“[The Lingayat religion] stands for absolute equality among all human beings irrespective of caste, irrespective of religion or language,” said former bureaucrat and Lingayat scholar SM Jaamdar on Monday. “We congratulate the state government for having taken such a bold decision.”

Jaamdar’s comments were in response to the Siddaramaiah-led Karnataka government’s decision to seek the Centre’s nod to grant religious minority status to the Lingayat community – a decades-long demand. At present, Lingayats are counted as Hindus in the Indian census.

The state’s decision, made on Monday, is based on the recommendation of the Nagamohan Das committee and comes ahead of the imminent Assembly elections in the state. It is expected to have some kind of an impact on the polls.

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 Lingayat dharma. Basavanna is a key figure in the Bhakti movement that swept South India between 8th and 13th centuries AD.

Today, Lingayats are present in significant numbers in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. Though their fight to be recognised as an independent religious group – separate from Hinduism – is several years old, there is a faction within the community that believes their roots lie in Hinduism, and therefore the demand to be recognised as a separate religion is invalid.

Jamdaar, one of the leading advocates of minority religion status for the community, spoke to Scroll.in on the significance of Karnataka’s decision. Edited excerpts:

SM Jaamdar. (Photo credit: Archana Nathan).

The Karnataka government’s decision comes just ahead of elections to the state Assembly. You have been leading this agitation, tell us how this came about?
We really congratulate the state government. What was expected has happened because we have been able to give the [Nagmohan Das] committee, the government, everybody concerned enormous data in support of it. Huge data – more than 150 books, reports, research articles – and we had no doubt that there could be any other way than this. We congratulate the state government for having taken such a bold decision.

Put the demand for recognising the Lingayat community as a separate religion in perspective.
In fact a bigger agitation is going on in Maharashtra since 2014. The Maharashtra state government had already resolved to recommend it to the Centre in 2014, [during an] August 19 cabinet meeting. [It] had resolved to recommend…the notification of Lingayat as a minority religion. That was four years back. Now the same agitation has restarted there six months back and is going on. Their cabinet sub-committee met just last week again. So it is not just Karnataka it is Maharashtra also. Now it has begun in Telangana and Tamil Nadu as well.

For the uninitiated, explain who is a Lingayat and why the demand to recognise it as a separate religion?
Lingayat is a religion of democracy, a religion of science, it is a religion of modern man. You take any practice or principle, it stands for absolute equality among all human beings irrespective of caste, irrespective of religion or language. It stands for absolute equality between men and women. I would request those who know Lingayats to find out the status of women in [their] religious social economic and cultural spheres – they are equal to men. It is a religion free from superstition, it is a religion based on scientific principles. It does not believe in all kinds of rituals. It does not believe in Vedas, Puranas, Agamas and Shastras [Hindu religious texts]. It is perhaps the only Indian religion which rejects the traditional authorities of Hindu religion in such harsh terms. How many vachanas [verses] are there which make absolute fun of these things? This is a religion not only in teaching but also in practice. In the 12th century, Basavanna what he started, in less than 10 years time it spread like wildfire.

Now you see there are one-and-a-half-crore Lingayats in Maharashtra, 80 lakh people in Telangana, around one crore in Karnataka and about 50 lakh people in Tamil Nadu. All these spread from that one place after the revolution. It ignited a revolution because Basavanna arranged the marriage of an SC [Scheduled Caste] young man with a Brahmin girl. That resulted in clashes between Hindu orthodox people and the followers of this particular religion. In that more than 50,000 people were butchered by the royal forces. The king himself was murdered on this account.

Thousands of people attend a rally organised by a Lingayat group in Karnataka, in July 2017, demanding that the community be granted religious minority status.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has publicly criticised the demand for religion status for Lingayats saying it is an attempt to divide Hindu society on lines of caste.
The BJP, supported by RSS and Hindu Sanathan Dharma, has to say that because this [Lingayat] is the religion that rose against that kind of orthodoxy. Obviously they have to say this and they are saying it. Whether it is against their party? I do not agree. It is not against any party nor is it for any party. And when this agitation started two years ago there was no such political development. Now that it has taken such a long time, some elections have come and they are suspecting this is election propaganda. I do not think so.

Isn’t there a division within the Lingayat community on the demand for separate religion status.
No such division. Ninety-seven per cent of Lingayats are Lingayats and there are about 3% Aaradhya Brahmins who became Lingayats and subsequently they started corrupting it from within, bringing in caste and hierarchy and all that. They are called Veerashaivas. So this resolution of the government is that Lingayat is a minority religion, but those Veerashaivas who are saying that they are Hindus etc, they can also remain within the Lingayat fold if they accept Basava tatva [the tenets of Basavanna]. They have been given a choice: either stick to the oath you took when you became Lingayat, or you remain what you are. The decision is yours.

How do you see the position taken by BJP’s BS Yeddyurappa, arguably the tallest political leader from the Lingayat community in Karnataka?
Being a Lingayat, not knowing his own roots , if he is talking the language he has been talking he has to think about it, we are nobody to talk about it.

Also see, a previous interview:Lingayat scholar SM Jaamdar: ‘People linking our stir for minority status to elections are mistaken’