“It is not a step to divide the community but a measure to unite the already subdivided sub-castes, followers of Lingayats,” said Shivamurthy Muruga Sharanaru.

Lingayat seer asks BJP to support Ktaka govts move to grant minority statusSiddaramaiah interacting with Lingayat leaders || Photograph Courtesy: PTI
news Politics Wednesday, March 28, 2018 - 13:39

The state government’s decision to recommend a separate religion tag for Lingayats followed by a subsequent decision according minority status to the community appears to have backed the opposition BJP into a corner ahead of the May 12 Assembly Elections.

A senior pontiff has now handed a formal memorandum to BJP national president Amit Shah asking the Centre to endorse the Congress government’s move after its leaders had earlier denounced the decision as an ‘election gimmick’.

The memorandum by Shivamurthy Muruga Sharanaru of Murugarajendra mutt in Chitradurga states that there is no controversy among followers of Lingayat and Lingayat-Veerashaiva faiths as reported earlier. “As you are well aware, a strong movement is going on in Karnataka by Lingayat and Veerashaiva Lingayat people pressing for minority status to the community. At the outset it appears that there is a controversy between Lingayat and Veerashaiva-Lingayat faith followers. It is a temporary outbreak of emotions of small groups in the followers of both faiths. It will not last long,” the memorandum states.

The seer added that the move to accord minority status will help unite the community. “The government of Karnataka has rightly recommended to the Central Backward Commission in this regard. Minority status to this religion will definitely deliver some benefits to the youth of this community individually and collectively. It is not a step to divide the community but a measure to unite the already subdivided sub-castes, followers of Lingayats, a religious group having a special tenets or culture on the lines of revolution of sharanas of 12th Century AD, Karnataka”, it adds.

In September 2017, the Murugarajendra mutt seer was among several seers who took part in a convention demanding separate religion rights for Lingayats. He is known for progressive and secular acts including ending caste-based practices and integrating women into the activities of the mutt. The seer, who has significant influence in Chitradurga, a region with a sizable population of people belonging to the Lingayat community, also has some following in Davanagere, Shivamogga, Chikkamagaluru, Haveri, Gadag Tumkur and Bengaluru.

 Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru of Murugarajendra mutt in Chitradurga

The memorandum from the influential seer comes after minor clashes broke out between a section of Lingayats and Veerashaivas in Kalburgi on March 19 when the state government announced its decision to recommend a separate religion tag for the community.

Lingayats, generally considered to be staunch supporters of the BJP form between 10% to 17% of the state population. They are followers of the 12th century poet-philosopher-social reformer Basaveshwara, who rebelled against established Hindu traditions by defying the caste system and vedic rituals.

In their bid for a separate religion status, Lingayats were eager to dissociate themselves from Veerashaivas, also a Shaivite religious tradition, whose followers adhere to the vedas.

Congress revives long-standing Lingayat demand

The community’s long-standing demand for separate religion status was revived in 2017 following a promise by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to look into the issue. Several rallies held during the year escalated the Lingayats demand for a separate religion. In December 2017, a seven-member expert committee was formed to study five separate demands, three of which were for a separate minority religion status for Lingayats. The expert committee’s recommendation of conferring separate religion status to Lingayats and Veerashaiva-Lingayats who followed the teachings of Basavanna, was accepted by the state government on March 19.

Lingayat rally in Belagavi

BJP leaders break silence over issue, questions Congress

Following the state government’s decision, the opposition BJP, which had maintained a studied silence on the topic until then, criticised the ruling Congress government and called it an example of ‘divisive politics’. "The BJP believes that Veerashaivas and Lingayats should come together in making the final decision. It does not believe in divisiveness within the community. For us, Veerashaivas and Lingayats are one and the same and they should come together and take a call. It is not for Siddaramaiah to take the decision," BJP leader Malavika Avinash told TNM then.

BJP’s Chief Ministerial candidate Yeddyurappa termed the decision an ‘election gimmick designed to mislead people’. “Siddaramaiah is dividing society on emotional issues. There is not just one Lingayat-Veerashaiva...The move to give religion tag to Lingayats is an election gimmick. It is an attempt to mislead people," Yeddyurappa said reacting to the government’s decision.

The BJP’s stance was further reiterated by its party president Amit Shah calling the decision as one made for electoral gains. “The Congress decision is a clear attempt to undermine BS Yeddyurappa,” Shah said on the second day of his tour in the Lingayat-dominant central Karnataka region. Shah also visited Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru at his mutt in Chitradurga and hailed his contribution in implementing developmental projects. 

But his comments on the Lingayat community's demands reflected the BJP’s uneasiness over the issue as it puts Yeddyurappa, BJP’s Lingayat strongman, in a catch-22 situation just before elections in Karnataka. Yeddyurappa himself had once signed a memorandum seeking minority religion status to Lingayats in 2013 but is now following the party line in denouncing the state government’s decision to according minority status and recommending separate religion status for the community.

A divided demand

While both Lingayats and Veerashaivas earlier stood united in their demand for separate religion status, negotiations between Lingayat and Veerashaiva leaders over presenting a joint proposal for separate religion status collapsed in 2017 after several rounds of talks. Eventually, the two communities sent separate proposals to the expert committee formed by the government to look into the issue.

The Lingayats’ demand for separate religion status was accepted by the committee and according to SM Jamdaar, a former IAS officer who spearheaded the Lingayat movement, the decision came down to historical documents produced by the Lingayat group, especially the 1871 Mysore census data that recognised Lingayats as a separate religion and made no mention of Veerashaivas. "We have been asking for the Veerashaiva faction to produce historical documents to back their claims, but neither did they do it when we were discussing a joint proposal nor are they doing it now," Jamdaar told TNM.

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