On his election tour of Karnataka now underway, Congress President Rahul Gandhi visited several places of worship but the ones that drew most attention were those related to the Lingayat community. Its members are counted as Hindus in the Indian census. But a section of the community maintains they follow a religion founded by the 12th century social reformer Basava that is distinct from – and opposed – to Hinduism. In the past, their demand for recognition as an independent religion was mostly confined to intellectual circles of debate. But last year, after it was raised in a series of public meetings which drew large crowds, it came to occupy political centrestage in the state.

In the wake of the rallies, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said he would make a recommendation to the Centre supporting the community’s demand. Many commentators saw this as a political masterstroke. The Lingayats are considered supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party. By backing their demands, it was speculated the Congress could wean away some voters. Rahul Gandhi’s visits to the Lingayat mathas, or monasteries, is also being seen as part of this effort.

But such calculations of political dividends do not take into account the diversity of the people who consider themselves Lingayats – or the difficulty of persuading the Lingayat peasantry that they are not Hindus.

“Hindu Lingayat,” said Chandrashekhar Basavaraj Hebbal, a resident of Kirasur village in Dharwad district in North Karnataka, when asked which community he belonged to. The farmer had vaguely heard about the agitation for a separate religion but said he did not know much about it.

In neighbouring Gadag district, there was similar incomprehension at the house of another family of Lingayat farmers in Banihatti village. When asked whether Lingayats were distinct from Hindus, the family simply reeled off the names of the different sub-sects within the community. In the family sanctum, pictures of Basava sat next to images of Hindu deities Vithal and Rukmini. On top of the entrance to their house, Shiva’s bull, also called Basava, was depicted next to Ganesha.

The house of a Lingayat family in Banihatti village in Gadag district of North Karnataka.

But in the region’s main city of Hubballi-Dharwad, a group of scholars view such Hindu ritualism as a corruption of their faith and have been engaged in reviving the study of Basava’s verses or vachanas. In 1999, they set up a centre called the Basava Kendra and began to hold meetings every Sunday. Initially, they found it hard to find people willing to host the meetings at their homes, said Dr BV Shirur, the president of the Basava Kendra at Gokul Road. But now, he said, “we have trouble shortlisting one”.

In the rural areas, however, where the vast majority of the community lives, it is still difficult to convince people that they are distinct from Hindus. “They go to temples, worship idols,” said MV Gongadshetty, a member of the Basava Kendra. “It is hard to openly tell them you are not Hindus. Instead we say since we live in Hindustan we are Hindus but our religion is Lingayat.”

Deeper currents

If the wider community identifies with Hindu practices, what explains the large attendance at last year’s public meetings where the demand for a separate religion was raised?

Conversations with political leaders from the Lingayat community who mobilised the crowds suggest that their motivations for the demand for a separate religion may lie beyond the realm of spiritual thought and social reform.

Basavaraj Horatti, a member of the legislative council from the Janata Dal (United), one of the most vocal supporters of the movement, said his involvement with the cause was sparked by an interaction in March last year with students of the Lingayat community. They complained of losing seats to students from other communities that had access to reservations.

Recalled Horatti: “One lady said, ‘Sir, I got 96% in BE [Bachelors of Engineering], but I could not get seat, but my friend got with 79%. This is discrimination. We are not getting hostel properly. Why are you not fighting for us.’” When Horatti expressed helplessness, the student got angry. “Sir, you are not taking care of us, why you have you attached this label Lingayat, then you leave this community.”

If the community gains the status of an independent religion with minority status, Lingayat-run educational institutions would no longer have to adhere to the government-mandated quotas and would be able to admit more students of their community, said Horatti. What he left unsaid was that many of the educational institutions are run by politicians and community organisations that stand to benefit from the autonomy that would flow with the minority religion status.

In 2013, Lingayat politicians from across parties, not just from Karnataka but also from neighbouring states, petitioned the Centre, asking for the community to be counted as a separate religion in the census. BS Yeddyurappa, the former chief minister and leader of the BJP, was among those who signed on the 2013 petition.

Basavaraj Horatti of the Janata Dal (Secular) is one of the political leaders at the forefront of the agitation.

Veerashaivas or Lingayats?

The efforts by the community to gain independent religion status started as early as 1940. But they failed, said Professor SV Pattanashetti of the Basava Kendra, because they were made under the banner of the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha.

The terms Lingayat and Veerashaiva are often used interchangeably but there has been much theological debate over the differences between the two. Those who hold Basava to be the founder of the faith say the Veerashaivas are a sub-sect that came from Andhra Pradesh and assimilated in the Lingayat fold by becoming his followers. Others – notably the panchacharya seers, known so because they are five – claim the Veerashaiva traditions predate Basava, who was a reformer of the faith.

Since last year, these debates have grown more intense, with the opinion pages of Kannada newspapers filling up with perspectives from a range of spiritual, cultural and political leaders.

Through this ferment, the BJP has been largely silent. Barring one Lingayat MLA who declared that he had been stopped from attending last year’s rallies by party leaders, most BJP politicians have skirted around the subject. They cannot risk alienating those among the community who support the demand for a separate religion but neither can they afford to deviate from the Sangh Parivar’s worldview that subsumes all identities in the Hindu fold. For now, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, Yeddyurappa has chosen a safe line – he said he stands by the views of the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha.

The Mahasabha has maintained that Veerashaivas and Lingayats are the same. Its view has been challenged by Congress minister MB Patil, the former bureaucrat SM Jaamdar, Horatti and others, who say the community must be identified as Lingayat alone. To provide a counterpoint to the Veerashaiva Mahasabha, Horatti said they were registering a new organisation under the name the Jagayata Lingayat Mahasabha.

In the face of such dissensions, the Congress government has set up a six-member committee to hear representations from various sections of the community and make recommendations to the state.

Basava, the 12th century social reformer, depicted on a wall calendar next to the Hindu goddess Laxmi at a Lingayat-owned shop in Gadag district.

Electoral impact

The BJP sees the Lingayat agitation as a cynical ploy by the Congress to divide the community. But party spokesperson S Prakash said the Congress would not succeed. “Mr Yeddyurappa remains the tallest leader of the Lingayats,” he said.

The Congress, on its part, says it has nothing to do with the agitation. “This is coming from the community,” said Dinesh Gundu Rao, the working president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee. “The Mahasabha wanted to honour the chief minister because he had announced that Basaveshwara’s photo should be put in every government office. There, this came up, and he simply said I can forward your demand to Delhi.”

Among urban voters in Dharwad district, the perception is that the Congress is more supportive of the demand for a minority religion status for the Lingayats. This could fetch the party some votes. But in the villages, where the majority of the community lives, the impact of the agitation is less pronounced, and depends on the view taken by the local matha and seer. In Amargola village, Somalguda Patil, a 62-year-old Lingayat farmer, was better informed of the debates than most other farmers. “Veerashaivas and Lingayats are the same,” he said. “We are all Hindus. This is simply a strategy to divide us.”

For all the attention that the agitation had received, both Congress leaders in North Karnataka and Lingayat leaders from other parties say it will have marginal electoral impact in Bombay Karnataka, the western region that was part of the Bombay presidency in British India. But in the eastern region called Hyderabad Karnataka, which was ruled by the Nizams of Hyderabad, and where a Lingayat spiritual leader Maate Mahadevi has thrown her weight behind the movement, they are hopeful of greater impact.

“Even if only two of 100 [Lingayat] votes come to us, it is a plus,” said one leader. “Every vote counts in close contests.”

All photos by Supriya Sharma