The Karnataka cabinet's decision to make 'Lingayat' a separate religion and ask for the central government's approval was a historic one, says SM Jamdaar, who spearheaded the Lingayat movement.
The former IAS officer and key community member of Lingayats has led the movement seeking separate religion status, and has brokered several discussions among community members. He has also been the public face of the movement, fronting several press conferences over the last few months.
The demand for a separate religion status for Lingayats is not new, according to Jamdaar. "It has been a long-standing demand of the community that dates as far back as 1942," he says. The decades-old demand resurfaced in 2017 after a promise made by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to look into the issue.
In fact, Jamdaar says that for over 700 years, Lingayats were a separate religion and the current agitation is simply seeking to restore the community to its former status. “Lingayats were classified as a separate religion up until the 1871 Mysuru census, and it was only in 1881 that Lingayats were classified as a caste under Hindu religion while Veerashaivas are not mentioned in it. There was no explanation given for this change," Jamdaar told TNM.
Lingayats 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 Veerashaaivas, a Shaivite religious tradition, whose followers adhere to the vedas. Lingayats, on the contrary, do not believe in rituals or vedas.
"It is a religion free from superstition, it is a religion based on scientific principles. It does not believe in all kinds of rituals," he said in an interview with Scroll.
He reiterated that Lingayat is a religion of democracy that did not differentiate between men and women. "Lingayat is a religion of democracy, a religion of science, it is a religion of modern man. You take any practice or principle, it stands for absolute equality among all human beings irrespective of caste, irrespective of religion or language. It stands for absolute equality between men and women," he told Scroll.
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. "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," an exasperated Jamdaar told TNM.
Eventually, both groups submitted separate proposals, which were studied by an expert committee formed by the government in December 2017. The committee recommended a ‘religious minority tag’ for Lingayats. It concluded that there is enough evidence to differentiate Lingayat religion from Hindu religion, and also added that Veerashaivas, who were followers of Basavanna, too can be part of the larger umbrella of ‘Lingayat religion’.
After Monday's cabinet decision, the ball is now in the central government's court to study the Lingayats' bid for separate religion status. It remains to be seen if the community will follow in the footsteps of Jainism and Buddhism in dissociating itself from Hindu religion.