This week, the Karnataka government granted Lingayats religious minority status. Lingayats have considered themselves a distinct religion from Hinduism for centuries. Critics have claimed that this move is purely “vote-bank” politics.
The Lingayat community is considered to have its roots in the “social reform movements” that emerged in the 12th century CE. The Lingayat movement was led by Basavanna, a religious reformer who is thought to be a follower of Shaivism. His followers came to be known as Lingayats. Since conception, Lingayats have subverted the caste hierarchy, rejecting traditional Brahmanical practices such as rebirth the concept of “pollution”. The religious group is prevalent in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, constituting approximately 17% of the state’s population.
Due to their separation from a number of traditionally Hindu practices, Lingayats have long called for recognition as a distinct religion. They view themselves as an autonomous religious and social group. Since Independence, there have been demands for legal recognition of the same.
Veerashaivas (heroes of Shiva) belong to a sect of Hinduism that worships Shiva. Lingayats and Veerashaivas are often considered to be the same community. However, Veerashaivas continue to follow traditional Hindu practices. Veerashaivas believe that Basavanna was a part of the Veerashaiva community, and that the Lingayat community is also similarly, part of the Veerashaiva community. Scholars note that there is significant overlap between Lingayats and Veerashaivas. Some groups demand separate religious status for Veerashaivas and Lingayats, and others for only Lingayats.
In addition to this, a large number of Lingayat texts are thought to have been lost, muddying historical waters. As a result, a large number of debates surround the Lingayat’s claim for a separate religion. Some observers have compared this movement to the Telengana movement for a separate state, which saw fruition in 2014.
On Monday (19th March), the Karnataka government announced that it would provide religious minority status to Lingayats.
Hours after the State Cabinet announcement, members of the Pejavara Sri Sene (PSS), who opposed the decision, and the Jagatika Lingayat Mahasabha (JLM), who supported it, reportedly clashed in the city of Kalaburagi.
Leader of the BJP opposition party, B.S Yeddyurappa gave what has been called a cautious response. “I demand that the Veerashaiva Mahasabha holds an emergency meeting and discusses the pluses and minuses of this decision,” he said. The Veerashaiva Mahasabha is a council compromising of pro-Hindu sects. The former chief minister believes that the Lingayats and Veerashaivas are the same. The Yeddyurappa-led BJP has stated that they would respect the Veerashaiva council’s decision. It has called Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s move a “huge political gamble”.
Some opposition leaders such as Union Minister Ananth Kumar have been more vocally critical, stating that the movement is “dividing” the state. Others, such as Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Arjun Ram Meghwal, have accused the ruling Congress government of “playing with fire for vote bank politics”. However, the media has noted that a large portion of the state remains “indifferent” to the decision.
On Tuesday, the Union Home Ministry stated that it will consider the Karnataka Government’s proposal once it is made. The central government had previously overturned the proposition for Lingayats to form a separate community.
"In November 2013, the Mohanmohan Singh government had decided that giving separate religion tag will split the society further and affect SCs professing Veerashaiva/Lingayat Dharma," Meghwal said. He noted that the group would lose their Scheduled caste status if they were designated a separate religion.
On Thursday (23rd March), the Karnataka government also gave Lingayats the status of a minority religion.
Our assessment is that Chief Minister Siddaramaiah may be attempting to mobilise a large vote bank in his favour. The Lingayat and Veerashaiva community traditionally veer in favour of the BJP. This move could thus give the Congress an edge over the BJP in a number of constituencies.