On 22 March, the Karnataka state government issued a notice granting minority status to the Lingayat community. Over the last few years, the issue of separate religion status for the Lingayats has seen intense debate, invoking issues related to history and religious doctrine, as well as politics. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has adopted a position consistent with its ideology, seeing it as a move that threatens Hinduism by fragmenting it. The RSS is duplicating arguments and rhetoric it has used to suggest that Sikhism is not a separate religion, a stance that has caused much acrimony and some violence in Punjab. In the long term, the RSS viewpoint holds the potential to stir similar trouble in Karnataka.
Last year on 20 August, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat held a meeting of the organisation in the state’s Hubli district to discuss the demand for an independent status for the Lingayats. Bhagwat said that efforts should be made to reach out to Lingayat leaders to persuade them to give up the demand.
The reaction from the community was immediate. Two days later, at a massive rally of the Lingayats, Basavaraj Horatti, the JD(S) floor leader in the state’s legislative council and a prominent Lingayat leader, took on Bhagwat for “interfering in matters of the community.” “Why should leaders, like Mr. Bhagwat, poke his nose in our faith?” he said. Another prominent leader of the Lingayat campaign, the former bureaucrat SM Jamdar, said at a rally, “We have not been part of Hinduism all these years? What status do we get in Hinduism?”
Five weeks later, at various functions on the occasion of Dussehra, which the RSS observes as its foundation day, senior functionaries of the RSS responded in far stronger language to the Lingayat demand. According to The Hindu, “The RSS kshetra pracharak Su Ramanna criticised the religious heads and politicians who have been vocal in their support for the demand.” He described them as people who have “lost sanity” and said that those who have not understood the very concept of religion were now talking about “Lingayat dharma.” Ramanna also reportedly announced that the RSS would fight against these efforts to divide the society. Unsurprisingly, the Lingayat leaders have ended up seeing the RSS as the main opposition to their demands.
Soon after the decision was announced in March, the newly reappointed general secretary of the RSS, Bhaiyyaji Joshi, made it clear that there would be no change in the organisation’s opposition to a separate status for Lingayats, “We do not accept this,” he said. “There may be different sects in India, which we have accepted. But the fundamentals of all the sects created in India are the same, and these must be the basis for removing superficial differences.”