Can a Separate Religion for Lingayats Save Congress in Karnataka?

Lingayats are a political force, where votes from the two communities – Vokkaligas and Lingayats – could win polls.

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Can a Separate Religion for Lingayats Save Congress in Karnataka?
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(This article was originally published on 26 August 2017 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives following the approval of a separate religion status for Lingayats by the Karnataka government.)

It was a community born out of a rebellion against the caste system, but it is now a caste itself, making and breaking governments in Karnataka’s caste-dominated politics. This irony of the Lingayat community will be decisive in Karnataka politics for the coming months.


Although anti-Hindi agitations and calls for a state flag are gaining traction in the region, providing the status of a separate religion to Lingayats is going to be a game changer because of the vote bank politics.

The move could adversely affect the BJP, which depends heavily on the Lingayat votes, while the Congress’ CM Siddaramaiah will get some brownie points for his new strategy.


Following a massive Lingayat rally in Bidar district – where the revived demand for a separate religion was presented to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah – the BJP’s prominent Lingayat face BS Yeddyurappa is not happy.

Yeddyurappa claimed that there is no difference between Veerashaivas and Lingayats and they are very much part of Hinduism. And indeed, Lingayats and Veerashaivas are used synonymously in Karnataka.


Who are Lingayats?

In the 12th century, when social reformer Basavanna started the Lingayat community, they distanced themselves from Veerashaivas, who followed the vedas and supported the caste system.

The new Lingayat community, instead of temple worship and casteism, were taught to worship Shiva in a direct and personal manner, and give up the ritualistic brahmin practices. Yeddyurappa, although a Lingayat leader, has been seen performing vedic yagas.

The progressive nature of the new community attracted many followers from across the society. Following the death of Basavanna, over centuries, the two communities merged again riding on the common thread that both worshiped Shiva. Nuances that made them different were forgotten.


A Decisive Force

Lingayats are now a political force, where votes from the two communities – Vokkaligas and Lingayats – could win elections.

The election victory of BS Yeddyurappa in 2008 was on the back of the Lingayat vote bank. A win that could not be reproduced in 2013, after BJP split into three, with senior leader like BS Yeddyurappa and B Sreeramulu, leaving the party.

If the divided Lingayat votes and its Ahinda vote bank (Dalits, minorities and OBCs) propelled the Congress to power in 2013, this time the religion card is being used to divide the votes again.

The Congress is not expecting a landslide of Lingayat votes, but the votes of a small section of backward communities, who converted to a Lingayatism.


Hit or Miss for Congress, Trouble for BJP

Lingayat ministers in Siddaramaiah’s government have begun visiting the Lingayat leaders to seek opinion of giving Lingayatism the status of a separate religion. If the ministers return with consensus, the matter will be sent to the central government. Chances of an approval for this proposal, when the Karnataka BJP is against the proposal, are limited. This, as well, could be exploited by the Congress in their favour.

Voices calling for Lingayats to understand their roots and to separate themselves from the Hindutva ideology have been active over the years. Even though scholars like MM Kalburgi batted for the same, 2018 election has given the cause an unprecedented traction. We wait to see what course Karnataka will take under the new direction of this politically powerful group.

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