Stirring up a saint

The Lingayat issue in poll-bound Karnataka is a layered phenomenon

By Uddalak Mukherjee
  • Published 25.04.18

These days, it is not uncommon to see the photograph of a smiling Rahul Dravid on the streets of Bangalore. The former cricketer has been drafted in as an icon by the Election Commission to encourage Kannadigas to come out and vote for the assembly elections on May 12. Unlike Dravid's countenance, the ground realities seem to be grim; for a bitter poll season has dawned upon Karnataka. The fractious exchanges between the ruling Congress and its principal challenger, the Bharatiya Janata Party, are testimony to the high stakes. If the Congress were to retain Karnataka, its success, the party believes, could enthuse the Opposition to offer a stiffer challenge to the BJP at the national level in the general election of 2019. For the BJP, Karnataka remains the jewel on a rather barren southern crown. The party is desperate to replicate its performance of 2008 when it formed its first-ever government south of the Vindhyas - in Karnataka. Both parties are thus pulling out all stops to succeed at the hustings; so much so that even a 12th-century saint - Basavanna or Basava - has been resurrected to stir the electoral pot.

In March this year, the state government led by the Congress chief minister, P.C. Siddaramaiah, recognized the Lingayats - they form 17 per cent of Karnataka's population and decide the fate of around 100 of the 224 seats in the fray- as a separate minority religion after endorsing the recommendation of the Nagamohan committee. The proposal has been sent to the Centre for approval. Siddaramaiah's gamble is obvious: in North Karnataka - the Lingayat heartland - the Congress had won 33 of the 50 seats in the elections of 2013. If the Congress were to replicate its success in this region, as it hopes to do with the help of the concession announced for the Lingayats, the scales could be tilted in its favour.

However, it would be limiting to examine the Lingayat demand for a separate religious identity through the political prism only. The demand is a manifestation of an older, intense contest between the spirit of reformism and the spectre of orthodoxy represented, respectively, by the contrasting philosophies of Lingayatism and Veerashaivism. The latent differences between the two sects have been given a political colour, but not for the first time. Significantly, the note passed by the state cabinet reportedly conflated the identity of the Lingayats and the Veerashaivas even though the Lingayat-Veerashaiva binary is informed by animosity. To understand the source of this acrimony, one must return to the legacy of Basavanna. Some of the fundamental tenets of Lingayat philosophy are premised upon Basavanna's unambiguous rejection of key Vedic principles - polytheism, casteism, gender discrimination and so on. Many Lingayat leaders argue, not without evidence, that Veerashaivism was, in fact, a reactionary retaliation by the entrenched Brahmanical constituency that sought to incorporate Basavanna's reformist agenda into the Hindu fold. It is instructive to note that some of the luminaries leading the Lingayat movement - public intellectuals, poets, former bureaucrats - are equally insistent on re-examining what they claim to be anomalies in India's legal framework. Their demand cannot be dismissed easily. Notwithstanding their pronounced differences with the Vedic tradition, considered to be the fountainhead of Hinduism, the Lingayat community is explicitly perceived as Hindu in the eyes of the law.

The plot thickens further from here. In recent years, Karnataka's Lingayats have extended their support to the BJP. A contradiction is palpable in this context. Hindu nationalism - the BJP epitomizes the political aspirations of this line of thought - staunchly endorses the Vedic code of ethics, a set of values that directly challenges Basavanna's secular doctrine. Political imperatives led to an ideological compromise between the Lingayats and the BJP. In 1990, Rajiv Gandhi had pulled the rug from under the then Lingayat chief minister, Veerendra Patil, kindling the process that led to the distancing of the Lingayats from the Congress. There is another - illuminating - inference to explain the Congress's alienation from the community. Devaraj Urs, two-time chief minister and an Indira Gandhi loyalist, had been instrumental in forging a larger solidarity among the backward classes, Dalits, Muslims and influential castes - a kind of a rainbow confederation akin to the Congress's conception of KHAM in Gujarat - to break the Lingayat stranglehold on power in Karnataka. Eventually, a vacuum would be created in the Lingayat leadership, enabling B.S. Yeddyurappa, the BJP's chief ministerial candidate, to claim that his party best represents the interests of the community, thereby cementing a bond between two disparate ideological forces.

The history of the alignment of conflicting ideological forces for expressly political purposes must be cited as one of the decisive factors that have engineered the slow, but unmistakable, shift of India's political discourse towards ultra-nationalism. For the Hindutva project, such political affiliations serve as opportune platforms to not assimilate but co-opt distinct, dissenting and inclusive philosophies into the 'Hindu fold'. The sangh parivar's scrambling to appropriate and, eventually, communalize mythical figures and revered icons is not to be trivialized. In Uttar Pradesh, where a yogi reigns, the BJP-RSS confederacy first usurped and then twisted the legacy of Suheldev for public consumption. The dividends were two-fold. First, it enabled the party to mobilize the support of the Rajbhar community with the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party playing the role of the proverbial mid-wife. Second, the fledgling political union bolstered the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's attempts to project Suheldev as a Hindu king resisting a Muslim adversary. In Karnataka, the ideological battle seems to have been reversed. The restive Lingayats are now demonstrating an unmistakable energy to reclaim a symbol of fusion from the Hindutva pit.

Another discernible feature of the Lingayat movement is the convergence of ideological and economic imperatives. While the older, scholarly leaders of the community appear to be more worried about the subversion of Basavanna's philosophy, the younger lot - they are the foot soldiers of the campaign - are undoubtedly eyeing the benefits associated with minority status. While recognizing the utilitarian motive of a segment of the Lingayats, it must be said that there is reason for India's liberal fraternity and its political forces to honour indigenous communities and their localized but syncretic traditions as political capital to check the march of majoritarianism in a modern republic.

Basavanna's resurrection must be sustained because its importance transcends narrow political considerations. The saint, a bulwark against discrimination in his time, remains as relevant to New India as he was to the old.