A week after the Lingayat community’s long-time bid for the status of an independent religion got approved by the Karnataka Cabinet, the Lingayats continue to be in suspense over their future. They do not know if the move means job opportunities, reservation under the minority quota, and political empowerment. While Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah was in a hurry to make the announcement, Lingayats do not see any blueprint which will help them in their day-to-day lives. There is no assurance from the government on how this will be done or when. The big question bothering the Lingayats is if the the Siddaramaiah government’s move, coming weeks before the Assembly elections, is nothing more than a political gimmick, while playing with the sentiments of a large section of the community.

Political opponents of the Congress see this as a strategy by the Siddaramaiah government to divide and conquer. The Veerashaivas, who are a sub-sect of Hinduism, have been put under the umbrella of the Lingayats. The muted reaction of the tallest Veerashaiva leader, B.S. Yeddyurappa has added to the dilemma in the minds of many. After sporadic clashes hours after the Cabinet announcement, the community’s bigwigs have been analysing the pros and cons of the move, as the journey to this point, where the separate religion tag has been declared, has been long. However, the bid started to gather momentum only in 2017, when rallies in Bidar saw 100,000 people turning up to make the demand for “minority tag”.

The Siddaramaiah government put its entire machinery behind the bid. Bureaucrats, Cabinet colleagues, spiritual leaders and community leaders were egged on by the Chief Minister and his Cabinet colleagues to push through the agenda to divide Hindus.

Pressure still continues to be mounted from various sections. Voices from within the community are still vocal about the demand and expect the Bharatiya Janata Party to build a consensus on the issue. Defending the move, seer Mather Mahadevi of Basava Dharma Peetha said, “The term Lingayat cannot be attributed to any community or caste. This is an independent religion. Lingayat has become a part of Hindu religion due to the ignorance of people. Lingayat should be an independent religion.”

Basavaraj Dhannur, one of the strongest advocates of Lingayat religion, said, “We have demanded constitutional recognition as a religion. We have all the requirements to be recognised as a religion. The state government’s recommendation to the Centre has been delayed due to the lack of political will. Now, we hope there will not be any further hurdles. This is a 900-year-old philosophy, and researchers have provided proof to substantiate that Lingayat is a religion.”

The political influence of the Lingayats has the potential to swing results in nearly 100 seats in the 224-member Assembly, which could turn the tide during elections. Siddaramaiah’s move seems to have been timed accordingly.

Followers of 12th-century social reformer Basavanna, the Lingayats consider themselves out of the Hindu fold because of their belief in the formless version of the deity they pray to—Shiva—while Hindu belief bends towards idol worship. However, many in the community see through the political plot of Siddaramaiah. Santosh Deshmuk, a Lingayat businessman who suspects the intentions of the state government, said: “If Siddaramaiah was serious about it, he would have made the move earlier; now he wants our votes and nothing more. We understand that it’s not easy and the Centre has yet to give its approval. For centuries, we have lived in harmony; this move has raised doubts in people’s minds. The divide and rule agenda will not work.”

Even while being guarded in their opinion, state BJP leaders are awaiting the visit of party president Amit Shah, who is likely to take a decision on the stance that the BJP and the Centre are expected to take.

Union Minister Ananth Kumar criticised the move on Tuesday, saying that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had rejected a similar proposal in 2013. He said that any such move would cause the Scheduled Caste members of the group to lose reservation benefits. “Several demands were made in the past and even the Maharashtra government had sought a separate religion tag for the Veerashaiva-Lingayat sect. But the then UPA government in 2013 rejected it,” the Parliamentary Affairs Minister said.

Meanwhile, appearing on an English news channel, Amit Shah took strong objection, saying: “Considering caste equations before giving ticket to a candidate is one thing, but stoking casteist passions is another. The Congress in Karnataka is dividing people to reap political benefits just ahead of the Assembly polls.”

The technicalities that are involved in the formation of the separate Lingayat religion are still many and it may be a while before things move. While Siddaramaiah is getting ready to garner additional votes, BJP leaders are chalking out plans to approach the community to highlight the contributions of the senior Lingayat leaders like B.S. Yeddyurappa.

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