Siddaramaiah’s Lingayat Decision Kills Many Birds With One Stone

It was a rebellion against the caste system, the vedic culture and the Brahminic practices among Veerashaiva Hindus that led to the creation of the Lingayat religion by 12th century social reformer Basavanna . Several centuries later, on 19 March 2018, Veerashaivas have been presented with a choice once again – follow Basavanna or the Vedas.

With a carefully drafted decision, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has managed to help his party through another catch-22 situation. The decision has not only paved the way for him to get votes from a BJP stronghold, but also put an end to a dispute which had threatened to affect him in the assembly elections.

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A Carefully Drafted Decision

A decision to separate Lingayats from Veerashaivas would have kicked off a political storm in the state, as both communities were considered one, for many centuries despite their differences. At the same time, giving a religious status to Lingayats was the only way for the Congress to tap into BJP’s biggest vote bank.

The solution for the dilemma was a smart, carefully worded decision on the problem.

Siddaramaiah made a smart move by announcing a religion with the names of both sub-sects in it. This decision helped the Congress control the political retaliation from the BJP, as Lingayat leaders in BJP, including their Chief Ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa, had endorsed religious status for the Lingayat-Veerashaiva. BJP leaders were only opposed to a separate Lingayat religion.

At the same, the Lingayat sect was particular in the demands that they wanted to be separated from the Veerashaiva community, who followed the vedic tradition. To fulfill this demand, a clause was added to the decision that only those Veerashaivas practicing the teachings of Basavanna will be a part of the new religion. The BJP will not be able to question the clause either, as Basavanna’s teachings are considered sacred in the state.

How are Lingayats and Veerashaivas Different?

File photo of the Lingayat convention. 

The Lingayat sect was formed by the 12th century social reformer Basavanna, who opposed vedic rituals and casteist practices in the Hindu religion. His followers were taught to worship their Estadeva (God of choice), in a direct and personal manner, without any Brahminic practices. The progressive nature of the new sect attracted followers from across castes and communities in 12th century.

Over the centuries, following Basasvanna’s death, the Brahminic practices opposed by him found its way to the religion, leading to the merger of Lingayats and Veerashaivas. The word Lingayat has since been used to represent both communities.

It was the research by scholars like MM Kalburgi that brought back the knowledge that Lingayat is a religion distinct from Hinduism, which resulted in a political movement for a separate religion.

Congress Attempts Political Breakthrough

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

After the cabinet decision recommending the new religion was announced, senior Congress party leaders insisted that the move was not a political one. They claimed that the movement for religious status has been around for several decades. Although their claim was factually correct, the Congress had indeed laid the foundation for a political breakthrough for the party.

The Lingayats are considered the largest community in the state and the biggest vote bank; and during the last decade, they are known to have en bloc voted for the BJP. After the announcement of the new religion, Siddaramaiah hopes for a switch in loyalty from the Lingayat community ahead of the assembly elections.

Benefits to Lure Veerashaivas to New Religion

Being a religious minority, the Lingayats can avail rights to set up educational institutions and other benefits such as reservations in government jobs. In order to avail these benefits, a Veerashaiva only has to agree to follow Basavanna’s teachings. While it was expected that the new religion would create a divide between both communities, these benefits may bring several Veerashaivas to the new Lingayat religion. The according of a separate religion status gives many Veerashaiva an opportunity to avail these benefits.

Transfer of Lingayat Votes

Congress hopes of Lingayat votes swinging has a historical background as well. The Lingayat vote bank has never stayed with a single party.

It was a series of events consisting of party splits, party mergers, coalition and deaths of leaders, that propelled BJP’s Yeddyurappa as the face of the Lingayat community.

The Lingayat votes were traditionally with the Congress party. But when the party split into two factions in 1969, most of senior Lingayat leaders went to the Congress (O) faction. Years later, this faction of the Congress merged with the newly formed Janata Party, taking the Lingayat Votes to the Janata Party.

The Janata Party later became Janata Dal, and in late 1990’s split into two parties, JD(S) and JD(U); and the Lingayat leaders in Janata Dal went with the JD(U).

In 2004, JD(U) joined hands with BJP to contest 2004 elections. By then, the senior Lingayat leaders who had migrated from Congress, along with the Lingayat votes, exited politics, making BS Yeddyurappa a Lingayat leader by coincidence.

The history of the transfer of the Lingayat votes gives the Congress hope of securing these in the upcoming Assembly elections.

A Trap For BJP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP Karnataka chief BS Yeddyurappa during a BJP rally ahead of Karnataka Assembly Polls at Davanagere, Karnataka on 27 Feb 2018. 

After the announcement, it is the BJP that finds itself in a catch-22 situation. Now that the state government has written to the Modi government seeking approval for the new religion by the National Minority Commission, the ball is in BJP’s court.

As the proposal readies for the centre, with both Veerashaiva and Lingayat names, many leaders in the BJP who demanded a religious status for the joint community will find it tough to oppose the decision.

And even if the central government decides to turn the proposal, it will bring them the wrath of the community whose support it is banking upon ahead of the elections.

Political implications of this recommendation will be significant in deciding the outcome of the upcoming elections. The BJP is expected to claim this was Siddaramaiah’s attempt to divide the Hindu community and further Hindutva agenda. While the Congress will get back on the planning boards, hoping to get a big share of the Lingayat votes.

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