Lingayat issue: Congress move puts BJP on shaky ground in poll-bound Karnataka

Last Updated: Wed, Mar 21, 2018 11:29 hrs

In a cabinet meeting chaired by Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, the Congress government in the state decided to recommend to the centre to grant the tag of ‘religious minority’ to the Lingayat and Veerashaiva Lingayat community. Two points to keep in mind – the state is poll bound and the community in question is politically influential; as multiple reports tout they can affect the results in as many as 100 out of the 224 seats in Karnataka.

The Lingayat/Veerashaiva communities are devotees of Shiva, who follow the 12th-century saint-philosopher Basavanna who had rejected ritualistic worship. The community constitutes roughly 17% of the state’s population with 9 chief ministers from the community.

The community has been demanding this. Last year, the Chief Minister promised to take up the issue. A committee headed by retired high court Judge HN Nagamohan Das made the recommendation under section 2D of the state Minorities Commission Act. The committee came to the conclusion that there the Lingayat religion can be differentiated from the Hindu religion; similar to Jainism and Buddhism.

One of the people who spearheaded the movement was former IAS officer SM Jamdaar who as a member of the community has led the movement seeking separate religion status. In an interview to Scroll, Jamdaar points out that a similar proposal was done in Maharashtra in 2014 stating in part, “The Maharashtra state government had already resolved to recommend it to the Centre in 2014, [during an] August 19 cabinet meeting”.

Prior to the October 2014 assembly election in Maharashtra, the Congress-NCP government decided to recommend for the inclusion of Lingayat community in the Other Backward Class (OBC) category. Maharashtra has over 90 lakh people from the Lingayat community. Last year, in Karnataka, about 2 lakh people from across Karnataka gathered at the Nehru stadium and marched though the major streets of the city raising slogans demanding independent status for Lingayats.

The move has faced opposition in the past and is facing them now. KV Dhananjay, a lawyer in the Supreme Court, in a column in the Bangalore Mirror, criticized the move calling it “terribly frivolous” –

It is legally absurd to speak of removing a section of Hindus from their religion and recognizing them as a distinct religion, that too in this day and age. The purpose of the minority recognition laws in this country is not to recognize or carve out a religion. It is only to accord certain benefits to a pre-existing religion”.

He cites the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992 which states that only the central government can recognize a particularly religion as a minority religion; given the religion is not recognized as a distinct religion in the state let alone the country.

The common man in Karnataka would say that the Lingayat sect is one of hundreds of sects of Hinduism and the matter ends with them. You cannot put a committee to manufacture an alternate reality and it is such a shame that the Congress is treating the Hindu religion with such contempt”.

This decision is also facing opposition from the RSS; Hindu hardliners. They claim that it’s an attempt to divide the Hindu religion. Speaking to this, Jaamdar states in part, “The BJP, supported by RSS and Hindu Sanathan Dharma, has to say that because this [Lingayat] is the religion that rose against that kind of orthodoxy”. Shortly after the decision was made by the state government clashes broke out between groups who opposed and welcomed the step.

The main thrust of the demand by the Lingayat community is not to divide Hinduism. A column in MyInd from last September outlines the reason why the community is demanding a minority religion status as legal recognition of minorities. It could centre around Article 30 of the Indian constitution which states “all minorities, whether based on religion or language...the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice”

The demand for a separate religion status by the Lingayats is centered on one single benefits – that of the right to run educational institutions. The draconian nature of RTE and other laws introduced in the last decade has accentuated the problems faced by Hindu educational institutions”.

The political implications are significant. This was and is being led by the Congress government in Karnataka, which as mentioned earlier, is due for elections. The BJP, with the cloak of Hindutva, is considered an integral part of Hinduism. Any attempt to break away or support the decision of demanding a separate religious identity for any group would be seen as going against its philosophy.

For the BJP, it could put them in a tight spot. If the party dismisses the demand made by the Lingayat community, they risk alienating a significant section of their electorate. The Congress has taken the stance of not treating this as an election issue. Journalist and author Aarthi Ramachandran, in a 2017 column for The Wire, writes on the possible pre election effects –

With the community having stayed firmly outside the Congress fold in recent times, the party has made a bold incursion into what is now BJP territory. It has come out in full support of a contentious demand from a section of the Lingayats for a separate religion tag outside of Hinduism”.

One of the people at the centre of this is the BJP’s state president and Chief Ministerial face B.S. Yeddyurappa, who is himself a Lingayat leader stated that Lingayats are Hindus and there is no reason for a separate religion. However, a Times of India report points out that he had been a signatory on a 2013 letter sent by the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha (AIVM) to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The Congress’s offensive against the BJP and its chief ministerial face, B.S. Yeddyurappa, a powerful Lingayat leader seen as being able to carry the community with him on election day, is aimed at widening its own stagnating electoral support base beyond the minorities…

In terms of the election, the Congress is betting on chipping away at the BJP and RSS core base of Hindu support. It is a bet; as the community could also decide to stay with the base even after the Congress leads the charge for a minority status or they could split the votes. All things considered, the roughly 17% of Lingayats who make up the state population will play a significant role in the upcoming elections as they have in the past; though now with the added dimension of the state government’s proposal accepting their demand. The ball is now in the BJP’s court.

More columns by Varun Sukumar