In the first week of April, as a scorching afternoon gave way to overcast skies, a group of women gathered in Kuvempu Nagara in North Karnataka’s Kalaburagi town, to listen to the story of Akka Mahadevi, a radical poet and icon of the Lingayat community who lived in the 12th century.

Since last year, a section of the community has mounted massive protest rallies, seeking to be recognised as a religious group distinct from Hindus. But a glimpse that their social reality was more complex lay in the place the women had chosen for their meeting: a Hanuman temple.

Seated on a chair and armed with a notebook was Jayashree Chatnalli, a homemaker who supported the Lingayat demand for independent status. She narrated Mahadevi’s story, describing with passion how she set out in search of her god Chennamallikarjuna, the name for Shiva in Mahadevi’s hometown Udutadi. She severed links with her family and her husband and roamed fully naked with only her tresses covering her body. The group of women, their foreheads smeared with ash in the style characteristic to the Lingayat community, listened in rapt attention.

On a chair next to Chatnalli sat framed photographs of Mahadevi and Basavanna, the 12th century social reformer considered the founder of the Lingayat faith. Both had been garlanded with flowers, and offered bananas and water. A portrait of Chandrashekhar Patil Revoor, the late Bharatiya Janata Party strongman from the district, hung on the wall.

The Lingayats have for long been considered supporters of the BJP. But the party has not backed the ongoing agitation. It is the ruling Congress party that has supported the demand, with the state government led by chief minister Siddaramaiah writing to the Centre on March 29, recommending that the Lingayat faith be declared independent. Most observers were quick to assume the move would benefit Congress in the assembly elections, scheduled for May 12, but the women seemed less supportive.

Asked what they thought of Siddaramaiah’s move, they were initially reluctant to speak up. “Don’t be scared, say whatever you feel,” urged Chatnalli.

“Siddaramaiah is trying to break the unity of our community,” said Shashikala Dummansur, a homemaker, ending the long silence in the room. “Why are they creating a separate faith? I go to temples too and follow Basava tattva (philosophy) too. In fact, when I sit inside a temple I am most peaceful. This entire agitation was not necessary at all.”

Annapurna, a high school teacher brought up the question of the Veerashaivas, the followers of five monasteries called Pancha Peetha, which claim Basava was part of an older lineage founded by Renukacharya. Despite the differences over the origins of the faith, Veerashaivas were considered part of the larger Lingayat community. But now those among the community who want to break free of Hinduism have asked Veerashaivas to abandon the Pancha Peethas and accept Basava as the founder of the faith.

On March 26, BJP president Amit Shah accused Siddaramaiah of fomenting factionalism within the community for the sake of votes. Annapurna echoed Shah’s views.

“I feel Siddaramaiah, knowing that we have always traditionally supported the BJP, is trying to cause fights between us,” she said. “This is being done for votes.”

She asked: “Why are the Veerashaivas not included in this separate religion? Not just me, but even my grandfather and grandmother don’t understand the difference between Veerashaivas and Lingayats.”

The women had gathered in a room inside a Hanuman temple complex.

While theological debates have raged for long within smaller circles of Lingayat intellectuals, last year they came to occupy political centrestage after a massive rally was held in Bidar in July. More than two lakh Lingayats are reported to have come out on the streets to demand that their community to be given minority status.

Bidar is just 100 km north of Kalaburagi. But the rally had not struck a chord with the women.

“All those Lingayats thought getting a minority status will also bring them many benefits,” said Annapurna. “You know, reservation, and so on? But we hear that we might get reservation in education but not in jobs. What is the point then, really?”

Chatnalli stood silently listening to the voices in her audience. She looked disappointed. “We are not Hindus or Veerashaivas,” she said at last, treading carefully. “Our independent religion – the Lingayat religion – actually began in the 12th century. The rituals under Basava tattva are drastically different from Hindu and Veerashaiva rituals. The problem is today we don’t find any real, strict adherents of the Basava philosophy anymore. So what we have is a confused set of rituals and followers. This is why some of us want the government to grant independence to our faith.”

The women looked confused and slightly miffed. “We don’t know – we just don’t want factions in our community,” said Dummansur.

“Okay, if you want to make Lingayat a separate faith, go ahead but include the Veerashaivas too,” said Annapurna.

“It will take a while for the community to get some clarity on who they are and what their faith originally is,” Chatnalli muttered as the gathering dispersed.

Inside a Lingayat household in Sangama, a village in Bidar district.

Existential dilemmas

The discussion at the women’s meeting is symptomatic of the larger churn within the community, which now faces an existential dilemma. The questions appear to be most acute in Hyderabad Karnataka, as the areas bordering Andhra Pradesh are known. Basava lived in this region, where Lingayats form a large population.

About 200 kilometres south from Kalaburagi, in Matamari, a village in Raichur district, Veeregowda, a Lingayat farmer, expressed anger at Siddaramaiah’s move. His son Harshavardhan, who was studying engineering in Bengaluru and was home for a break, agreed.

“You know when Siddaramaiah announced that he will make the recommendation to the Centre on behalf of the Lingayat community,” said Harshavardhan, “we suddenly found ourselves asking who we are – are we Hindus, Veerashaivas or Lingayats?”

“There are so many other better issues to fight for,” the student continued. “This is just politics – the show of strength and power.”

Veeregowda had a different problem. “I go to the temple here and we have Basavanna’s photo in our house too,” he said. “So what does that make me? They keep saying that this is about following Basava’s philosophy. So does that mean I have to get married to a Madiga (Dalit) woman? Or eat the same food as them?”

Basava had campaigned against the caste system and led a movement for equality. Many Lingayats in the current agitation held up his ideals as evidence of the faith’s opposition to Hinduism.

Leaders and seers of the Lingayat faith concede their community is largely unaware of what sets their faith apart from Hinduism and Veerashaivism. This explains why they feel disconnected from the movement for recognition as an independent religion, they say. “Only ten out of 100 people in the community may know what it means to practise Basava tattva today,” said Somanna Nadakatti, the state convenor of the newly formed Jagathika Lingayata Mahasabha, an umbrella organisation comprising all Lingayat groups that are part of the movement for independent status.

“Nearly every Lingayat knows who Basava is – that is clear to them,” he said. “But most of them are still following practises that are Vedic and Brahmanic in nature, thanks to the influence of Shaiva and Vedic brahmins and seers who have mislead the community right from the 14th century.”

Nadakatti said the Lingayat faith has its own practices and rituals for birth and death, as well as weddings. But these have faded over the years.

He sees a different goal for the movement. “Our biggest achievement is the fact that it has created doubt in the minds of our community members about who they really are,” he said. “That’s good enough for now.”

Voting choices

But the question most are asking is political: would Siddaramaiah’s move fetch Congress votes of the Lingayat community in the upcoming election?

Nadakatti and other members of the Mahasabha have openly declared they will vote for the party. But the extent of the Mahasabha’s influence among the Lingayat community, particularly in the villages, is unclear.

“We are thinking about reaching out to the community after Basava Jayanti on April 15,” said Nadakatti. “My personal belief is that 10 or 20 percent of the votes from the community may go to Siddaramaiah this time. Especially in Bidar and Kalaburagi, there is likely to be a fissure in the BJP vote bank.”

He attributed this to the influence of the Lingayat mutts or spiritual organisations that have supported the movement for recognising their religion as distinct from Hinduism.

The addition of Lingayat votes is expected to further consolidate the Congress party’s hold on the region.

In Sangama, a village located 47 kilometres from Bidar, Somashekhar and Mallikarjuna, two primary school teachers, were returning from work one afternoon, walking down on a dusty road. Stopped on the way and asked for their views on the movement, they emphatically said, “We are true-blue Lingayats here like everyone else in and around Bidar.”

Both of them said without hesitation that they would vote for Siddaramaiah this election. “We have to return his favour,” said Somashekhar. “Also, he is a man who comes from the samajavadi siddhanta (socialist philosophy). He doesn’t go to temples.”

The nearest Lingayat mutt to Sangama is in Bhalki. The head of the mutt, Dr Basavalinga Pattadevaru, holds considerable influence in the region and was instrumental in garnering support for the massive Bidar rally – all reportedly in a matter of 20 days. Pattadevaru said that while he will continue to tell people about the tenets of the Lingayat faith, he will not openly ask people to vote for the Congress. However, the very next day, at a press conference in Bengaluru, he joined other Lingayat seers from across the state to speak in favour of the Congress party. “Siddaramaiah has supported our demand, we will support him,” said Maate Mahadevi, the seer who chaired the press conference.

Chief minister Siddaramaiah with Lingayat seers. Photo: PTI

The current Congress MLA from Bhalki is Ishwar Bheemanna Khandre, a state minister who holds independent charge of the Municipalities and Local Bodies Department as well as the Department of Public Enterprises. A two-time member of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, Khandre is the son of Bheemanna Khandre, who is the former chairman of the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha. Khandre is among those demanding that the Veerashaiva-Lingayat community remain undivided, and if the minority religion status is to be given, it should be given to both factions together. The Jagathika Lingayata Mahasabha has said it will consider this only if the Veerashaivas recognised Basavanna as the founder of the faith.

Despite Khandre’s stand, Sangamesh, who handles the accounts at the Bhalki mutt, said he will vote for him. “Because my vote this election is for Siddaramaiah and hence to any Congress candidate.”

In Sangama village, Varsha Omprakash Biradar reiterated the thought. “It’s the debt of gratitude,” she said, sitting in her living room which was heavily infused with pictures and motifs of Lingayat icons and seers. “He believes that we will stand by him for what he has done for us. It’s time to do our bit now.”

A self-proclaimed staunch Lingayat, Biradar, however, did not avowedly distance herself from Hinduism. “Hinduism is not a faith, it is a way of life – it is like an ocean – wherein everyone can find a place.”

Does she go to temples or do pujas?

“No,” she said pulling out the ishtalinga, hanging from her neck. The symbol, usually a stone contained in a silver casket, stands for the formlessness of god. It was used by Basava as an instrument to initiate people into his egalitarian faith. “This is the proof I have for which religion I belong to. And that’s the Lingayat faith which I agree has to be officially independent. We Lingayats carry our identities on our bodies.”

Varsha Omprakash Biradar.

In the neighbouring Ballat, a village in Aurad taluk near Bidar, there was consensus over Lingayat faith being distinct and unrelated to Hinduism. But the question of which party gets their vote left a family of six divided.

“If Siddaramaiah had not sent the recommendation to the Centre, there would have been no hope for the community to break free of the Hindu faith,” said Shivakant, a daily wage worker. “We are all BJP people here but my vote this time will go for Siddaramaiah for sure.”

His father Vaidyanath Rajgiri said the exact opposite. He saw the assembly election as a contest between Siddaramaiah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa, who belongs to the Lingayat community. “The real power lies in the hands of Modi at the Centre and he will eventually decide whether the community gets a minority status or not,” said Rajgiri. “I have always been a BJP loyalist and now after Modi came to power, I will continue to vote for BJP.”

The father and son got into an argument over who deserved credit for their contribution to the Lingayat cause. The son stormed out of the house before the family’s photo could be taken.

Rajgiri’s wife, Shakuntala, then spoke up hesitatingly. “Yes, if the state government here did not send the recommendation, how can the Centre do anything?” she asked. “I think I might vote for Congress.”

Shivakanth’s wife did not have an electoral opinion. “I will vote for whoever the family asks me to vote for,” she said with a smile.

Vaidyanath Rajgiri (in pink) and his family.