File photo of All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha national president Shamanur Shivashankarappa | Commons
File photo of All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha national president Shamanur Shivashankarappa | Commons
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Bengaluru: The All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha (AIVM) — the largest religious congregation of the Veerashaiva Lingayat community in the country — has decided to launch a drive against religious conversion.

In a letter dated 15 November, AIVM national president Shamanur Shivashankarappa, the most senior MLA of the Congress in Karnataka, has written to all state, district and taluk offices of the Mahasabha to “check” religious conversions and assist in “bringing back” those who have converted to other faiths.

ThePrint made multiple attempts to reach Shamanur Shivashankarappa via phone calls but they went unanswered.

The Veerashaiva Mahasabha’s move comes at a time when the Basavaraj Bommai-led BJP government in Karnataka is preparing to table an anti-conversion bill in the upcoming assembly session at Suvarna Vidhana Soudha in Belagavi.

“It is a matter of concern that in some parts of the state, our people are converting to Christianity and other faiths due to various influences,” Shamanur Shivashankarappa has said in his letter.

“Those facing economic difficulties, struggling with personal issues…innocent people lacking foresight are being encouraged to quit our great tradition and embrace other faiths,” he added. “You must keep in touch with mutts, seers in your region and ensure such conversions do not take place. You must also design programmes to bring people who have converted back to our faith.”

The matter, Shivashankarappa added, is “urgent”.

Fear of vigilantism

The Mahasabha’s decision comes at a time when the minorities in Karnataka, especially Christians, have explicitly expressed fears of coming under attack by vigilantes.

The decision to table a bill that further tightens an already existing law against conversion by allurement came after BJP MLA Gulihatti D. Shekhar raised the matter in the assembly in September. The MLA then ordered a survey of all churches in the state via the Legislative Committee for Backward Classes and Minority Welfare in October, to check for any forced conversions.

After it was greeted by protests and a legal challenge, the survey did not take off.

AIVM leaders non-committal

Speaking to ThePrint, several office-bearers of the Mahasabha chose to maintain a distance from the decision, citing various reasons.

“I have been busy with MLC election work. I don’t know about this letter enough to comment,” Eshwar Khandre, general secretary of the Mahasabha and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee working president told ThePrint.

Shankar Bidari, a retired IPS officer and BJP member who serves as vice-president of the Mahasabha, said, “I am yet to speak with the president over this letter. I am not aware of when and why this letter was written.”

Prabhakar Kore, another AIVM vice-president, said he was not in the country and was unaware of the development.

Veeranna Charantimath, BJP MLA from Bagalkot who is also an AIVM vice-president, justified the decision, but deemed it “apolitical”.

“There is no connection between the proposed anti-conversion legislation and the Mahasabha’s decision. Any conversion is illegal, isn’t it?” he said. When asked what prompted the decision, Charantimath said discussions had been under way for some time.

A.S. Veeranna, yet another vice-president, insisted that the move was meant to protect the Veerashaiva Lingayats. “It is very simple. Christians and Muslims are converting our people and are encouraging them to shift faiths. We want to stop it,” he told The Print.

A big divide

The Veerashaiva Mahasabha initiative has drawn flak from the Jagathika Lingayat Mahasabha (JLM), a forum that has been spearheading the movement to seek a separate religion tag for the Lingayat community. The JLM has challenged the AIVM’s stand that Lingayats belong to Hinduism.

The two organisations are representative of the division within the Lingayat community in Karnataka. While the AIVM — with its 1.75 lakh members — claims to be the representative of Veerashaiva Lingayats, the JLM argues that the Veerashaivas are just a sub-sect of the Lingayats.

The JLM demands that the Lingayat community be accorded a “separate religion status” like Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, while the AIVM has opposed the move.

S.M. Jamdar, retired IAS officer and general secretary of the JLM, said he was “surprised that the Veerashaiva Mahasabha is expressing deep concern that sections of Lingayat communities are getting converted to Christianity and Islam”.

“It was the same Veerashaiva Mahasabha that threw out 60 per cent of Lingayats from ‘shudra’ communities, deeming them non-Lingayats. They emulated the Sanatana Varna system and ostracised people from communities like cobblers, leather workers, cleaners, which was against Basavanna’s teachings,” he added.

Jamdar, an authority on Lingayat history, added, “In 1904, when Veerashaiva Mahasabha was created, their first resolution was that Veerashaivas — not Lingayats — are Hindus. They said they will follow, honour and accept Vedas, Agama, Upanishads etc. They also decided that all Veerashaiva mutts will have only Jangamas (a Shaiva order of monks) as heads.

“This is how they brought the caste system squarely back into Lingayat fold, which was supposed to be casteless.”

Jamdar demanded that the Veerashaiva Mahasabha first apologise to the Lingayats belonging to lower sub-castes for “historic wrongs”.

Quarrel over identity

The Lingayats are followers of 12th-century social reformer and philosopher Basavanna, while Veerashaivas have claimed that their faith predates Basavanna and is led by the ‘pancacharya’, or five teachers/gurus. While the Lingayats consider Basavanna and his followers’ vachanas as religious scriptures, the Veerashaivas consider Vedas, Agama and Siddhanta Shikhamani as theirs.

The quarrel between the Veerashaivas and the Lingayats over identity has been raging for decades now.

While the AIVM argues that the Veerashaivas and the Lingayats are the same, the JLM insists that the Veerashaivas are only a sub-sect under the larger umbrella of Lingayats.

“There are 102 sub-sects in the Lingayats, and the Veerashaivas are one of the sub-sects,” Jamdar said.

In 2018, just before the Karnataka assembly election, then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had cleared the ‘minority religion tag’ for Lingayats, though it was opposed by the Veerashaiva Mahasabha. The Union government had rejected the proposal.

Even as the debate rages over whether the Lingayat community should be considered separate from Hinduism, clamour for reservation within sub-sects of the community is also brewing.

In February this year, the numerically influential Panchamasali Lingayats had brought the BJP government in Karnataka to its knee with its quota stir.

(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)

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