Religion & power politics

Lingayat Minority

By Dr S.Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
BJP President Amit Shah’s categorical announcement that his party will not support a minority religious tag to the Lingayats in Karnataka is in sharp contrast to the Congress bid to accord this covetous status to this community. He was speaking at a gathering of over 100 Lingayat pontiffs of Veerasaiva mutts. Since the date of the State Assembly election has already been announced, the grant of minority status is out of question at present. Still, nothing prevents keeping alive the issue for canvassing votes.
The message is meant more to the Congress party that has picked up this issue to break solid Lingayat support to the BJP, built around the leadership of former BJP Chief Minister Yedayurappa, than to the community concerned. Karnataka’s Congress Government had already decided to grant minority status to the Lingayat and Veerasaiva-Lingayat community as a non-Hindu religion.
On his part, Congress President met the senior pontiff to confirm his support for the proposal of the State government. Following this, a meeting of 30 Lingayat seers resolved to support “those who supported the community’s demand for separate religious status — a quid pro quo. However, they have prudentially not shut the doors for BJP and want to meet the Prime Minister to press their demand.
It is sheer election strategy of the Congress under the present leadership to alter its stand on this decades-old issue. Recall, hardly four years back, in 2013, UPA-II turned down a proposal from the All India Veerasaiva Mahasabha to grant minority status to this community.
Each nation-State has its own definition of “minority” and evolves specific relation between it and others. It centres basically around cultural and religious rights in order to eliminate discriminations. Situations vary from nation to nation and so also the definitions.
Multiculturalism refers to linguistic differences and peculiarities in Switzerland and Belgium; regional characteristics are politically recognized in Spain and Italy. In USA, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries, multiculturalism is mainly a by-product of immigration as migrants moving for economic progress tend to settle permanently. In entire Europe, presence of “minorities” is an accepted factor in politics giving rise to questions of representation, participation, recognition and equal rights.
Eminent Sociologist Louis Wirth, defined a minority group as a “group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment and who, therefore, regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination”.
The term “minority” in India is applied to religious groups as well as to social divisions and used in power politics. In fact, minority status is losing its cultural significance and is acquiring political meaning. Indian ethos readily accepts diversities in social life and allows social divisions to grow and multiply which may indeed be puzzling to outsiders. Separate sects, sub-sects, and denominations have emerged within religions; new castes, sub-castes, and sub-divisions have appeared in thousands; and languages have given rise to different dialects. Each one of these can and several of them do claim distinct individual characteristics and nurse a desire to get recognised as a separate group. When this desire extends to politics and public life, it plays minority politics.
Divisive politics is let loose in the country particularly in States going to polls shortly as a strategy of creating vote banks with the intention of securing block votes. Lingayats have currently entered the centre stage of political fight in Karnataka, though their social role started in pre-independence era in the Princely State of Mysore. They are said to be part of Veerasaiva sect founded by five great teachers believed to have sprung from the five faces of the Hindu God Siva. Veerasaivism acknowledges Siva as the Supreme God.
Lingayatism rose in the 12th century under Basava who was revered as a mass prophet. Its core principle is monotheism. It shares many beliefs of Hindu religious practices, but rejects the authority of Vedas, core doctrines like Karma and rebirth, and principal social institution like the caste system. It has been recognised as a Hindu sect and a creation of a heterodox movement.
Paradoxically, Lingayats, who have been claiming to form a distinct non-Hindu religion, wear “Linga” on their body, the symbol of Siva cult. They evolved their own rituals distinct from those of orthodox Hindus and composed extensive vachanas in Kannada, the language of the masses and not the holy Sanskrit language. They have their own priests, theology and ritual life and reject temple worship.
Religions and sects do not need political recognition. Lingayats present a strong support base for the BJP in Karnataka. They constitute the biggest community numbering about 17% of the State population and presently include a strong contingent of former BJP Chief Minister. All Chief Ministers of Karnataka during 1956-71 and several others belonged to Lingayat sect.
Numerical strength combined with upper caste status, economic power as land owners, successful industrialists, traders and businessmen, and well developed network of religious institutions under the control of denominational mutts has helped Lingayats to get easy entry into democratic politics.
Protection of interests of minorities is part of the Fundamental Rights under the Indian Constitution. However, the term “minority” is not defined in the statute. Article 29(1) says that, “Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script, or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same”. All religious and linguistic minorities have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice. Any discrimination on grounds only of race, religion, language, or caste in admission to educational institution or for State funds is prohibited.
The Government of India has notified Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians as minorities and added Jains recently to the list. The National Commission for Minorities was set up in 1992 as a statutory body adhering to the UN Declaration of 18th December 1992, which makes it mandatory for States to protect the existence of national or ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic identity of minorities within their territories and encourage conditions for promotion of that identity.
In 2006, a 15-point programme for the welfare of minorities was adopted which included enhancing opportunities for education, ensuring equitable share of economic activities and employment, appropriate share in infrastructure development schemes, credit support for self-employment, and recruitment to Central and State government jobs. Minority status would entitle the Lingayat community to the benefits under the Ministry and also to financial aid for running its mutts and educational institutions.
Indian politics favours extension of minority protection from culture to politics and administration. The Non-Brahmin Movement in Madras presidency claiming to speak on behalf of a numerical majority of 97% of the population gave a novel theory of a numerically dominant minority and introduced the politics of minorities which successfully pushed the ideal of redistribution as social justice.
From separate religious identity, Lingayats will climb to the next step of minority status. In the multicultural Indian society, this process will never end. –INFA