Last week’s huge rally by the Lingayat community in Bidar has sent shock waves through the ranks of both the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in Karnataka. Not surprisingly given the Assembly election is slated for early 2018.

Lingayats, who are in the Other Backward Classes, are considered the single largest community in the state, with their population estimated at anywhere between 11.5% and 19%. Since their vote is widely believed to be decisive in 110 of the 224 Assembly constituencies, Lingayats are politically powerful.

The Bidar rally was held to press the community’s long-standing demand to be declared a religious group separate from the Hindus. A section of Lingayat leaders maintains that their culture and rituals are unique and, in some ways, opposed to Hinduism’s.

Questions of faith apart, the demand is driven by the calculation that minority religious status would entitle the community to various benefits that the Constitution bestows on such groups.

Lingayats have traditionally supported the BJP, whose state chief, former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, is the community’s most popular political face. A split in the community could, thus, prove disastrous for the BJP in the election – a prospect that has prompted the Congress to add fuel to the fire by sounding support for the Lingayats’ demands. However, with confusion over how big the section demanding separate religious status is, some in the Congress feel that backing a “fringe demand” might backfire.

A unique history

Lingayats worship Shiva, one of the holy trinity in the Hindu pantheon. The community derives its name from the pendant of the shivalinga, the symbol of Siva, worn by its members in a chain around their neck. Given their association with Shiva, they are seen as being part of the Shaivism tradition within Hindusim, and are often taken as being synonymous with the Veerasaivas (strong Shaivites).

This is where the differences lie. A section of Lingayat religious leaders oppose their clubbing with Veerasaivas, for two reasons

First, Lingayats consider Basavanna as the founder of their community. The saint, who lived in Kalyana in northern Karnataka in the 12th century, is a key figure in the Bhakti movement that swept South India between 8th and 13th centuries AD. However, according to Lingayat leaders such as Saarangadhar Desikendra, the chief pontiff of the Sulapahal Mutt, Veerasaivas consider the mythical character Sri Renukacharya as the originator of their sect.

Second, Lingayats state that their faith is founded on equality since Basavanna rejected the caste system for limiting spiritual development. He was also scathing in his criticism of Vedic rituals, describing them as an attempt to “manage and manipulate” Shiva’s creation.

Analysing the vacanas (bhakti poems) of Basavanna, historian AK Ramanujan, in his book Speaking of Siva, said Veerasaiva saints “reject not only the ‘great’ traditions of Vedic religion, but the ‘little’ local traditions as well”. For illustration, Ramanujan quotes this vacana scorning the emphasis on sacrifices in such traditions:

“The sacrificial lamb brought for the festival ate up the green leaf brought for the decorations. 
Not knowing a thing about the kill, it wants only to fill its belly: born that day, to die that day. 

But tell me: did the killers survive, o lord of the meeting rivers?” 

For historians such as Ramanujan, Lingayats and Veerasaivas were synonymous. Some others thought the argument to take Lingayats out of Hinduism was not strong enough. In his essay On Lingayat Culture, historian William McCormack writes that he considers Lingayats to be Hindus “because their beliefs are syncretistic and include an assemblage of Hindu elements, including the name of their god, Siva, who is one of the chief figures of the Hindu pantheon.” The Encyclopedia of Religion and Faith, which McCormack quotes in his essay, noted that while the ancient saints spoke against caste, “the social barriers of caste have proved too strong for the orthodox Lingayat religion”. This brought them into the “cultural mesh of Brahmanism”.

Political ramifications

This context helps explain why the Bidar rally, attended by an estimated 50,000 people, poses a serious threat to the BJP in Karnataka. The BJP is driven by Hindutva, a homogenising ideology. For the party, a group long considered an integral part of Hinduism trying to break away is automatically a challenge to its project of Hindu assimilation. Thus, supporting the demand for separate religious identity for any group would be antithetical to it.

Yet, dismissing the demand as a “fringe idea” might alienate a considerable section of the community and cost the party electorally. BJP leaders said they are walking a tightrope. A senior leader observed that the primary reason for the community’s demand was the desire to receive the benefits that minority religious groups are entitled to. For one, Article 30 of the Constitution grants the minorities, whether religious or linguistic, the right to establish and administer their own educational institutions. Lingayats who want the community to be declared a separate religious sect imagine a Constitutional status on a par with Buddhists, who enjoy reservation despite being outside the Hindu fold. So, the BJP is trying to assuage them by offering other benefits instead.

“The most important thing to do now is to meet as many community leaders as possible and ensure they do not feel alienated,” the leader added. Indeed, Yeddyurappa told party leaders on Saturday to meet “every important Lingayat community leader” in Karnataka and hold talks. A former minister said Yeddyurappa was also considering the possibility that the protests were orchestrated by his rivals within the BJP, since showing the Lingayats as a divided group will erode his authority in the party, which is almost completely dependent on the backing of the community.

On Sunday, Yeddyurappa declared that there is no difference between Veerasaivas and Lingayats. “We are very much Hindus and cannot be separated from Hinduism,” he said. “Siddaramaiah is trying to divide and rule here.”

He is not the only one miffed with the chief minister. Some of his own party leaders are unhappy with how Siddaramaiah reacted to the Lingayats’ demand.

The chief minister had told reporters on July 20 that he would forward the demand for minority religion status to the central government if it was made unanimously by the community. Apparently, Siddaramaiah’s camp calculated that taking such a stand would attract a section of the Lingayats to the Congress.

However, a Congress general secretary who asked not to be identified, pointed out that there was no way to ascertain how big the Lingayat section raising the demand was. “If they are indeed a miniscule section, we will earn the wrath of the majority of the Lingayats,” he said.

A few Congress leaders were also of the view that granting minority status to the Lingayats was not legally possible. In the past, courts have held that community rights cannot be done away with through individual petitions. “So if tomorrow two sections emerge, we may have to ask the Centre to create Hindu Lingayat and non-Hindu Lingayat categories,” the general secretary said. “This would be absurd.”