The Panchamasali Lingayat community is one of the largest sub-sect within the Lingayat community.(ANI/Twitter)
The Panchamasali Lingayat community is one of the largest sub-sect within the Lingayat community.(ANI/Twitter)

Who is stirring the caste cauldron in Karnataka?

  • The Karnataka government has blamed the opposition for fishing in troubled waters by trying to take political advantage of the agitations but Yediyurappa may have to look within.
By Venkatesha Babu, Bengaluru
UPDATED ON MAR 01, 2021 07:08 PM IST

The last few months have seen a series of caste agitations in Karnataka demanding either greater reservation or to be included in some preferred category of Scheduled Tribe or Scheduled Caste status.

What is interesting is that it is not just traditional backward communities like Idigas, Valmikis and Ganga Mathastas but dominant communities like Lingayats, Vokkaligas and Kurubas who are undertaking these massive protests.

Karnataka – formerly the princely state of Mysuru - was one of the earliest in India to implement some form of the reservation to ensure better representation to all sections of the society.

It was the Mysuru King Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar who more than a century ago in 1918 set up a committee and subsequently implemented reservations for non-Brahmins.

While it is generally accepted that the Lingayats, Vokkaligas and Kurubas are the three most numerically strong communities – in that order - there has not been a valid caste census undertaken in the last few decades.

A feeble attempt at such a census called ‘socio-economic’ survey was undertaken by the previous Congress government headed by Siddaramiah. However, the report is yet to see the light of the day.

The leaked findings of the survey indicated that the numbers of the three major communities might have been overstated and those of others like Muslims might have been understated.

After the threat of backlash from some of the castes, the Siddaramiah government refused to release it and though subsequently both JDS, in coalition with Congress, and now the BJP has held the reins of power in the state, they have also not released it nor ordered any fresh survey.

So in reality the numbers arrived at for each caste is based on an approximation of the more than three-decade-old Chinappa Reddy commission report of 1990. While all that is fine, why are the caste fires being stoked now and who is stirring the pot?

Two primary reasons are being adduced for the current round of agitations. One is the shrinking economic opportunity – may be temporary and related to the Covid-induced economic slowdown – and second is the internal politics of BJP.

Let us examine both.

According to the union ministry of statistics and programme implementation, in 2019-2020 Karnataka was the second fastest-growing large state by GSDP (Gross State Domestic Product) in the country next only to Gujarat.

However, the pandemic-induced economic contraction has meant all-around pain. Analysts believe that the shrinking economic pie and consequent job losses have been one of the key reasons for the current social unrest, with various groups clamouring for a bigger share of a smaller set of opportunities.

First, it was Idigas (the traditional toddy tapping community) also called Billava and Deevaru in parts of the state who form about 2.5 to 3 per cent of the state’s population demanding that they be moved from Other Backward Classes to the SC list.

Next were the Ganga Mathasta (traditional fishermen community) who also go by various names like Bestha, Mogaveera, Koli, Kabbaliga, Madder and others, who protested, demanding that they be moved from the OBC list and be given the ST tag. This community is as numerically large as the Idigas.

The Valmikis who already have the ST tag have sought 7.5% reservation in all jobs and educational institutions. However, what might have taken Yediyurappa by surprise is the demand of the dominant castes like Lingayats, Vokkaligas and Kurubas for greater reservations.

Though the government has blamed the opposition for fishing in troubled waters by trying to take political advantage of the agitations, Yediyurappa may have to look within.

Lingayats who include about 99 sub-sects are believed to be about 16-17 per cent of the population. Vokkaligas are estimated at between 11-13 per cent and Kurubas at 9-11 per cent.

All of them have taken to the streets with religious leaders from their respective communities leading protest marches. Political leaders cutting across party lines belonging to respective castes have also participated in these marches.

Such is the dominance of these communities that of the 22 chief ministers that have governed Karnataka till now, nine are Lingayats, six Vokkaligas, five belonged to the OBC community and there have been two Brahmins. However, Karnataka has never had a CM belonging to an SC, ST or a minority community.

Now the largest sub-sect of the most numerically dominant caste in the state is demanding additional reservation privileges. Panchamshali Lingayats who form around 65-70 per cent of the Lingayat population are protesting on the streets. Yediyurappa, who for long has leveraged his position as the tallest leader of the Lingayat community, is caught in a Catch-22 situation, with a chunk of the community being egged on to protest against him.

Of the nine Lingayat CMs of the state, eight were from the Banajiga sub-sect and one from the Sadr. Yediyurappa himself is Banajiga. Panchamshali Lingayats are being led by the CM’s fiercest critic in the party, Basangouda Patil Yatnal with the support of community seers demanding reservation under the 2A section.

Yatnal is no political lightweight having been a former union minister in the AB Vajpayee government. Interestingly, for a usually disciplined party, Yatnal has not been pulled up the BJP high command – till now at least -- but only by some local leaders.

This has led to speculation whether the intra-Lingayat caste protests are being encouraged to undermine Yediyurappa’s leadership of the community. It is no secret that the BJP high command has been looking to replace the 78-year-old leader and it may use the ongoing protests as an excuse to find a replacement.

Whatever may be the reason – economic pain or an internal power struggle – the onset of summer has meant not only soaring mercury but also political temperatures on the boil, with protests by various communities only increasing.

(Venkatesha Babu is a senior journalist and analyst with a keen interest in politics, economy and culture of Southern India)

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