‘Hinduism’ not a monolith: Lingayat push will redefine south Indian politics

With Lingayats being recognised as its own religion, it forces us to think of how the idea of ‘Hinduism’ came into being and how politicians use this as a weapon.
‘Hinduism’ not a monolith: Lingayat push will redefine south Indian politics
‘Hinduism’ not a monolith: Lingayat push will redefine south Indian politics
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Few people, whether for or against it, would be able to contest that the Karnataka Cabinet's decision to make the category of Lingayat a separate religion and ask for the Central government's approval was a historic one.

Given that the Karnataka election is a little over a month away, it may be difficult to divorce how monumental this move is from its intended political impact. However, this decision has the possibility of giving the majority (Bahujan, to use Kanshi Ram’s term, and not Hindu) people of this country an opportunity to re-write history.

A few nights ago, the self-appointed commander-in-chief of the Indian national consciousness, Arnab Goswami, went on a prolonged rant about how this move was “dividing Hindus”. In an attempt to add a secular touch to it, he asked what would happen if people started dividing Muslims and Christians in a similar fashion. But anyone even slightly acquainted with the history of these faiths would know that their highest authorities are usually more than happy to renounce, shame and distance those whose faith may have even the slightest element of heterodoxy.

The reason that they can do this is simple: they are actually religions. Say what you will about sectarianism within the world’s major religions,  it cannot be denied a core creed, a central religious text that is read and respected by the entirety of its followers, and a few basic tenets. Wahabis and Shias, Anglicans and Catholics, Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhists may have their differences – but few could argue that their differences are of the same nature as those between Brahmins, Lingayats, and India’s 700+ tribal faiths.

What is Hinduism?

As Kancha Ilaiah evocatively writes in the opening lines of his seminal work Why I am not a Hindu: “I was not born a Hindu for the simple reason that my parents did not know they were Hindus. This does not mean I was born a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Sikh or a Parsee. My illiterate parents, who lived in a remote south Indian village, did not know that they belonged to any religion at all. People belong to a religion only when they know that they are part of the people who worship that God, when they go to those temples, and take part in the rituals and festivals of that religion. My parents had only one identity, and that was their caste: they were Kurumaas.”

What the Lingayat move has done effectively is to push us to seriously ask what exactly defines being a ‘Hindu’. Vedic rhetoricians have no doubt been skillful in their wordplay to suggest that it’s an abstract common set of ideologies of the people of the subcontinent, but it is, for all practical purposes, impossible to pin down even one single commonality. Some Hindus cremate their dead and some bury them; some revile menstruation and some worship the menstruating goddess, some regard animals as sacred while others consider animal sacrifice as central to their faith.

Hinduism could possibly be thought of as a collection of castes – but castes exist even among Muslims, Christians and Sikhs of the subcontinent.

A colonial census of British India broadly defined Hindu as a native of India, who isn’t of foreign descent, is a member of a recognised caste, “acknowledges the spiritual authority of Brahmans (the priestly class)” and doesn’t kill or harm kine.

This definition is so broad that it borders on the meaningless. In fact, the census superintendent of Madras in 1881 even objected to the use of word Hindus as a religious category for the population of southern India.

Even in 1911, the census commissioner of British India remarked, “In India the line of cleavage is social rather than religious, and tendency of the people themselves is to classify their neighbours, not according to their beliefs, but according to their social status and manner of living. No one is interested in what his neighbor believes, but he is very much interested in knowing whether he can eat with or take water from his hands”

A census can play a huge role in shaping society through categories and its definitions. To quote the scholar RB Bhagat, “Categories necessitate definition and definitions impose order. Once categories are chosen and definitions fixed, only then can counting begin. The definition adopted by a census gives numerical weight, so that defining is not merely a matter of providing labels but also adding statistical content to a category.”

In the evolution of the category of ‘Hindu’, there can be little doubt that a ‘Hindu’ is created only by the false category of ‘Hinduism’, and that without this bizarre category there can be no such thing as a ‘Hindu’ at all.

If Christianity and Islam were religions that spread by conversion and the sword, there can be little doubt that the political philosophy of Hinduism was created and sustained only by appropriation. Most people lumped as ‘Hindus’ may not even know they are ‘Hindus’, but the idea that this abstract majority is, in fact, a majority is central to maintain the Indian state’s regimes of colonial expropriation.

Reclaiming status

In the context of separate religion status being granted to Lingayats therefore, one of the heads of the movement, SM Jamdaar is not wrong to state that Lingayats are merely demanding a return to the status of being thought of separately as was the case before colonialism. The first real radical potential of this decision is this: That if Lingayats begin to question whether they are Hindus, so too would the numerous other disenfranchised groups and unrecognized religions that have been subsumed under this umbrella term.

The RSS and its byproducts are quite acutely aware of the fact that Hinduisim is less of a religion and more of a relatively recent political phenomenon. They are constantly committed to “uniting Hindus” because they are cognizant that such a flimsy category of grouping people would need constant reiteration to form a political mass. In fact, the only glue that holds it together is the fact that it is not Muslim, Christian, etc.

Which is why the bulk of the RSS discourse, ideas and mobilizations have to be about Muslims and Christians – in order to remind the remaining social groups who the ‘other’ is. It is precisely this reason that the Babri Masjid was destroyed, but a Ram Mandir could never be constructed – because while the enemy was defined clearly, the “self” remained as ambiguous as ever.

The politics of recognising the Lingayats

The point here is not to suggest that the Congress has taken this step for the Lingayats out of altruism. For starters, the Congress benefited and maintained this unnuanced categorization of religion for decades after Independence. Secondly, the Congress thrived electorally on and promoted the idea of religious binaries and divides in an attempt to turn a blind eye to the faultlines of caste.

It is no coincidence that they have, of all the communities that could make legitimate demands to not be categorized as Hindus, chosen to give Lingayats the special status so close to the Karnataka election. The Lingayat vote could offer them sweeping electoral returns, and the impetus and caste coalition required to secure a formidable stronghold ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But like many other decisions in the history of the Congress, this one too has the potential to set off something beyond the scope of their nationalist politics and quite out of their control.  

The Lingayat case should lay bare for all communities and castes, especially those in the south, that it is the Indian state, ultimately, which is the sole authority to recognize who is and isn’t a member of a religion; that it is purely a bureaucratic exercise which is responsible for both recognition and ‘othering’ of various belief systems. Its real radical potential lies in possibly laying the foundation for a new politics from south India.

Today, in all states of south India, there exists an increasing sense of resentment about our state in the Indian Union. Politicians like Stalin, Pawan Kalyan and Siddaramaiah have begun to increasingly articulate on federalism being a farce that has betrayed south Indian people and that there is an increasing need to rethink the nature of Centre-State relations.

Siddaramaiah may well be prescient in surmising that insulating south India from the advance of Hindi imperialists and Hindu fascists would only be possible through cutting off much of the Centre’s authority to interfere in or dictate local affairs. On a personal note, it seems impossible to me that a south Indian state would be able to keep Hindutva out permanently so long as it continues to nurture ‘national’ parties like the Congress. Whether Siddaramaiah’s move is just an election gimmick or could be used to build the foundation of a new politics remains to be seen.

A southern discourse

The fact of the matter is that southern states have long held within them an unarticulated language that our history and heritage go beyond the empty rhetoric of ‘unity in diversity’ and hollow categories of ‘Indian’ or ‘Hindu’. For the longest time, outsiders conflated these deeply held convictions with the ideology of Dravidianism – because the movement seemed to use the language of rationalism, anti-Vedic philosophy and anti-Hindi imperialism that, although rooted in Tamil society, resonated well beyond it. The critiques of Dravidian ideology from the south – its appropriation by certain dominant caste groups that used it to silence Dalit and tribal voices, its inability to build its politics beyond the Tamil diaspora, etc. – have left an intellectual and linguistic vacuum for us to talk about and think of building a new ‘south Indian’ politics.

A new south Indian discourse cannot and must not restrict itself simply to an economic argument. There can be no discounting the socio-cultural importance of building a non-Vedic, anti-Hindi imperialism discourse for south Indians in the way Dravidianism once did. Lingayats insisting that they refuse to be counted as Hindus gives us the impetus to try building this kind of regionally rooted, language-based, anti-caste politics once again.

Education in this country, to paraphrase James Baldwin, is indoctrination for the dominant and subjugation for the rest. The Lingayat case offers us a chance to try and re-write the history (and therefore the future) of south India, led from the front by marginalized sections of society.

We must all start to ask pertinent questions in the wake of this monumental case: if Lingayats are not Hindus, then which community of animists, pantheists, ancestor-worshippers, shamanic tribes or indigenous chieftain worshippers of south India could rightly be classified as Hindu? If Hinduism has spread by appropriation, then how and when did caste begin to enter south India as a mode of production? Does the Indian state aid and exacerbate the erasure of our identities and force us to start thinking in religious binaries through its census categories? Do the institutions of the Indian state, centred in Delhi, push us further into thinking that we could not manage our own affairs in their absence? If we were to chart out our own census, what categories would we create to better explain and understand power relations in our societies?

So far, our condition in the federation has given us much reason to complain. The great radical potential that lies at the heart of the Lingayat case is that it takes a step forward: it calls on us to think and to build, to educate, to organize and to agitate.

Pranav Kuttaiah is a writer and researcher from Karnataka, currently working at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. Views expressed are the author’s own.


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