For more than a week now, the longstanding demand for a separate religious status for the Lingayat community has flared up again in Karnataka — and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is playing it to his full advantage.
A report in The Indian Express says the CM has promised Lingayat ministers in his government to send their plea to the Centre for consideration, if they are able to arrive at a consensus after a conducting a survey among members and elders of their community.
On 18 July, more than 50,000 Lingayats gathered at a rally in Bidar, asking to be recognised as followers of a religion distinct from Hinduism. While there are conflicting theological justifications for this demand, should it come to pass, it would throw the political equations in the state into serious disarray.
Who are the Lingayats?
The Lingayats are the worshippers of Lord Shiva who have distanced themselves from traditional Hinduism, especially from the Vedic version of it and the caste system. Ironically, in spite of its origin among the followers of 12th-century social reformer Basavanna, the Lingayat community is now recognised as a caste.
Living mostly in North Karnataka, the Lingayats are believed to constitute 17% of the population, although a caste census from 2015, the findings of which are yet to be made public, says they form only 9.8% of the electorate.
The Census, which was meant to placate the Dalits by making them the most powerful minority in the state, angered the Lingayats. CM Siddaramaiah certainly has much damage to control, if his party, the Congress, wants to be seen as a major player in the 2018 Assembly elections.
Many Lingayats distinguish themselves from the Veerashaivas, who also follow Shaivism but also the Vedas and the caste system. Senior BJP leader BS Yedyurappa, former chief minister of Karnataka and a Lingayat who came to power on the back of this vote bank in 2008, is opposed to the separation between these two communities.
Having publicly participated in Vedic rituals and being an upholder of his party's aggressive Hindutva line, Yedyurappa claims the Lingayats and Veerashaivas are one and the same community, both of which belong to Hinduism. Historically, the two sects integrated to an extent after Basavanna's death, disregarding their differences, and are now seen as one. Be that as it may, Yedyurappa's stubborn insistence on the two sects being the same may end up proving costly to the political fortunes of the BJP in Karnataka.
With his eye on 2018, Siddaramaiah is desperate to enter the good books of the Lingayats. To appease the hurt ego of the community after the 2015 Census, he unveiled a gigantic statue of Basavanna and made it mandatory for government offices to display his picture.
But that's not all.
As is widely noted, Siddaramaiah's rift between the Lingayat and the 'Ahinda' vote bank (Dalits, minorities and OBCs) was what got the Congress into power in 2013. With another election looming ahead, his public support for the Lingayats' demand for a separate religious status will help curry fresh favour for him as well as the Congress.
Already he has a powerful ally in housing minister Basavaraj Rayareddi, a Lingayat, who is going to lead the public survey mentioned above. The BJP, on the other hand, is in a quandary, as Yedyurappa is accused of losing his Lingayat credibility to his RSS roots that go deep into the foundations of a more traditional form of Hinduism.
While the stage looks stable for the Congress for the moment, a glitch in its plan could be that the demand for separate religious identity has come from those Lingayat mutts that are not considered powerful within the community. More worryingly, the Veerashaiva Lingayats, who the Lingayats want to disown, remain in control of the more influential mutts.
By supporting the division of a community, the Congress runs "the risk of losing votes elsewhere if the party is seen as a divider of Hindus," as Srinivasa Prasad writes in Firstpost. In its present dismal state, the party may feel its a sacrifice well worth making in order to hold on to one major state where it still matters.
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