‘The clash between Lingayats and Veerasaivas is bound to aggravate. The rivalry between the mathas representing these sections is also likely to intensify, but the present divide is unlikely to last long.’


Dr S. Settar, Emeritus Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru, is an authority on the subject of the Lingayat movement. He replied to questions sent to him over email on the Lingayats and Congress’ decision to declare the Lingayats as belonging to a separate religion ahead of the Karnataka Assembly elections.

Q: What are the socio-cultural roots of the “separatist”, if that word can be used, tendency of the Lingayat movement? How can a sect of Hinduism demand the status of a separate religion?

A: The contention is that Lingayatism is not a sect of Hinduism. True, the Lingayats worship Shiva, but only in the aniconic form, and observe some Hindu festivals, but only to share the general social ethos. They do not follow the Brahminical ritual of worship, but meditate with concentrated attention on the linga, placing it in the centre of the left palm and holding it at the eye level. They do not believe in temple worship. “Only the haves (wealthy) build temples for Shiva, not me, a poor being”, says Basava. “My legs are the pillars, my body the sanctum, my head the spire of gold”, he asserts. The Lingayats believe in one God, not a multitude of them cluttering every inch of space on earth, sparing not a few inches “even to rest a foot”.

The main differences between Lingayatism and Hinduism (both Vedic and Puranic) are: non-acceptance of the Vedic authority, non-belief in karma and rebirth, non-belief in heaven and hell, by the first. Those “accepted Here are also accepted There”, states a Vachana of Basava. As important as these is their rejection of the Varna hierarchy. They recognise gender equality, question the relevance of the yajnas and such other rituals, and do not entertain the notion of pollution (at birth, death, and menstruation).

The demand for a separate religious identity, and through that, a minority status, is almost a century old. It goes back to even earlier than the National Commission for Minorities recognised Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis as minorities, in 1992. It was voiced throughout the 19th century by scholars as well as institutions in Karnataka. On the eve of the 1930 census, a vigorous campaign had been conducted urging all Lingayats to register their names (like the Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and such others) as Lingayats, not as Hindus. The Veerasaiva Mahasabha, then the voice of the entire community, had reiterated this stand in several of its annual sessions (1940, 1973, 1981, for example), as well as outside of it. When the Jains were accorded minority status in 2013, and the Lingayat claim made at the time was set aside by the UPA government, there was wide-spread disappointment. The present Veerasaiva Mahasabha believes that the matter is still pending before the Centre, but most are convinced that it has been rejected.

Q: How widespread is the demand for separate religion among the Lingayat community?

A: The history of the community shows that achieving minority status has been its major concern for over a century, and the entire community was united on this issue. However, on the separate religious status, there have been some hiccups. A section of the community, which prefers to identify itself as Veerasaiva, led by the heads of five mathas (Panchapithas), has been refusing to make clear its stand on this issue. Notwithstanding this, the entire community had so far maintained one Mahasabha, and had voiced all its demands through this Sabha. The situation has changed now. The Lingayats (under a large number of Viraktamathas or celibate monasteries) are now urging the Veerasaivas (under the Panchapeetha) to clarify their stand on the religious status. For unless this is done, they argue, the community’s plea for minority status would carry no weight. Did not Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, and recently the Jains, gain minority status, proving they are different from Hindus?

The Veerasaivas seem to nurture some leanings toward Brahminism. They believe that Veerasaivism goes back to the pre-Basava days (12th century), and the founder of their sect was a mythical figure, named Ranukacharya. They do not disown Basava, but regard him only a prominent leader, not the founder of this religion.

On the 23 March, the Karnataka government, headed by a Congress Chief Minister, issued a notification approving its Cabinet decision to recommend to the Centre that the “Lingayats and the Veerasaiva-Lingayat who believe in Basava ideology” be granted minority status under Section 2C of the National Minorities Act 1992. The latter part of the phrase—“who believe in Basava’s ideology”—has infuriated the heads of the Panchamathas and their followers, and they have come out openly to accuse the Congress government of hatching a plan to divide the community. The Jagatika Lingayat Mahasabha, now voicing the Lingayat cause exclusively, has disowned the Veerasaiva Mahasabha as the mouthpiece of the entire community.

The schism is open for the first time in the history of this religion, and future developments alone would show the relative strength of the divided parties. The Panchapeethas are influential in parts of South Karnataka, and their opposition to the Congress government is made very clear, but would the BJP tie with them exclusively and alienate the larger Lingayat community? The BJP has a choice to fall back on the Panchamatha-Veerasaivas and alienate the Lingayats, or remain non-committal till the election is over. The Congress party is bound to encash in on the Lingayat support, in the meantime.

Q: To what extent is the prospect of reservation, especially in schools and colleges run by the Lingayats, driving the demand for the minority status? After all, once declared as a minority institute they stay outside the purview of the RTE Act and get special benefits. Apparently, Lingayats control 1/3 of educational institutes in the state. So the numbers are enormous.

A: The Lingayats, no doubt, own and run a substantial percentage of educational institutions in the state and are bound to derive more benefits from minority status. Whatever benefits are enjoyed by other minority communities will also be enjoyed by them. Why not, they ask, unravelling the immense sacrifice that this community has made in the last hundred odd years in strengthening this sector even in the remotest corners of the state, especially by opening free feeding houses (dasoha centres) for which the Lingayat mathas and institutes are famous. This is done with no discrimination of caste and creed. Their argument is that they have a better track record of running educational institutes, fairly and efficiently, than any other minority communities in the state. Were they not the first to vie with the Christian missionaries, as early as the 19th century, and excel them both in number and standard?

Q: How does this demand affect inter-community relations, especially since we are already seeing clashes between the Lingayats and Veerasaivas breaking out?

A: Unpredictable. The clash between Lingayats and Veerasaivas is bound to aggravate, at least in the immediate future. The rivalry between the mathas representing these sections is also likely to intensify, but the present divide is unlikely to last long. If the Lingayats return to Basava’s basic philosophy, and begin practising his social principles, better bridge may be built between the presently divided communities. The newly emergent educated class is unlikely to be affected by any of these differences, for them religion is only marginal, and also for the vast majority of the rural mass, with its intelligent innocence, is likely to continue as hitherto, holding on to their rustic common sense of what is religion.

But the minority status, if granted to the Lingayats, is bound to encourage other communities to explore reasons for seeking similar status. This will not be confined to one state, but will spread across the entire country, for there are many justifiable grounds for many minority groups in the states and in the country to make similar claims. Since the reservation warranty has crossed the original Constitutional definition, though for justifiable reasons, those who feel that they have little hope of sharing the benefits, are bound to seek means to circumvent this way or the other. One way is by claiming a place in the list of Schedule Classes and increase it volume; another way is by ascertaining their minority position. Together, they are bound to shake the very basis of the Constitution framers’ reservation intent. This requires a larger debate.

Q: How do you explain the paradox of the Lingayats, who want to leave Hinduism, apparently being a “vote-bank” of BJP, an overtly Hindu party?

A: The Lingayats do not constitute the vote bank of any particular party, any more, and despite their substantial numbers, their votes alone would not decide a government. They are no doubt powerful and spread across the state: this is both an advantage and a disadvantage for them. But their leaders have to depend as much on the minorities and Scheduled Classes as they have to on their own community. Being politically more conscious now than ever before, there will not be one Lingayat contestant in any constituency from now on, and this is bound to make him play his caste cards more carefully. True that BJP would not like to alienate either the Lingayats or the Veerasaivas, but can it achieve that without defining its stand on Basava, as has been done by the Congress party, by ordering Basava’s portraits to be demonstrated in all government offices, generously funding for the development of the sacred centre with which Basava was associated, and, now sponsoring the cause of the Lingayats who identify themselves with the ideology of Basava? In any case, Lingayats have more than political reasons to claim their difference from Hindus.

Q: How much of the BJP vote is likely to be affected with the Congress recent announcement? Is counter polarisation inevitable in such a situation and how does that affect Congress? Where does that leave JDS?

A: This is already explained in detail. The party equations and personality equations are likely to play a greater role than religious equations. All these would add up to nothing compared to the role of money power. All communities and sects are vulnerable to bribes, brandy, and questionable bounties; so also this community!

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