DARKNESS SWALLOWS THE last stretch of the 25-km road from Dharwad to Tadakod. Here, at a humble shrine to a yogi, 25-30 young men, armed with smartphones like stock characters from an art film, have gathered in a small room with an antique stairway. They are talking about yesterday’s tally—a hundred and fifty. “New recruits,” says 30-year-old Balesh Basavaraj Fakirappanavar, the leader of the pack. “Many of them are ex-RSS members. They call us the RBS, for Rashtriya Basava Sena. We are here to spread the ideas of Basavanna among the youth, to wean them away from the evils of Hinduism,” says the Dharwad taluk president of the fledgling outfit that claims to have enrolled tens of thousands of proselytes by charming them with the oratory of young leaders like Fakirappanavar. “I too used to be with the RSS. But in the past six months, I have read a lot about Basavanna and realised the Hindutva way directly contradicts what he stood for,” says Fakirappanavar. Tadakod, a village in north Karnataka with a population of 6,000, is predominantly Lingayat—an identity that the BJP and the Congress are each staking claim to ahead of the 2018 Assembly polls. Lingayats, who form 17 per cent of Karnataka’s population of over 60 million, are the single largest community in the state, holding sway over at least 100 of the 224 Assembly constituencies, especially in districts in north Karnataka, Bombay-Karnataka and Hyderabad-Karnataka. In the last election, the Congress got a mere 15 per cent of the Lingayat vote, but it hopes to tear off a bigger chunk this time around.
The turning wheel of Karnataka’s caste politics has come full circle, with the Congress, for the first time, openly backing the demand for a separate religion for Lingayats, who are followers of the 12th-century social reformer Basaveshwara. A large number of Lingayats culturally identify as Hindus, but only a section of them, the Veerashaivas, subscribes to Vedic ritualism. The chorus for Lingayatism as an identity distinct from that of the Hindus has been growing louder since mid-2017 with the birth of a movement—albeit highly politicised—aimed at renewing the community’s faith in Basava’s teachings. Enshrined in vachanas in Kannada authored by him and a retinue of progressive thinkers like Allama Prabhu, Akka Mahadevi and Siddarama who were part of a spiritual ‘parliament’ at Basavakalyan in Bidar, they envision a society without discrimination and eschew temple culture and idol worship. In a series of well-attended rallies—held in Bidar, Belgaum, Hubli, Bijapur and Latur in Maharashtra—over the past half year, public intellectuals, heads of progressive Lingayat maths, and leaders from the Congress including MB Patil, the Karnataka minister for water resources who represents Babaleshwar Assembly constituency from Bijapur district, and Vinay Kulkarni, minister for mines and geology and the MLA from Dharwad, hewed wood and drew water from vachana literature to argue for minority status for Lingayats, now classified as OBCs.
In a pileup of ironies, the Veerashaivas and the Lingayat Jangamas— originally, the 196,000 disciples of Basaveshwara responsible for spreading his philosophy, whose descendants got Sanskritised post-16th century—control most of the 1,000-plus Lingayat maths and identify as religious Hindus. The Siddaramaiah Government had said that it would back the demand for a separate religion—and forward the same to the Centre—if the community spoke in one voice. In December 2017, as the factionism within the community reached fever pitch and elections were drawing dangerously closer, the Karnataka State Minorities Commission formed a seven-member panel headed by retired High Court judge HN Nagamohan Das to evaluate the case. While Karnataka may manage to pass the buck to the Centre before the Assembly elections, there is little chance of the dream of minority status coming to fruition. Like the followers of Aurobindo Ashram, Ramana Maharishi and the Arya Samaj, the Lingayats may have to contend with being a sect in Hindu society.
“The Lingayat dream is a long-unfulfilled one,” says SM Jamdar, a former IAS officer and one of the driving forces behind the separatist movement. “From the 1940s, when Lingayats demanded nomination to the Constituent Assembly as a minority and reservation in jobs, we have been making similar demands, over and over. This is the first time the community has come together in a big way, thanks to the rallies,” Jamdar says.
Siddaramaiah may have endeared himself to the community by promising them special status, naming the women’s university in Bijapur after Akka Mahadevi, and adding Basaveshwara to the pantheon of heroes whose portraits adorn the walls of every government office, but the Congress strategy to divide the community, while rooted in Basava ideology, could backfire. “A separate identity for Lingayats is not as important as delinking the Kalasa Banduri diversion canal project (to provide 7.5 tmcft of water to the Malaprabha river) from the larger Mahadayi water sharing issue. Even as the farmers’ protests in Nargund, Gadag district, crossed 900 days, neither the BJP nor the Congress cared,” says 75-year-old Mallappa Gangappa Dodawad, a farmer from Madanbhavi in Dharwad district, a village frozen in time but for the groups of youth in Basavanna tshirts hanging out at every corner. Nearly all houses in the village have a bull or two in honour of Basaveshwara, who until recently was worshipped in the form of a bull—basava in Kannada. A faded portrait of Basaveshwara and an idol of Lakshmi, the family deity, occupy pride of place in Dodawad’s puja room. Hanuman, Shiva and other Hindu gods vie for space atop the entryway. “There is certainly more awareness about Basavanna’s teaching today than a year ago. But we cannot change overnight,” says Dodawad, who barely makes a profit growing cane, wheat, rice and millets on his 30 acres.
The Congress may not directly benefit from supporting the Lingayat demand. Lingayats seem to like Modi and may vote for him if not for Yeddyurappa, says Mallikarjuna Swami, head of the Murugha Math in Dharwad
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RELIGIONS DO NOT wait to be recognised by governments. To ask the state to play midwife and deliver the baby would be an absurd request were it not for the things at stake here. The lure of reservations in government jobs and the perks of getting minority status for the few thousand Lingayat-run educational institutions in the state are not lost on the BJP, which has maintained a studied silence over the issue. In a state that has had seven Lingayat chief ministers, the BJP candidate, Lingayat strongman BS Yeddyurappa, who set the precedent for allotting hundreds of crores from the state budget towards the development of maths, is still a major electoral force. In the 2013 Assembly polls, the BJP won just 40 seats, with 19.9 per cent of votes polled in the state, a few decimals lower than the percentage of votes polled by the JDS. The Congress’s tally of 122 came with a 36.6 per cent vote share and Yeddyurappa’s breakaway faction, the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), won six seats, with a 9.8 per cent share of all votes polled in the state, splitting the BJP vote in 29 constituencies. “Lingayats and Veerashaivas are one and the same. We are all Hindus,” says Jagadish Shettar, a senior Lingayat leader from the BJP camp, at his home in Hubli, his day packed with invites for Shivaratri celebrations at local temples and maths. “We have never had these differences. This so-called movement is purely political and it will die once the elections are over. Voters are smart enough to see through the Congress strategy,” he says.
The average Lingayat, in broadbrush terms, does not feel strongly about differentiating from mainstream Hinduism, says Arvind Bellad, the BJP MLA from Hubli-Dharwad West. “The differences between Lingayats and Hindus will always remain, like those between Catholics and Protestants. But culturally we are similar and we need each other,” says the star of BJP campaign posters dotting Hubli that claim credit for an IIT in Dharwad and for bringing kindergarten to government schools.
It is wrong to dismiss the issue as a purely political one, says Mallikarjuna Swami of Murugha Math, Dharwad, one of the most influential institutions in the region. “It is an ideological movement. In the past six months, a section of people has woken up to real Lingayatism and this is a positive change. We must change with the times; we must be forward-thinking like Basavanna.” The swami waits patiently in a large room with whimsical portraits of Lingayat sharanas. With a dry sense of humour, he says that politicians may take sides hoping to benefit from the struggle for a Lingayat identity, but they cannot use it to change the way people will vote. “The Congress may not directly benefit from supporting the Lingayat demand. Lingayats seem to like Modi—he is seen as a worker who gets things done—and may vote for him if not for Yeddyurappa,” he says. The math is celebrating the centenary of its nearly-free boarding facility for boys, which has helped generations get through college, the flash of white dhotis and red towels— the uniform for mealtimes and prayers—forever enshrined in their memory, like some of the vachanas of Basavanna. “Things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay,” he wrote in his most famous vachana. Whoever moves faster will win this war.
The Congress certainly seems to think so. Lingayat voters expect to see proactive wooing, not indolence, says Vinay Kulkarni. “If we fail to do something about the demand for minority status, we could take a hit in the elections,” he says. “The campaign has begun on a high with Rahul Gandhi’s exceptionally good speech at Hospet. He has visited Lingayat maths in the northern districts. Further rallies are planned in Mumbai-Karnataka. The Basava Sena is in full swing. We are organising linga diksha and other activities to create awareness among Lingayats. The spirit of spiritual revolution that Basavanna represented cannot be allowed to die,” Kulkarni says. Aside from an ageing Yeddyurappa, the BJP has no mass Lingayat leader, and this could hurt the party’s poll prospects, he says. “And he is not even from around here,” Kulkarni says, with a confident smile.
Much will depend on the Lingayat voter’s caprice, but the Congress and the BJP have become unwitting tools of a revolution, says Ramjan Darga, a former journalist and a scholar who has authored several books on Lingayat philosophy. The movement began fittingly from Bidar—the ground zero of Basava’s social revolution in the wake of virulent Shaivism and Brahminism during the reign of the Kalachuri king Bijjala. An inter-caste marriage between followers of Basava, who was also the prime minister, caught the attention of powerful Brahmins and thousands were killed in the backlash that ensued. Basaveshwara and the Sharanas were driven to exile, the king was killed and the scars of the turmoil in Basavakalyan set Lingayatism back by hundreds of years. “Until the 15th century, the Lingayats lay low. When the Vijayanagara kings gave them shelter, and Hindu swamis from Andhra set up maths in north Karnataka and offered to teach them Sanskrit, they embraced this newfound acceptance and tried to assimilate into Hindu society as high-born ‘Veerashaivas’. The term Lingayat came to denote a subaltern identity, whereas Veerashaiva had a nice ring to it. Even MM Kalburgi and other scholars used the terms interchangeably— although he corrected this in his later writings,” Darga says. As Virakta maths headed by Jangamas mushroomed post 15th century, Lingayats forgot the infelicities they had suffered at the hands of Brahmins and readily diluted the language and content of the next wave of vachana literature. Where a number of 12th-century vachanas, written by women and saints who came from the lower castes, had directly rejected the authority of the Vedas, the new literature was tame and philosophical. The 90-plus castes that Basaveshwara had spent his lifetime uniting under a single umbrella now poked their heads out in an ungainly dance.
“The vachanas that had been gathering moss are now uncovered, clearer than ever,” says Tontada Siddalinga Swami, head of the Tontadarya Math in Gadag, which has backed the Lingayat demand for a separate identity. “If you look at the few maths that support progressive thought, they are headed by educated people with post-graduate degrees,” he says. We meet at the Sindagi Math in Haveri—it is managed by the Tontadarya Math—where he is spending a couple of days celebrating the memory of his late uncle who headed the institution. “Like Gandhi’s Dandi march, this movement has begun in a haphazard way, but it will have a lasting impact on the Lingayat consciousness, whatever be the political impact,” says the seer, supervising preparations for a feast for 3,000 devotees. “The BJP’s silence and that of the other maths speaks volumes.”