadarya Mutt, relented.

The disciple of Kalburgi and now head of one of the most influential Lingayat Mutts in Karnataka, Seedhlinga Mahaswami, repeated the Kannada scholar’s stand that Veerashaivas are not Lingayats.

“We are fighting for the establishment of Lingayat religion keeping Basaveswhar as founder. Veerashaivas are basically shaivas. They have been living with the Lingayats and are a sub-sect of the Lingayat religion,” Seedhlinga Mahaswami said. “Lingayats are totally different from Veerashaivas. They are wayward. They are blindly following the Agamas which Lingayats don’t accept.”

The noise surrounding the elections has drowned the fact that the Lingayat sect has been fighting a legal battle to be recognised as a separate religion for decades.

In 1990, the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha filed a petition in Karnataka High Court seeking directions to instruct the Census organisation to provide a separate code for Veerashaiva/Lingayats in the Census.

The court rejected the plea. Another petition over Census enumeration and a separate code for the sect by the Mahasabha was dismissed by the court in 1999.

In 2013, the Mahasabha again pushed the proposal to the central government demanding minority status, which was also endorsed by BJP’s BS Yeddyurappa. This too proved futile.

Fast forward to 2017: The JLM served the petition to the state government for according a separate status to Lingayats. There was a change in strategy. Horatti, the president of JLM, told Newslaundry that the earlier legal petition was rejected because the Veerashaivas follow several tenets of Hinduism.

“We first requested them to withdraw their petition and give way to Lingayats. When they didn’t agree we had to launch a lone battle,” the former Karnataka minister said.

‘Minority’ privilege  

The Lingayat vote is a deciding factor in roughly 90 of the 224 Assembly seats in Karnataka. But these numbers also include Veerashaiva voters. Currently, 47 of the 224 state legislators are Lingayats, that’s nearly 21 per cent of the total MLAs. Of the 22 chief ministers of Karnataka, eight have been Lingayats. S Nijalingappa is the first and Yeddyurappa eighth on the list.

In fact, Horatti recalls that Nijalingappa, a CM from the Congress, had 106 Lingayat legislators in his government. This shows that the political clout the Lingayats wield in Karnataka is greater than the size of their population.

Lingayats have traditionally voted for the BJP. This has led to the rise of Yeddyurappa’s stature in the party. The BJP chose to field him despite his controversial track record during his previous stint as CM, probably because his name was the safest bid for the party amid an upsurge in the Lingayat movement.

The sect’s clout is not restricted to politics alone. Lingayat Mutts run hundreds of educational trusts and hospitals across the state. Jamadar said that, with help of donations from the community, the Lingayats continue to run around 3,000 institutions, including 80 medical colleges, 60-70 engineering colleges, 20-25 law colleges and roughly 500 Arts and Commerce colleges.

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Tontadarya Mutt, Gadag, alone owns over 60 educational institutions. In Hubli, Jagadguru Moorsavira Mutt [a Veerashaiva Mutt] runs around 17 educational institutions, said 58-year-old Basavraj Yadwad, the mutt’s accounts manager.

In the Bombay-Karnataka region, several private institutions are run and managed by those from the Lingayat community. Congress leader and state minister MB Patil is associated with several of these educational institutions.

The JLM’s advertisement in the Kannada daily clearly mentioned that minority status would enable the education institutions to get government grants, and provide reservation to community youth. Are these benefits at the centre of the demand? Or is it being used as a ploy to consolidate the Lingayats?

“It is totally wrong to say that only a few people are demanding a separate Lingayat religion. There is demand for a separate religion from the entire community of Lingayats,” the head of Tontadarya Mutt told Newslaundry. “This struggle is going on from the past 150 years and is still continuing. It has become news now. The current government of Karnataka has endorsed the demand of the majority of Lingayats after fully being convinced,” he added.

But there is another side to the coin – the commoners who lack philosophical understanding of the sect. Jagadish Kumar Shettar, a Lingayat, supports JLM’s cause and runs an educational institution.

“Fifty percent of seats in Lingayat institutions will be reserved for the community students and huge funds from the central government will come for the welfare of the community,” he said.

Importantly, according to Shettar, the minority status will not drive him or others away from Hinduism. “We will continue to be a sect within Hinduism,” he said.

He admitted his support for the movement was based on the hope that the community will reap the benefits of the minority tag if the Centre accepts their demand. “Only to get these benefits, we are running this campaign. At the end of the day we have to look at the future of our younger generation,” he said.

The JLM has shrewdly asked Lingayats to support those who have helped their cause. While a few other Lingayat Swamis have extended their support to the incumbent party, those like Seedhalinga Swami prefer to say: “We don’t support any political party. But we are grateful to the present government of Karnataka for having taken the decision.”


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