Issue of Separate religion

How Lingayats voted

Print edition : June 08, 2018

BJP members celebrate the victory of party nominees in Belagavi city on May 15. Photo: P.K. Badiger

As Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah receiving a memorandam from Lingayat swamis in Bengaluru on March 15.

The issue of separate religion status for Lingayats may not have been weighing on the minds of voters as much as it has been for academics and politicians, but it was very much part of the election campaign.

IN most Lingayat households hangs a picture of Basavanna, the 12th century reformer-saint, wearing a crown, riding a horse, with a sword hanging on the left side. Lingayats bow to his portrait before leaving home and on entering it. They worship Basavanna as god and sing his praises through vachanas, or devotional bhajans. They organise special pujas during family functions like marriages, where the portrait is worshipped.

Scholar M.M. Kalburgi, who spent a lifetime campaigning that Basavanna had founded a religion distinct from Hinduism, had a problem with this image of Basavanna. (Unidentified miscreants killed Prof. Kalburgi at his home in Dharwad, allegedly over his insistence that Lingayats were not Hindus.) He argued that some modern-era painter had wrongly portrayed Basavanna in the image of the king of Keladi, who wore a crown and a sword and rode a horse.

“He used to say that our Basavanna is the one who rejected the trappings of power and royalty. He should be pictured as wearing clothes like a common man and holding a bundle of vachanas,” recalls Shivaganga Rumma, Kalburgi’s disciple, who now heads the Kannada department in the Central University of Karnataka in Gulbarga. “Sadly, we have forgotten the saint Basavanna. We are chasing the image of Basavanna, the prime minister to King Bijjala in Basava Kalyan. Political power is dearer to us than social reform. That is the unfortunate irony,” laments Prof. Rumma.

Separate religion status

This sentiment seems to have played out in the recently concluded Assembly elections. There are reports on the basis of surmises that a large section of Lingayat voters, who form the decisive voting bloc in northern Karnataka, backed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rather than the Congress whose government had approved the demand by some Lingayat leaders for separate religion status. This is because Lingayats have traditionally been BJP supporters since Ramakrishna Hegde joined Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Cabinet in 1998. Although himself a Brahmin, Hegde was largely regarded as a Lingayat leader because of his support to the community. His death in 2002 led to over 50 Lingayat leaders from the Janata Parivar shifting to the BJP.

For some, this shows that Lingayats place political power above ideology.

However, the question whether the Karnataka government’s decision to recommend minority religion status to Lingayatism worked against the Congress has no easy answers. Some poll analysts say the whole issue boomeranged on the Congress as it had overestimated the electoral potential of the issue. Some conclude that the government’s hurried decision provided the BJP a stick to beat the Congress with. Some others feel it was not an election issue at all as Lingayats had decided to vote for the BJP anyway as they wanted to see B.S. Yeddyurappa as the Chief Minister.

Observers say the Lingayat issue is only one of the many reasons why the Congress fared badly. Other reasons cited are the 21 campaign rallies attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi across the State, focussed door-to-door campaigns by the BJP’s ground-level armies and micromanaged by the party’s top leadership, and the overall poll strategy of Amit Shah and others.

The playwright D.S. Chougale said the century-old demand for separate religion status had never caught the fancy of ordinary Lingayats. “They are traditional BJP voters who would not lean towards the Congress just because it approved their long-pending demand. Each community has several reasons why it supports or rejects a political party. Also, no election in Karnataka or anywhere for that matter can be won with the support of just one community. There are several social, economic, political and individual factors that determine electoral success,” Dr Chougale said.

Voting trends across regions in the State show how the BJP gained and the Congress suffered in the Assembly elections. The visible impact was in the Bombay-Karnatak region, a Lingayat-dominated region that has 56 seats. In 2013, the Congress won 34 of these seats, only to see them halved five years later.

In Hyderabad-Karnatak, another region of Lingayat influence with 40 seats, the impact was different. The Congress here dropped to 21 from 23 seats while the BJP increased its tally to 15 from five.

Among senior leaders, Minister Vinay Kulkarni, who was in the forefront of the movement for separate religion status for Lingayats, and Sharanprakash Patil and Basavaraj Rayareddy, who supported it, lost. But those within the government who opposed the move, like Eshwar Khandre and Shamanur Shivashankarappa, won.

However, the signals from these victories are not clear. Irrigation Minister M.B. Patil, who led the movement and lobbied with the Chief Minister to uphold the community’s demand for separate religion status, won by a huge margin. Leaders such as Ganesh Hukkeri and Lakshmi Hebbalkar, who attended the Belagavi rally organised by Lingayat organisations demanding separate religion status, won. But Congress leader S. Shivashankarappa’s son S.S. Mallikarjun, who opposed the demand, lost.

The issue may not have been weighing on the minds of voters, but it was very much part of the poll campaign. The BJP did not miss an opportunity to criticise the Congress over the separate religion issue. Its leaders termed it as an effort to divide the Hindu community and stop Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat leader, from becoming the Chief Minister.

While no Congress leader, except M.B. Patil, raised the sensitive issue in public rallies, BJP leaders repeatedly raised the issue in rallies. Party president Amit Shah even went to Shivayoga Mandir, a training centre for young Lingayat seers in Bagalkot district, and assured the pontiffs there that he would not allow the division of the community under his watch.

Some feel it was not a political issue at all. “Most Lingayats, especially those in the villages, have no ideological clarity. They don’t know what this issue is all about. They voted for the BJP because they want Yeddyurappa to become the Chief Minister,” said Devendra Karanje, an active member of Basava Kendra, an association of Lingayat youths. He feels misinformation campaigns by the BJP may have made the resolve of such voters stronger. “It is a huge social and cultural issue but not an electoral issue. The year 2018 will be remembered for centuries as a time when Chief Minister Siddaramaiah accorded Lingayats minority status. But not for an issue that changed election results,” said Ballur Basavaraj, a Kannada literary critic.

But unlike him, politicians do not think it is just an academic exercise. “The BJP is not very particular about Lingayats getting separate religion status. We are not pushing for it now, as we did not want the Congress to take credit for it,” conceded Prakash Tonne, a BJP worker.

“I don’t think there is any law to grant us separate religion status. That is why I am opposing it. But if in the future the Union government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi were to approve of the Karnataka government’s recommendation, I will welcome it,” said Umesh Katti, BJP leader and former Minister.

Shreekant Swamy, secretary of the Lingayat Dharma Horata Samiti, who is an active Congress worker, feels Lingayats have “silently supported the Congress”, at least in the Hyderabad-Karnatak region.

He feels that in Bombay-Karnatak and Central Karnataka regions, there were not enough volunteers to work on the ground and convince Lingayat voters to support the Congress.

Avoidable controversy

There are a few who feel that the Congress government should not have taken up the issue before the elections. Some others feel the government should have postponed the issue after constituting the committee under Justice H.N. Naga Mohan Das, the retired High Court judge.

“For the Congress, this was an avoidable controversy,” said Ashok Chandargi, a Lingayat leader who is opposed to the State government’s decision. “The Congress in Karnataka created this unnecessary issue in an otherwise issueless election and allowed itself to be cheated,” he said.

He also thinks Siddaramaiah did it to escape the image of being a Backward Class leader who was opposed to the interests of the upper castes. “He was too clever to think this would bring him votes,” Chandargi said.

The Dalit ideologue Vaijanath Suryavanshi is of the opinion that elections in India are about nothing but caste. “Karnataka is no different. All issues are suppressed during elections and only caste comes to the fore. Lingayats, like other caste groups, will vote for their caste leaders and influence voters from lower castes to vote for Lingayats too, as they control the means of production like land and businesses,’’ said Suryavanshi.

Although Lingayats constitute about 13 per cent of the 6.25 crore population in Karnataka, they pack a punch that is far above their weight in social and economic terms. Their influence over the electorate is high because they own land, run credit and multipurpose cooperative societies, manage education societies, especially in Bombay-Karnatak and Hyderabad-Karnatak regions, and have a virtual monopoly on the agriculture produce marketing committees and the farm input trade.

“Farmers routinely take loans from their seed and fertilizer seller and the trader who buys their produce after harvest. Such indebtedness influences their political choices,” said B. Narayan Rao, Backward Classes leader and Congress candidate who won from Basava Kalyan, the town where Basavanna lived and dreamt of a humanity without caste, class and gender and a faith without rituals. He feels that recommending minority status to Lingayats inspired the community to support the Congress. He believes he would not have got 61,000 votes in Basava Kalyan if Lingayats had not blessed him. But it is a claim that is unverifiable.