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BRP Bhaskar: A community’s religious quest
March 27, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Karnataka Chief Minister H Siddaramaiah, seeking a successive second term for his Congress party in the elections due in a couple of months, has thrown a spanner in the works of its main challenger, the Bharatiya Janata Party, by recommending to the Centre to grant the Lingayat community recognition as a separate religious group with minority status.

The Lingayats, with an estimated population of 61 million, can influence the outcome of the election in about 100 of the state’s 224 assembly constituencies.

If the Congress loses in Karnataka, Punjab will be the only large state under it. As for BJP, it is the only southern state where it has a chance of coming to power. It has named BS Yeddyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate, overlooking the corruption charges he had attracted when he headed the government last time, because he is a Lingayat. 

The Centre has not taken a decision on the Karnataka government’s recommendation, but sources reportedly said after an informal Cabinet meeting that it would not be accepted as it would deprive Dalit members of the community of the benefit of reservation in government jobs and educational institutions that they now enjoy.

The BJP-led Central government is likely to reject the Karnataka recommendation on the ground that Dalits among the Lingayats will lose the benefit of reservation if it is accepted.

The reasoning is specious. Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are treated as breakaway groups of Hinduism and Dalits who profess these religions get the benefit of reservation. The same consideration can be shown to Dalits among the Lingayats.

The issue of Lingayat religion is not a long simmering one. The Lingayats are followers of 12th century reformer Basaveswara, a Brahmin who repudiated the Vedas and worked for social equality.  Originally they were known as Veerashaivas (meaning Heroic Shaivites). In the 18th century the term Lingayat came into vogue from their practice of wearing the linga, symbolising Shiva. Over the years the two terms came to represent two different groups among Basava’s followers with noticeable differences.

While both groups are devotees of Shiva their concepts of Shiva differ. Like most Hindus, Veerashaivites envision Shiva as a god in human form with a snake wrapped round the neck. To Lingayats, Shiva is a formless entity that resides in every life form.

Veerashaivites have temples and priestly orders. Lingayats do not believe in temple worship.

One reason for the lack of cohesion in the community was the loss of most of its sacred texts, known as vachanas. In the last century, a Basaveswara follower named Phakirappaa Gurubasappa Halakatti collected and published 22,000 vachanas found on palm leaf manuscripts.

Scholars like MM Kalburgi who studied them pointed out that Basava’s teachings differed vastly from the principles of Hinduism. Gauri Lankesh, an activist- journalist, propagated this idea through her writings. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were killed, apparently by a group annoyed by their work on the subject. 

The question whether Lingayats are Hindus or members of a separate religious community has been under discussion for over a century. In 1904, the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha, established by one of the mutts, declared that Lingayats and Veerashaivas are one, and that they are Hindus. But Lingayats maintained they are not Hindus. In 1940 the Mahasabha changed its stand and sought recognition as a separate religion called Veerashaiva.

 In the Constituent Assembly, Lingayat members including S Nijalingappa, who later became Chief Minister of Karnataka, pleaded unsuccessfully for the recognition of Lingayats as a separate religion. The demand was raised before the last Congress-led government at the Centre in 2013.

To enable the Lingayats and Veerashaivites to stay together in the proposed Lingayat religion, the Karnataka government has suggested that the latter be recognised as a group within it.

 TheVeerashaiva Mahasabha, of which a Congress MLA, Shamanur Shivashakarappa, is now the President, has come up with a confused response. It has asked the state government to withdraw its recommendation to the Centre as it divides the community. It has also said it would press the Centre to provide religious minority status to Veerashaiva-Lingayats.

Minority status will enable the community to establish its own educational institutions. 

Siddharamaiah has succeeded in dividing the Linguayat-Veerashaiva community. That probably serves his immediate political purpose.

But this is not an issue to be decided by the Centre and the State. They must leave it to the members of the community to decide their religious affiliation. Their own roles must be limited to assessing the ground situation in a non-partisan manner and taking such steps as are necessary to ensure that the will of the community prevails.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning
 

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