The Big Story: The Lingayat files

In Karnataka, the Congress has waded into the murky waters of identity politics. On Monday, the Siddaramaiah-led government accepted a proposal to recognise the Lingayat community as being members of a separate religion. Just how explosive this move could be became evident hours later, as clashes broke out between members of the Veerashaiva and Lingayat communities in Kalaburagi city. Given that the Karnataka assembly elections are less than two month away, it seems to be a fairly blatant move to corner an influential votebank that has traditionally gone with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

So far, Lingayats have been counted as Hindu in the Indian census. But the community traces its origins back to the 12th century social reformer Basavanna and some members maintain that he founded a religion that was distinct from –
and even opposed to – Hinduism. Lingayat demands to be officially recognised as an independent religion go as far back as 1940, but they were made under the banner of the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha. Though the two communities are often considered the same, there is much theological debate on the differences between them. More recently, the Lingayats put forward a separate demand for minority religion status.

There is a progressive strand in this demand, espoused by scholars and liberals who see Lingayatism as a religion of democracy, science and the modern man. Independent religion status, they feel, would cleanse it of the superstitions and rituals of Hinduism. But more material considerations also drive this demand. Its most vocal advocates seem to be members of a political elite within the community seeking to expand their sphere of influence. Besides, identities are messy on the ground and do not always follow the logic of official categories. Many in the rural areas, for instance, go by a hyphenated Hindu-Lingayat identity. Will the hybrid religious practices that have developed over centuries now be disentangled?

Apart from the essentialism inherent in separate religion status, the move seems to suggest that the Congress has surrendered unabashedly to identity politics this elections season. The BJP, challengers in the state, has a head start. In coastal areas, it seems to depend heavily on communal polarisation and Hindutva mobilisations. It has also ratcheted up a campaign alleging “a bloodbath in Karanataka”, where Hindutva activists are targeted and killed by “jihadis”, actively shielded by the Congress government. (A investigation has shown this to be exaggerated.)

Political support for parties also tends to be divided along community lines. Of the two major landowning communities in the state, the Lingayats tend to vote BJP while the Janata Dal (Secular) has a substantial Vokkaliga vote. Since the 1970s, the Congress has cultivated the AHINDA votebank, a combination of Alpasankhyataru or minorities, Hindulidavaru or backward classes, and Dalitaru or Dalits. Now it seems keen to dent the BJP’s Lingayat votebank by designating it as another religious minority.

The decision gives the BJP a fresh opportunity to accuse the Congress of pushing a divisive politics and trying to carve up the Hindu community. It is also a distraction from other issues, such as rising farmer distress and worries about slowing economic growth. In the battle of identities, conversations about these pressing concerns will be lost.

The Big Scroll

Supriya Sharma reports on whether the Congress will benefit electorally from the recognition of Lingayats as a distinct religion.

Smitha Nair interviews Lingayat scholar SM Jaamdar, who says the move is not mere poll propaganda.

Sruthisagar Yamaun investigates BJP claims that 23 Hindu activists have been murdered by “jihadi elements” since 2014.


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