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Minority status for Lingayats: Who they are and how they affect Karnataka elections

With an eye on the Karnataka assembly elections, chief minister Siddaramaiah recommended minority status for the Lingayat sect — a community which holds sway over 90 of the state’s 224 assembly seats.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2018 21:05 IST
Vikram Gopal
Vikram Gopal
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Lingayats,Veerashaivas-Lingayats,Siddaramaiah
Karnataka minister Vinay Kulkarni with Jaya Mruthyunjaya Swamiji of Kudalasangama Panchamasali Peetha and his followers celebrate in Bengaluru on Monday after the state government decided to write to the Centre to grant religious minority status to the Lingayat community. (PTI)

The Siddaramaiah government’s decision to recommend religious minority status for the Lingayat sect, which till now was considered part of the Hindu fold, is likely to have an impact when Karnataka votes for the new assembly in the coming weeks.

Variously described as an astute political move and sheer opportunism, the Karnataka government’s decision, sent for approval to the Centre, will be a major talking point.

Will the gamble pay off for the ruling Congress or boomerang on it? We will only get to know once the elections are called. Till then here is an explainer:

Who are the Lingayats?

The Lingayat sect traces its origins to 12th century philosopher Basavanna, who was born a Brahmin but rejected the caste and ritual-based Hindu tradition.

His followers continued to be critical of Hindu practices and followed up with a series of poems — vachanas — that called for the abolition of caste and sought the betterment of women among other things.

The Lingayats believe in the ishta linga, which is said to be formless, and called for an end to idol worship.

There are two sets of followers of Basavanna, who attracted people from both upper and lower castes. One group of his followers, called Veerashaivas, who consider Basavanna to be a later-day saint belonging to the Shaiva tradition, continued to follow many of the practices he had rejected, said historian S Shettar.

The government has recognised Veerashaivas-Lingayats as a group within the Lingayat community.

Why do they want a separate religion?

According to SM Jamdar, a retired IAS officer who is spearheading the demand, the Lingayats are reasserting their separate identity, which existed in the 1871 Census of India. They were subsequently classified under Hindu religion in the 1881 Census.

Was the demand made earlier?

The sect had twice asked the Census of India to provide a separate code for Lingayats. On both occasions, in 2004 and 2013, the demand was for the recognition of the Veerashaiva-Lingayat sect but it was rejected.

Lingayat leaders believe it was because of the use of the word Shaiva, which is part of the Shaivite tradition of Hinduism.

“Lingayat is the name of the sect founded by Basavanna,” said Jamdar. “The Veerashaivas were a group that came into the fold in the 17th century.”

The latest push

The demand resurfaced in 2017 after Siddaramaiah asked the two groups to arrive at a consensus over the demand, which he said he would consider. Once the request came in, an expert committee was set up in December to look into the matter.

What were the panel recommendations?

After considering many documents, including the 1871 Census, the panel was of the view that the Lingayats were a separate religious group, a member said. “Apart from the 1871 Census, there were also the gazetteers of Coorg and Madras, and ethonographical studies that we relied upon to arrive at the decision,” the member said on condition of anonymity.

What does it mean for other minority groups?

State minister MB Patil, among those favouring separate religion tag, said no benefits would be taken away from existing minority groups. The Lingayats are classified as a backward class and enjoy five per cent reservation in education institutes.

Impact on the assembly election

The Lingayats are a dominant group in the state’s northern region, which accounts for 90 of the 224 seats in the assembly. Eight of the state’s 22 chief ministers belonged to this sect, including the BJP’s current chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa.

Many prominent personalities, including journalist Gauri Lankesh and Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi, who were both shot dead, were Lingayats.

Exact numbers are not available, but Jamdar says Lingayats account for 15% of Karnataka’s population. A leaked caste census report put the number at 9% but this was denied by the state government.

Read | Siddaramaiah govt playing ‘divide and rule’ by giving separate religion status to Lingayats: BJP

Siddaramaiah is eyeing the group for electoral gains and has made many overtures to it, including making it mandatory to have portraits of Basavanna in government offices and naming the women’s university in the state after Akka Mahadevi, a philosopher of the Lingayat tradition.

The Congress attempted to please all sides by recommending minority status for the Lingayats and the Veerashaivas, political analyst Narendar Pani said. “It will be very hard for other parties to oppose this as the chief minister has ensured that both sides benefit,” he said.

First Published: Mar 20, 2018 13:10 IST