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HomeIndiaWho are Panchamasali Lingayats & why they're so important in Karnataka politics

Who are Panchamasali Lingayats & why they’re so important in Karnataka politics

Lingayats, followers of 12th-century reformer Basavanna, have a plethora of sub-sects with Panchamasalis being the most numerous. They are demanding higher share of reservation.

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Belagavi: The Panchamasalis, the largest sub-sect within the Lingayats, have temporarily suspended their agitation against the Basavaraj Bommai-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka over the delay in fulfilling their demand for a higher share of reservation.

The chief minister, in the hope of not antagonising a community that has stood firmly behind the BJP and former chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa in elections, has assured the Panchamasalis and their seers that a favourable decision will be announced soon. 

The Lingayats are followers of 12th-century social reformer Basavanna, who was inspired by the Bhakti Movement. A treasurer in the court of King Bijjala II, he rejected Brahmin rituals and temple worship and envisaged a society that was casteless, free of discrimination, and where men and women had equal opportunities.  

Basavanna’s prominence has grown globally over time but his followers’ practices have changed substantially. For instance, there are now 99 sub-sects within the Lingayats, whose main goal was once the eradication of the caste system. 

Prominent sub-sects include the Panchamasalis, Ganiga, Jangama, Banajiga, Reddi Lingayat, Sadars, Nonaba and Goud-Lingayats. Experts on the subject said that all these sub-sects practise the same rituals at the time of births, weddings and deaths. 

For instance, the dead are buried in sitting positions among Lingayats. Members of the community carry their Ishta Linga suspended in a silver box around their necks. Where these sub-sects differ is in their traditional occupations.

In 2015, former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah commissioned a socio-economic and educational survey or caste census’ But its findings were never made public, as political observers believe the survey was carried out to challenge the dominant caste theory in Karnataka

Even leaders of prominent communities like Vokkaligas and Lingayats from within the Congress had objected to making the findings public but leaked data shows that the numbers of these two communities had slipped below 10 per cent of the state’s population against the earlier 17 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively.

Estimates show that there are several million Lingayats in areas of Maharashtra and Telangana that border Karnataka. 

Though the terms Veerashaiva and Lingayat are used interchangeably in some places, there are several differences between the two since Veerashaivas are more influenced by Hinduism, according to experts. Moreover, Lingayats trace their origins to Basavanna, while Veerashaivas are believed to have been born out of Shiva’s lingam.

While Lingayats have the Ishta Linga and believe Shiva is a formless entity, Veerashaivas believe that Shiva is a vedic deity. Unlike Veerashaivas, Lingayats don’t believe in vedic literature and follow the Vachanas (teachings) of Basavanna

The 12th-century vachanas of Basavanna were lost or dispersed among different southern states, following which many texts clubbed Veerashaivas and Lingayats under one umbrella. It is only research that has helped differentiate Veerashaivas and Lingayats, while attempting to address the question of who is a Hindu.

Also Read: ‘Raped two minors, aides stood guard’: New allegations, FIR against jailed Lingayat swami

Prominent Lingayat politicians

Lingayats are believed to be the single largest caste group in Karnataka and account for nearly 17 per cent of the state’s population — according to unofficial estimates, as there is no empirical data to support this claim. 

Out of the 23 chief ministers Karnataka has had so far, 10 have been from this community. Since they are present in significant numbers in nearly a hundred assembly constituencies in the state, Linagayats can swing elections if they decide to vote en masse, as they have in the past. 

Seen as the tallest leader from this community, Yediyurappa has enjoyed the support of Lingayats for over the past two decades. But there is no clarity on his sub-sect, since those close to him say he is Banajiga, while others say he is Bale-Banajiga — whose ancestors were in the business of bangles.

Incumbent chief minister Basavaraj Bommai is a Sadar-Lingayat, a very small sub-sect, which is primarily why the Panchamasalis believe that a leader from their community should be given a chance at the top job.

Karnataka industries minister Murugesh Nirani, along with firebrand BJP legislator and Yediyurappa’s staunch critic, Basanagouda R. Patil (Yatnal), come from the Panchamasali sect. But the Banajigas have had the highest share of chief ministers in the state as S. Nijalingappa, J.H. Patel, Veerendra Patil, Jagadish Shettar and S.R. Kanthi are from this sub-sect. 

Though the Lingayats are largely grouped as one, the mathas (ashrams) of these sub-sects are particular in terms of which political leader they throw their weight behind. There have been instances where more than one sub-sect has tried to claim the legacy of a tall political leader.

Why are Panchamasalis agitating

Leaders from the Panchamasali sect claim they account for about 80 lakh to around a crore of the state’s population, while the Jangamas peg their numbers at about 40 lakh and the Banajigas at about 10 lakh. 

However, most of these numbers lack any empirical backing.

Claiming that their sect accounts for at least 60 per cent of Lingayats, Panchamasalis allege that they have been denied adequate opportunities in proportion to their numbers while smaller sub-sects have had more representation in the form of people in high offices. From the 5 per cent quota Lingayats are entitled to under category 3B, Panchamasalis want to be included under category 2A, which will entitle them to 15 per cent reservation.

Just before the 2018 Karnataka Assembly elections, then CM Siddaramaiah had accorded minority religion status to the Lingayats and kept the Veerashaivas out in what was seen as an attempt to divide the BJP’s vote.

But the move backfired as Yediyurappa painted it as an attempt to break up Hindu society and Congress lost power in the state that same year. 

Had the Union government accepted the recommendation, Lingayats would, among other things, have been allowed to set up and administer their own educational institutes.

In 2013, the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha submitted a memorandum to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asking the government to recognise the Veerashaiva Lingayats as a separate religion in the Census. Yediyurappa was a signatory to this memorandum.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: Shivakumara Swami, the Siddaganga Mutt chief pontiff every PM from Indira to Modi courted


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