The slippery path of cultural politics

Those familiar with Veerashaiva vs Lingayat controversy would recall that the issue is not new in Karnataka. It started with a movement that took birth in the 12th century as a religious reformation

Photo courtesy: YouTube
Photo courtesy: YouTube

Dr Harish Ramaswamy

Karnataka, once held in high regard for its value-based politics, seems to be losing its luster of late. The current trend in state politics involves, for the most part, abandoning the secularity that comes with intellectual and ideological choices in favour of making culturally propitious ones. This marks an era of post-secular politics of the state’s ruling Congress party, giving them an edge over the opposition – at least for the time being. Recent issues that prompted the party to take a stand against the imposition of Hindi, their demand for a state flag and their response to the Veerashiava vs Lingayat debate are all classic examples of this.

The Veerashiva vs Lingayat debate is not new

Those familiar with the Veerashaiva v Lingayat controversy would recall that the issue itself is not new in Karnataka. It started with a movement that took birth in the 12th century as a religious reformation opposing the Brahminical values of Vedic rituals and freeing itself from the practise of the yagna, and the mediation of the priest and introducing a kind of Semitic religious fervour wearing the istalinga (the god that one loves) around one’s neck across the shoulder. It attempted to distance itself from Hinduism in many ways including encouraging conversions. It is somewhat akin to a Protestant religion insofar as it was a rebellion against Hindu Brahminical methods.

This also meant starting a process of de-sanskritisation of religious texts and downplaying the notions of Brahminical superiority. The idea was to present a religion that was not elitist and was as close to the subaltern life as possible, a religion that was inclusive, that encouraged conversions and inter-caste marriages, and that brought gender equality to the forefront. Whether all this has been achieved today is worth debating but this new religion was, in any case, intended to be the matrix of ideologies that would emancipate people from Vedic traditions.

The political Status of Veerashaivas and Lingayats

It was in the 1980s that, for the first time, the demand for separate Veerashaiva and Lingayat identities became a public cry. Thereafter, for the fear of losing veerashaiva/lingayat majority status (17%) the issue took a back seat. Ever since the reunification of Karnataka the Veerashaiva-Lingayats have traditionally been a politically dominant caste. In the later half of the 1950s until the 80s they were also dominant in the Congress party and were the ruling oligarchy in the state after its reorganisation in 1956.

The 1970s was a period which saw the rise of the ‘backward class movement’ in the state under the adept leadership of Devaraj Urs. This, with its anti-poverty programmes and land reforms, attempted to weaken the dominant Vokkaliga and Veerashiava-Lingayat communities. However, such policies succeeded only partially in the state. Keeping in mind the political disadvantages that such policies had brought they were discarded by subsequent governments led by the Congress party itself.

With the recent developments in the state and the changed narrative of Congress with which it stepped into the arena of cultural politics, until recently the home base of the BJP, all this seems to be dwindling and falling apart in to the political arithmetic. And with dissension within the Veerashaiva-Lingayat community, calling for a separate Lingayat religion away from the tag of the Veerashaivas and keeping Basavanna’s preachings as their gospel and Basavanna as their guru (prophet) along with their demand for a backward class tag the narrative of Karnataka politics is witnessing a change. In spite of all these developments there is no clarity among the influential within these groups whether or not they should insist on such division. The recent meeting held at Belagavi on 22 August 2017 seems to retain the view that Lingayat is a religion from Veerashaivas and the Hinduism. However this call was not supported by many of the mathas of the southern Karnataka.

Political Fallout of this paradigm shift

At a time when the relation between religion and politics is seen as being fragile in the light of the growing fundamentalism, in the politics of Karnataka state one is witnessing for the first time an undercurrent of cultural politics under a congress regime. However, the recent caste survey conducted in the state of Karnataka offers this an alternate view. Significant revelations of the caste census is that Scheduled Castes together form the single biggest caste group in the state, which if true, would disprove the taken-for-granted caste logic that Veerashaiva-Lingayats are the numerically biggest community in the state, followed by Vokkaligas. This census thus has lead to varied opinions within and outside the Veerashaiva-Lingayat community; while some political pundits think this Veerashaiva v Lingayat debate would be the trump card for the Congress to, on the one hand, hit BJP’s Karnataka President Yeddyurappa’s position as the self-perceived leader of the Veerashaiva-Lingayat community and, on the other, to divide the voter base of the BJP based on community. Yet, various Veerashaiva-Lingayat groups who are aware of the snowball effect of this in terms of electoral politics along with the heads of some of the most powerful and influential mathas have been opposed to these divisions in their community.

A game of political benefits

Although caste-based politics is not a new phenomenon in Karnataka politics, it has only recently made itself conspicuous in everyday, large-scale politics. However those who knew Congress feel sad that a party once known for its secular and pro-poor policies has to now resorted to cultural and emotional moves.

It is true that politics reflects societal mood and, at the moment, the Congress has scored over the BJP in Karnataka but the question remains whether this will prove to be a long term strength for the party or backfire now that the Congress has shown itself to be adept at speaking the BJP’s language in this debate. But this Veerashaiva v Lingayat separation,which grew out of the communities’ desire to be recognised as a separate religion, has divided their house and has paved the way for a stronger presence of ‘backward class politics’ in the state giving Congress an advantage over the BJPs monopoly in cultural politics. Soon we will know if the seeds that the Congress party has sown today will give it positive electoral yields in the months to come.

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Published: 28 Aug 2017, 12:27 PM