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The Lingayat Gamble

Karnataka accords the Lingayats a religious minority status – now the opposition BJP is on the backfoot and the Congress is waiting to see if its gamble will pay off

 For the second time in less than three months, Karnataka BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, BS Yeddyurappa, has been caught on the wrong foot. This time it is on the issue of the Congress-ruled Karnataka government’s decision to recommend “minority religion” status to the Lingayat community, the traditional vote bank of the BJP.

Given the propensity of the BJP to react instantly on social media, the party took its own time in responding to the decision of the cabinet that decided to accept the recommendations of the Justice Nagamohan Das expert committee which went into the question of whether the Lingayat community can be considered as a religious minority.

First, the BJP issued a statement accusing the Congress of “dividing society”. Much later, when the media insisted on a reaction from Yeddyurappa, a bland statement was issued requesting the All India Veerasaiva Mahasabha to “guide society”. There is more than one reason for the media to insist on seeking Yeddyurappa’s stance on the issue.

The first one is that Yeddyurappa had, about five years ago, made a similar recommendation – that the Lingayat community should be considered a religious minority. The other reason is also that Yeddyurappa was invited back to the BJP by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections because he commanded the Lingayat vote, particularly in Northern and Central Karnataka districts where it is the dominant community.

As one senior leader of the party, strictly off the record, put it: “It is a very sensitive issue. We will need to think about it seriously.” What he was alluding to was that the party was caught on a cleft stick for the second time in three months and, in both instances, it was an issue that concerns the people of Northern Karnataka. In December 2017, Yeddyurappa had struck a deal with Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar on the issue of getting water released from the disputed Mahadayi River for Karnataka.

But a day after the BJP rally, attended by no less than the party’s junior mascot and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, Yeddyurappa and his party had to cut a sorry figure because Parrikar went back on his word as he came under pressure from his coalition partner. He was not spared by the Congress party either, in Goa.

And now the Lingayat issue has become a matter of concern for the BJP. More so because the cabinet of chief minister Siddaramaiah has decided to include not just the Lingayats, but also the Veerashaiva-Lingayats or anyone who believes in the 12th century saint-philosopher Basaveshwara, his vachanas and who wears the Ista Linga (the soul as God).

It means that the only section of Veerashaivas left out of the “minority” status are those who believe that Veerashaivism existed before Basavanna, as Basaveshwara is also called, and those who follow Hindu rituals and practices. Basavanna was anti-ritualistic and was so anti-caste that he even got a Brahmin to marry a Dalit.

“Lingayat is not a caste in Hinduism but a separate religion established by Basavanna. It is like Sikhism or Jainism,” said Mathe Mahadevi, the first woman Jagadguru among Lingayats, whose powerful speeches at Lingayat rallies attract lakhs of people in not only north Karnataka but also in Maharashtra and Telangana.

“Fundamentally, this is a Dalit movement. Those Dalits and others from various backward castes who accepted Basavanna’s philosophy and converted to Lingayatism, have not benefited. All the benefits to the community have been cornered by the “upper” castes among the Lingayats,’’ said a member of the Lingayat Horatta Samithi, on condition of anonymity.

Dr SM Jamdar, convenor of the Lingayat Horatta Samithi and a former additional chief secretary of Karnataka, endorses the opinion of his co-member in the context of benefits accruing to the community. “So far only the rich Lingayats used to get the benefits of all the educational reservations and scholarships,” he said.

Dr Jamdar agreed with law minister TB Jayachandra that the conferring of the status of the minority community to the Lingayats will not in any way affect the other minorities like Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Jains. “The benefits that will accrue will be largely to the Lingayat educational institutions which will become minority institutions. Also, the benefits are given by a budgetary allocation which the government will increase,” he said.

By going beyond the Lingayats and making it all about the genuine followers of Basavanna, Siddaramaiah and his colleagues have cleverly quelled a possible dissatisfaction, if not a revolt, among Congressmen belonging to the Veerashaiva community. In the bargain, they have attempted to make a dent, although not a split, in the Lingayat vote bank of the BJP.

There are of course many Congressmen who are as unhappy as those in the BJP, over this decision. There are some who do not think that there will be any advantage to the Congress party. In fact, some of them suspect there could even be a backlash against the Congress. Some even recall Prithviraj Chavan making a similar recommendation just before the Maharashtra Assembly elections to the Centre, since the Lingayats there have a larger population than Karnataka’s 85 lakhs. (Lingayats are spread across Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.)

But then, politicians are also in the habit of throwing the dice beyond the table. Siddaramaiah has just taken that risk. That is not very different from what Sitaram Kesari had taken one Sunday afternoon in April 1997, when he went to the Rashtrapati Bhavan without informing any of his Congress colleagues, including Sonia Gandhi, and withdrew support to the HD Deve Gowda’s United Front government.

“I didn’t want the Congress party to get less than 100 seats,” Kesari had told this writer a few days later. That is what, perhaps, Siddaramaiah is trying to do as well. Informatively, Kesari also championed the cause of the backward classes and Dalits, like Siddaramaiah is doing.

Sometime in the middle of May, we will know if Siddaramaiah’s gamble has paid off like Kesari’s did.

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