Struggling for a new status

Print edition : September 15, 2017

Pontiffs and leaders of the Lingayat community at a massive rally in Belagavi on August 22. Photo: P.K. BADIGER

A section of the crowd at the Lingayat samavesha. Photo: P.K. BADIGER

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. The Congress needs much more than its traditional votes to win the next elections. Photo: k. Bhagya Prakash

B.S. Yeddyurappa, BJP's Karnataka president and a Lingayat strongman. Photo: P.V. SIVAKUMAR

The demand of Lingayats for a separate religious tag, delinked from the Veerashaiva Hindu faith, is shrouded in political intrigue. Even as Hindutva’s aggressive adherents find themselves in a dilemma, the Congress hopes to gain electorally from fuelling the demand.

THE numerically and politically strong Lingayat community of Karnataka has always had a paradoxical relationship with the Hindu faith, but its demand to be recognised as a separate religion, at a time when the State is scheduled for Assembly elections in months to come, has serious religious and political ramifications.

The community, which has a dominant presence in northern Karnataka, has been the trusted vote bank of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for about two decades. In fact, it has been the saffron party’s battering ram to make inroads into Karnataka in particular and southern India in general.

Lingayats have been assiduously wooed by Hindutva advocates, but for at least half a century now the community’s leaders have been persistent in their demand that it be recognised as a separate religion outside the Hindu fold. Herein lies a dilemma for the champions of Hindutva: how to maintain the community’s separate identity after aggressively homogenising it within a monolithic vision of what constitutes Hinduism.

The current controversy has its roots in the massive gathering of Lingayats on July 20 in Bidar town to demand legal status for their community as a separate religion. The rally assumed importance not just because of the numerical strength of the gathering and its timing but its insistence that Lingayats and Veerashaivas, together classified in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category and used synonymously for all administrative purposes, constitute different faiths. The protesters insisted that Lingayats, the “true followers” of the 12th-century social reformer Basaveshwara (Basavanna/Basava), constituted a separate religion, while Veerashaivas were no more than a sect of the Hindu Saivite faith.

Although there have always been doctrinal and cultural differences between Veerashaivas and Lingayats, never before has the community looked so visibly divided. For now, the all-consuming question is whether Lingayats/Veerashaivas can be considered as forming a separate religion or whether Lingayats alone deserve that tag.

With religious heads and their followers sharply divided on the question, the fighting factions, in broad strokes, are those who believe that Basavanna is the founder of Lingayatism, or Lingayata Dharma, and those who consider him as a man who reformed a pre-existing faith called Veerashaivism.

Reform and reaction

Lingayats argue that Veerashaivism, with its roots in the Vedas and Agamas, is not comparable to the revolutionary and egalitarian faith founded by Basavanna, rejecting caste hierarchy and Vedic rituals. The movement welcomed into its fold several artisan communities and people belonging to the lower castes, resulting in an unprecedented social and religious ferment. The large body of literature left behind by followers of this movement in spoken Kannada, called Vachanas, is testimony to this. “Barbers, actors, scholars, peasants, boatmen, washermen, cowherds, shepherds, sex workers and saints, a variety of people with different socio-economic backgrounds, have expressed themselves in these Vachanas, using their everyday experience to communicate their thoughts on religion, philosophy and society,” observes the Vachana scholar O.L. Nagabhushana Swamy in the preface to The Sign, an edited anthology of Vachanas in English translation. About 30 of the 130 Vachanakaras, whose works are available now, were women.

This radical movement (often called “Kalyana Kranti”) culminated in violence when Basaveshwara performed the marriage of a Brahmin girl with the son of a cobbler, breaching the Varnashrama principle.

Although they worship Siva, the followers of Basava argue that their idea of God, Parashiva who is formless, and religious prescriptions are distinctly non-Hindu. It is not surprising that Dalit and backward class movements in Karnataka found inspiration in this movement.

Veerashaivas, on the other hand, are largely followers of the Pancha Peethas (the five mutts, or Hindu religious bodies, located at Rambhapuri, Kashi, Kedar, Ujjain and Srisaila and headed by “panchacharyas”). Basava followers have strongly opposed some of the practices of this sect, such as adda pallakki utsava (devotees carrying seers in a palanquin). Although Pancha Peetha followers regard Veerashaivism to have existed before Basava’s time, they do not agree that Veerashaiva and Lingayat can be separate entities. This has obviously to do with fears that this would fragment their following and reduce their political and social clout.

What makes the distinction difficult in the present context is that, over time, the Lingayat faith has imbibed several of the varna practices and Vedic rituals. The period of political turmoil after the death of Basava and the later assassination of King Bijjala of the Kalachuri dynasty (where Basava served as a minister) is regarded as when these practices may have crept into the religion. The followers of Lingayatism were targeted by the followers of faiths that received royal patronage.

“The political turmoil, influence of Hindu Brahmin religion and social and economic pressure of the times may have forced Lingayata Dharma to accept various features of Hindu Brahmin religion. For example, Lingayats were involved in building of temples and worship of sthavara linga. They gave endowments and donations to Kalamukha Acharyas [of Saiva faith]. Lingayat poets praised Kalamukha Acharyas in their poems. The beliefs, rites and ceremonies that Basavanna had opposed were accepted and followed by Lingayats during this period,” says Hiremallur Ishwaran, an expert on the movement who served as Professor of Sociology at York University, Toronto,in his book Basavanna Hagu Lingayata Dharma (1997).

Dilemma of the faith

Political compulsions and social pressures have constantly reshaped the faith. Interestingly, the seers of the five mutts, who initially opposed any effort to break away from the Hindu faith, have increasingly shown a willingness to compromise on this issue to hold the flock together. Virasomeshwara Swami of the Rambhapuri Peetha, the first to oppose the demand of Lingayats for recognition as an independent religion, is now willing to support it on the condition that the nomenclature of the new religion be “Veerashaiva/Lingayat Dharma”. He said in various interviews that though he was personally opposed to the creation of a new religion, he changed his stance because of “pressure from the followers”.

There is a growing suspicion that the demand for a separate religious status is not motivated by a purely spiritual impulse. With Lingayat/Veerashaiva mutts running a slew of educational institutions, recognition as a minority religion will bring them several benefits. This lobby is said to be behind the demand. Some of the Lingayat mutts, which were known to be egalitarian in spirit as opposed to Brahminical institutions, now have overt political allegiances. B.S. Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s State president, doled out large sums of public money to some of these mutts in successive budgets when he was Chief Minister.

Yeddyurappa’s own position and that of his party in the debate has been a curious one. Predictably, his first response was to oppose any attempt to break away from the Hindu fold. But his later remarks have been mellow, restricted to blaming the Congress for engineering a split in the community and making a “poll gimmick” of the issue. He said the issue ought to be resolved by religious heads through consensus. What has embarrassed Yeddyurappa considerably is his attestation of the very same demand in 2013 when the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha presented it to the Centre. The Mahasabha has, since the 1940s, made appeals for separate religious status for “Lingayat/Veerashaiva”.

The Mahasabha, headed by Shamanur Shivashankarappa of the Congress, has now appealed for a “united fight” by sinking all doctrinal divisions. Significantly, BJP leaders within the community admit, on condition of anonymity, that the party high command has sent a strong directive not to issue any statements on the subject for now. The party’s national president Amit Shah, during his recent three-day visit to Bengaluru, refused to engage with the question and dismissed it as an issue “that will not last long”.

Congress’ new strategy

There is no doubt that the Congress is hoping to gain electorally from fuelling the demand for a separate religious tag. Perhaps the Congress hopes that a split in the Lingayat/Veerashaiva group, which constitutes about 17 per cent of the population and is the BJP’s support base, will help it. The party and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah have realised that they need more than their traditional Ahinda (Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalit) votes to win the next elections. It is no coincidence that Siddaramaiah recently made displaying of Basaveshwara’s portraits mandatory in all government offices. In fact, the first appeal to him to support the community’s demand for separate religious identity came at a function organised by the Mahasabha to thank him for this gesture.

As the political analyst Sandeep Shastri puts it, the Congress is attempting an “Ahinda-plus” experiment by egging this agitation on, but warns that this could be a treacherous path. There is no clarity yet on which section of the “socially conservative community that has rarely allowed divisions” is really behind this demand. While several religious heads in north and central Karnataka are vocal in their support for this cause, the powerful mutts in southern Karnataka have been conspicuous by their silence.

“The Congress is throwing a pebble and watching how far it can go,” said Shastri. The State Congress has not had a tall leader from the community since Veerendra Patil, who was removed from the post unceremoniously in 1990. “The Congress has not been able to recover the community’s votes or project a Lingayat leader with pan-Karnataka acceptance since then,” he said.

A split in the Lingayat/Veerashaiva votes could pay electoral dividends to the Congress. In fact, the BJP’s defeat in 2013 is attributed to Lingayat votes being divided between the BJP and Yeddyurappa’s breakaway Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP). With Yeddyurappa back in the BJP, the Congress needed a new strategy. But the Congress seems to be aware of the risks involved in being seen as deliberately breaking the community for electoral benefits. There is no guarantee that the demand and the agitation will pick up steam and be sustained.

This perhaps explains why the party’s initial enthusiasm appears to have waned. While five Lingayat members of the Siddaramiah Cabinet had announced their decision to go on a tour of the State to gather the opinion of seers and leaders of the community, only two have set out on this mission, with the rest not sure about their stand on the nomenclature issue. Choosing his words carefully, the Chief Minister said he would forward the demand to the Centre if representatives of the community submitted a proposal burying their differences. “Later, the government will examine it from the legal and constitutional point of view,” he said, suggesting that the party may want to keep the issue simmering.

After the rally in Bidar, there was an equally large mobilisation of Lingayats in the border town of Belagavi on August 22, with an estimated two lakh persons participating in the event. In speech after speech, political leaders and mutt heads took on the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat for his advice that the community drop the demand for a separate religious status in order to “strengthen” Hinduism. They asked him not to “meddle in [the affairs of] other faiths”. Not surprisingly, no BJP leader participated in this rally. Similar rallies have been planned in Maharashtra.

Political ramifications apart, the point raised by Siddaramaiah on the legality of declaring a “new religion” could eventually become crucial, considering that similar efforts in the past have not gone very far.

In 1990, the Mahasabha approached the Karnataka High Court seeking a separate code for the Veerashaiva/Lingayat community in the Census. The High Court dismissed the petition on the grounds that Census instructions to the enumerators allowed all religions to be recorded faithfully as reported by the respondents. Thus, all religions had a fair and equal opportunity to be recorded during the Census and provision of a code was only an administrative convenience, the court said. Again, in 2013, the Mahasabha submitted a memorandum to the Union Home Minister seeking a separate code number/column/abbreviation for recording the religion of Veerashaiva/Lingayata in the Census Form and recognition for it as an independent religion. The Minister forwarded the memorandum to the Registrar General of India for consideration. In her reply, the Assistant Registrar General of India, Pratibha Kumari, cited the 1990 court order, Census reports and works of British writers to reject the plea.

Pratibha Kumari cited Census reports of pre-Independence India (1891, 1901, 1911 and 1931) in which the community was recorded as “caste Hindu”. She went on to argue that standard ethnographic literature also substantiated the fact that Lingayat/Veerashaiva was a sect evolved from Hinduism, which rejected the traditional temple cult dominated by Brahmin priests. “As described by C.B. Brown [in an essay on the creed, custom and literature of the Jangamas in Madras Journal Literature of Science, January 1840, page 53), Lingayats are anti-Brahminical worshippers of Siva known as Virshaiv or Lingadharis who are easily recognised by their wearing small idol either hung on the chest or bound on the arm. They are disciples of Basava, whom they regard as a form of God Siva. They pray to the images they wear, which they salute as Basava. They are widely spread throughout south India,” she said in the reply.

While giving reasons for rejecting the proposal, Pratibha Kumari quoted Edgar Thurstone and K. Rangachari’s Castes and Tribes of Southern India in which Lingayats were described as “a peaceable race of Hindu Puritans”. She inferred, on the basis of these documents, that Veerashaiva/Lingayat was a Hindu sect, not an independent religion.

However, those at the forefront of the current agitation say that the problem earlier was with nomenclature. “Lingayat and Veerashaiva are different. Lingayat is an independent religion founded by Basavanna and we should stake our claim with that nomenclature,” Sri Siddhalinga Swami of the Tontadarya mutt of Gadag said. Seers of several Virakta mutts (established after Basavanna, unlike the Pancha Peethas) share the opinion that it is crucial to establish this distinction.

“If we approach the same authorities with the same nomenclature, their reply will remain the same,” Sanjay Makal, president of the Vishwa Lingayat Mahasabha, said. He has been collecting citations from Vachanas, records of earlier court observations, precolonial historical documents and postcolonial scholarly works to substantiate this claim. For instance, he said the Chief Census Officer of the Bombay Province under British rule, Reginald Edward Enthoven, had in his “Essay on Organisation of Lingayats; Little Lingayat Religion” explained how Lingayats were different from Hindus. Many Vachana scholars, including M.M. Kalburgi, who was shot dead in 2015, had consistently argued that Lingayatism is a distinct faith, often incurring the wrath of orthodoxy.

These issues are widely debated in meetings conducted at religious mutts and other venues to garner support for the demand for a separate religion. If sources are to be believed, there is increasing polarisation rather than consensus on the issue.

If a consensus is reached and the issue moves to the next logical level, how will the Indian legal system look at a set of people seeking recognition as a new religion, breaking away from Hinduism?

Constitutional expert and former advocate general Ravivarma Kumar said that while the Centre or States had no role in the formation or bifurcation of a religion, nothing could stop an individual or a group from forming or propagating a religion. The Indian Constitution gives every person the right to freely “profess, practise and propagate” any religion of his or her choice. “In exercise of this right, a person can embrace any religion. The Central government’s role is limited to recognising or not recognising it as a minority religion,” he said.

The Centre can do so under two laws, the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992, and the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions Act, 2004. Ravivarma Kumar pointed out that though some provisions of law, such as the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, were applicable to Jains and Buddhists, these religious groups were regarded as minority religions. He admitted that there were no specific provisions in the Constitution for recognising a new religion. “But where is the bar on it?” he asked.

While mass mobilisation and constitutional issues form one aspect of the debate, some scholars call for greater intellectual clarity and introspection before taking up the demand legally. K. Marulasiddappa, scholar and Kannada writer, has no doubt that Lingayatism is in its essence a separate religion. However, he is suspicious of the ongoing agitation and underlines the need for greater “cultural and religious clarity” as the first step. Tracing the history of Lingayatism, he said the basic ideological framework of the 12th century movement had been consistently diluted since the 14th century.

“In its present form, the Lingayat faith is hard to distinguish from the dominant Hindu faith. This is because the Hindu Saivite elements that began entering the faith in the post-Basava period have grown strong to a point that the egalitarian spirit now stands completely diluted,” Marulasiddappa said. Even the caste hierarchy, which was anathema to Basavanna, is an entrenched practice in the community.

The ongoing agitation has turned into “Congress versus BJP politics”, with the former keen to break the BJP “vote bank” and the latter striving to preserve it as part of the Hindutva bloc. Marulasiddappa believes that there is little meaning in the current mobilisation if there is not even an effort to recover the ideal of a classless and casteless society that Basavanna and his fellow Vachanakaras dreamt of. “The calculation now is entirely on reservation and other benefits of being recognised as a minority religion. This is tragic,” he said.

As things stand today, there is no predicting the direction in which the renewed fight for the status of a separate religion for Lingayats will head on the social, religious, political and legal fronts.

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