At the Basavagiri Mutt in Bidar town, a man sits alone in the corner of a small field chanting verses or vachanas written by Basavanna, the founder of the Lingayat faith, over a public address system. Like most days, there is no one listening to the vachanas, but this is a ritual maintained by the mutt every morning to evening.
Around 90 km away is the Basavakalyan town considered the spiritual birthplace of the Lingayat faith, rich in history and architecture of the community, including the Anubhava Mantapa, a shrine dedicated to Allamaprabhu, and caves where Basavanna retreated to meditate around 800 years ago. The Anubhava Mantapa is the replica of a hall of “mystical experience” that was created by Basavanna and his followers to propagate spiritual democracy, in what is considered an early example of the parliamentary system. Allamaprabhu, a Dalit, was the first president of the Anubhava Mantapa.
It was here, in this northernmost tip of Karnataka — closer to Hyderabad than Bangalore — that the movement for a separate religion for Lingayats really took shape in July 2017. As the Lingayats become crucial to the close Assembly elections ahead in Karnataka, it is to here that all roads are headed. Congress president Rahul Gandhi and BJP chief Amit Shah both recently visited the Anubhava Mantapa, while Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has announced a Rs 600 crore grant for expanding the structure.
However, if the Congress hopes that the Siddaramaiah government’s decision to recommend the status of a minority religion for Lingayats would do the trick, Bidar is not too sure.
“The decision in favour of the Lingayats has come at the end of the tenure of the Siddaramaiah government, which was accused in its four previous years of being anti-Lingayat and favouring only the backward classes. So most of our people will prefer the BJP to the Congress,” says the Bidar Basava Kendra president, Sharanappa Mithare, who was part of the movement for a separate religion status. He underlines this, saying that the Congress is only hoping to tap into a fire that has been long burning.
Lingayat seer Dr Basavalinga Pattadevaru, who heads the Hiremath Samsthana at Bhalki, 35-odd km away, believes the community’s vote will be divided. “The Lingayats who believe in Basavanna and his philosophy could support the Congress, but I do not think the entire block will support it. It will not have an effect on the traditionalists who believe Lingayats are not a separate religion. They will continue to support the BJP.”
Mithari says the shift in vote may not be more than “5 per cent”, comprising “those who tend to take emotional decisions and think the Congress has helped the community”.
The Lingayats, known to be strong supporters of the BJP, make up 17 per cent of the population of Karnataka, and can play a decisive role in as many as 100 of the 224 Assembly seats in the state. The Congress is hoping to swing 10 per cent of the community’s vote with its move.
Since the Siddaramaiah government recommended the separate religion status on March 19, Congress and BJP leaders have been visiting other top Lingayat seers too to seek their support. Neither side has lost hope, as if there are seers who have supported the move, many have also opposed it, especially those belonging to the Veerashaiva Linagayats. The latter follow Hindu customs rather that the teachings of equality, universal brotherhood and open mindedness of Basavanna, and hence are considered more Hindu than the Lingayats.
Many who were part of the mass meeting held in Bidar in July 2017 to seek the separate religion status point out that the demand was free of politics in the early stages. “There was no political influence whatsoever in the organisation of the first rally that magically brought over 2 lakh people together. We spent only Rs 7 lakh, and only on posters and handbills. We did not organise transport, but still people came,” says Basavaraj Dhannur, a businessman from Bidar town, also involved in social activities.
This is why he believes that whichever party wins, the Lingayats are happy with the government move for separate religion. “It is a strategy of the BJP to project the move as being politically motivated. However, it will not destroy the community but unite it,” says Dhannur.