The moves by a section of the Lingayat community to intensify the demand to be recognised as a separate religious group will have a bearing on politics in a state in which assembly elections are scheduled for early next year. The Lingayats, who constitute about 17 per cent of Karnataka’s population, can influence the poll outcome. A meeting organised by community leaders last week resolved to press the claim that the Lingayats have a religious identity independent of Hinduism and that they should be identified as such in the Census. A rally is scheduled on August 22 to take the issue forward.
The Lingayat claim for a separate religious status is not new: The All India Lingayat Mahasabha is said to have passed a resolution to this effect in 1941. The present move, however, seems to be driven by Lingayat leaders associated with the Congress — four state ministers attended last week’s meeting. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has promised government backing if there is consensus on the demand. But the community is split on the issue with an influential section preferring to be identified as a reformist sect within the Hindu fold. This latter view is backed by the BJP, which sees a Congress hand in the demand to categorise the Lingayats as a religious minority. The BJP banks on the Lingayat vote to win the next assembly election. The party lost the 2013 assembly election mainly because B.S. Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat, split the party and won the backing of the community.
Yeddyurappa, who supported the separate religious status demand in 2013, has since merged his party with the BJP. The Congress hopes to attract a section of the Lingayats, and expand its social coalition of backward communities, Dalits and Muslims.
Away from its electoral consequences, the Lingayat identity controversy centres on complex questions like who is a Hindu and what constitutes Hinduism. Basavanna, who lived in the 12th century, proposed a casteless, egalitarian society in his poetry (vachanas) and worked to realise it. In one view, he is a Hindu social reformer, a part of the Bhakti movement that challenged the institution of caste. Others argue that the Lingayat order, considering its anti-caste vision, is distinctly different from Hinduism, which accepts a social order based on caste hierarchy. While the debate is unlikely to be resolved soon, it has stirred the political cauldron in Karnataka in the short term.