The Lingayat fight to be recognised as an independent religious group is decades old. In the last three months, however, their struggle has gained renewed intensity. Already, the numerically and politically significant community has organised four massive rallies in Karnataka and Maharashtra – at Bidar, Gulbarga, Latur and Kalaburgi. The Lingayats claim to be followers of Basavanna, the 12th century philosopher and social reformer who rejected caste hierarchy, Vedic rituals and other practices of Brahmanical Hinduism, and is believed to have founded a new egalitarian faith: the Lingayata dharma.

The current struggle is manifold and complicated. One, the demand for separate religious identity has taken the form of a specific demand for minority religion status. Two, the Lingayats argue that Veerashaivas, the followers of Pancha Peethas, are not the same as them. The names Veerashaiva and Lingayat have long been interchangeably used. But the ongoing agitation is fuelled by arguments by a faction of the Veerashaivas insisting that the roots of the “entire community” lie within Hinduism and, hence, the demand for a separate religion is invalid.

Former bureaucrat and Lingayat scholar SM Jaamdar, who is at the forefront of the current movement, has written extensively about the distinction between the Lingayats and the Veerashaivas, and about why the Lingayata dharma is completely different from Hinduism. He is, in fact, one of the leading advocates of agitating for minority religion status. “Getting minority status is the same as being recognised as a separate faith,” Jaamdar explained. “But just because you ask for it, the committee at the Centre will not give it to you. You have to prove how different you are from Hinduism.”

Excerpts from an interview:

It was the rally in Bidar in July that put the spotlight on the Lingayat community’s renewed fight for minority status. What triggered it in the first place?
It began in June actually. The word “trigger” is correct – it was a political trigger. The Lingayat community’s demand for separate religion has been there for a long time, as far back as 1881. It is a long pending issue.

Recently, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah decided two things in the Lingayat community’s favour: naming the women’s university in Vijayapura after the 12th century poet Akka Mahadevi and having a photograph of Basaveshwara in all government offices; Maharashtra had already done this by the way. The Akhila Bharata Veerashaiva Mahasabha, which is headed by the Congress, decided that they will felicitate the chief minister for his gestures. They thought these are great gestures. They organised a big programme during which they also gave him a memorandum asking for separate religious status. The chief minister said he will support their demands. He didn’t clarify whether that means he will recommend to the Centre that the community be granted minority status. This happened on June 15.

Soon after, within four or five days, a Veerashaiva faction led by Professor Chidananda Murthy held a press conference condemning the assurance given by the chief minister and even the demands of the Mahasabha. He argued that we are all Hindus. That’s where the issue started. The entire thing was in the news. Many people began debating for and against it.

On July 1, I wrote an article in the Kannada newspaper Prajavani countering his stand. The piece became widely popular and many organisations across the state began publishing it and distributing copies of it, to educate and oppose the Veerashaiva faction. Thereafter, a series of back and forth replies began. I wrote a 20-page article rebutting Chidanand Murthy and addressing all the intricacies of the issue. I gave it to Basava Patra, from where it was picked up by 10 or 11 journals, including Gauri Lankesh Patrike. Once this happened, a large group of people got together and said this is an opportunity to assert how different Lingayatism is from Veerashaivism. They [Veerashaivas] don’t want to separate from Hinduism. We [Lingayats] can’t be part of Hinduism.

A meeting was held in the auditorium of the Central College campus that was attended by 3,000 people, including MLAs and ex-MLAs from many parties, largely the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress but there were Bharatiya Janata Party MLAs too, swamijis, thinkers, writers. In that meeting, it was decided that we will take this forward and that’s how the first agitation came to be.

A lot of people see it as a sudden agitation.
This has been a burning issue for more than 100 years. The last straw was the chief minister’s assurance. It blew the lid off.

Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written on this issue, but none of them stirred up emotions...See, action is more important than thought. This action came because people who are involved finally got roused by the ideas. The same Chidananda Murthy’s writings have been there for a long time but nobody spoke about them. But because he agitated on a mainstream platform, the arguments were picked up by the masses and the leaders. I am actually happy he protested.

That said, I don’t think the credit for the mass agitations should be narrowed down to the actions or words of two or three people, and that includes me.

There is the Lingayat community that wants to separate from both Hinduism and the Veerashaivas, there is the Veerashaiva faction that believes that the entire community is within the Hindu fold, and then there is another faction that says the Veerashaivas and the Lingayats are one and the same and should be granted an independent status together. Why did the Mahasabha even submit the memorandum when there are so many factions within the community that don’t agree with each other?
The Mahasabha wanted to gain political mileage. They didn’t anticipate that a faction of their own sabha will oppose their demands.

The Mahasabha has always been dominated by politically-oriented people or people who are well-meaning but are not aware of their own history or the background of the Lingayats. They have been unable to bring about an understanding between the different factions, and it has been so for several years. They are trying to show a patched-up unity which isn’t there or cannot be.

Those who refer to the community as “Veerashaiva/Lingayats” are a confused lot. They don’t know the distinction between these two separate groups. If they knew the fundamental differences, they wouldn’t be talking at all.

The Veerashaivas came into the Lingayat fold, practised and spread it for 200 years after Basava. Suddenly they started corrupting it by bringing these [Hindu] practices against which Basavanna has fought all his life. They corrupted it very successfully. Today’s Lingayat is a bundle of confusions. He does the ishtalinga puja as well as goes to temples; he believes in one god but also worships other gods. All this corruption was brought in by these people over the course of a 400-year period. Now we are saying we are going to cleanse it. They don’t want us to do it. They say they are the founders. We are going back to the where it all began to prove they are not even a historical entity. They are only creating legends that have no historical basis. They can either accept that or go their way.

We have no issues if they even ask for minority status for the Veerashaivas alone. We don’t want them to interfere with our struggle. We can prove how different Lingayatism is from Hinduism. They can do so too if they believe they are different too.

We are also not opposed to them joining us too but only if they accept Basava, his authority and his writings, and come forward to say that he is the founder of the religion. Once they do that the entire controversy is solved.

The Lingayat rally in Bidar, Karnataka, in July. Photo via YouTube

What do you think will happen?
I don’t know. But today, hard stances from their side are softening. Take the statements they are making: the Pancha Peethas are saying they are not claiming a higher status or hierarchy anymore. They are also saying they will give equal status to Viraktas which they never did. They are also saying they will not perform the adapallaki ritual. What does all this mean? They are saying they will celebrate Basava Jayanthi. They wouldn’t even tolerate his picture until a while back.

The demand for a separate religion versus the minority community tag – is it mere terminology? The goal is the same, right?
Under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955; the Hindu Succession Act, 1956; the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956; the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, the term Hindu is defined and under that definition, all Indic religions, that is, religions that originated on Indian soil are under the ambit of “Hindu”. Now, whether that is right or wrong is a different issue. But today that’s the law which stands for everybody. Numerous attempts have been made to ask for a separate religion for the Jains, the Buddhists and even the Lingayats, but the law is clear. It will not allow it. However, under customary law, the rights of such religions as the Jains, the Buddhists and even the Lingayats are protected. The best legal route before the Lingayats today is to seek minority status, which is the same as seeking a separate religion. Our demand and our claims will be examined and only then will we be granted a minority tag.

What’s the way forward with respect to the agitations?
The agitations will continue. They will not end in a few weeks or months. If anyone links them to the elections [to the Karnataka Assembly early next year], they are sadly mistaken. It is a fact that most of the young ministers supporting us are Congressmen but they are not here because of their party. They are strong believers in the struggle and the faith.

For instance, so much is being said about MB Patil. People do not know about his background. He is not just a minister or a Congressman. He represents an institution, which was fundamentally responsible for the revival of Vachana literature and Basava dharma. His father BM Patil and Fa Gu Halakatti, the man behind the revival of Vachana literature, worked closely for a number of years. Obviously, a man from a lineage such as his will continue the struggle.

Apart from the agitations, what else are you planning to do?
We want to clarify things and create awareness about who we actually are. This is the reason for the decision to float a youth wing by the name of Rashtriya Basava Sene. The announcement is done. Now, the enrolment will begin.

I am not one of those people who wants quick results. Jains fought for over 40 years. We may also have to fight for a long time. There is the fight within and then there is the need to create awareness; in rally after rally, we are repeatedly saying that we are not against any religion or caste or organisation or political party. We are only fighting for our rights. Why is everyone else poking their nose into it? This fight will go on until we get minority status. And when that will happen is a matter of circumstance.

What about political parties seeking to gain mileage from this issue?
They cannot stay out of this because the community is big and every party wants a share. The community has to think about this. But one thing is clear: whichever party, whether the one in power or out of it, supports the cause, will be welcomed. What is wrong in that? These are long-standing issues. If a political party, whether at the Centre or in the state, takes up the cause and grants us recognition, the matter will end and they get the benefit. If they are reluctant to take up the issue, their future is uncertain and so is the community’s.

The BJP confounded the issue initially by saying both [the Lingayats and the Veerashaiva faction opposed to them] are right. Then they saw the writing on the wall and decided to not say anything. But surreptitiously they are going to every rally that we are organising, going house to house to ensure the rally fails. Fortunately for us and unfortunately for them, people came to our rallies in huge numbers. People whose houses they visited and those they pressurised have themselves confessed to us. Some Mathadhipathis too said the same. Of course some say they came to offer money, some say they gave money; the fact is BS Yeddyurappa and Jagadish Shettar themselves did this. If they question me, I can produce people who will testify to this.

That their sabotage is not working is proof that emotions are running high within the community against all these conspiracies. Everyone realises it is now or never.

You are one of the people who have been given security after the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh. Have you received any threats?
I have personally not received any calls or threats. But the police say I need security. They must have a good reason.

Going by the recent spate of events, though, the threat perception seems real. But I am not daunted by it.