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.”
The RSS’s opposition to demands such as those of the Lingayats is deep-rooted and goes back to its most important ideologue, its second chief MS Golwalkar. In a 1966 compilation of his writings, Bunch of Thoughts, which is considered the RSS’s bible, Golwalkar writes, “People have begun to feel ashamed of calling themselves Hindus. Thus the golden thread that strung together all these pearls of various spiritual hues and shades has been torn asunder and the various sects and creeds have begun to take a pride in their own exclusive names and parading themselves as non-Hindus. Some of the Sikhs, Jains, Lingayats and Aryasamajists declare that they are separate from Hindus.”
Golwalkar went on to claim, “There are communalists in Hindu Society itself, who originally came into existence in the form of creeds as a manifestation of the manysided Hindu genius, but who later on forgot the source of their inspiration and creation and began to consider themselves as being different from Hindu samaj and dharma, and who on that premise demand separate and exclusive political and economic privileges, and to achieve those demands proclaim themselves to be different from Hindu Society and take to various agitations. Neo-Buddhists and Sikhs are of this type.”
Golwalkar’s view can be read as a direct challenge to the Indian Constitution, which had already accepted a separate Sikh identity. The provisions of Article 25, which guarantees “free profession, practice and propagation of religion,” are explained by stating:
The wearing and carrying of kirpans shall be deemed to be included in the profession of the Sikh religion … In sub-clause (b) of clause (2), the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly.
The language is clear. Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism are given separate and equivalent status to Hinduism. It is only for the limited purpose of sub clause (b) of the article, which provides for the social welfare and reform of religious institutions, that a reference to Hinduism was deemed to include the other three religions as well.
This continues to be the legal position with respect to Indian law, as is clear in context of the Hindu Marriage Act. Section 2(1) of the 1955 Act states:
Hindu and Sikh are seen as separate and equal categories. Where Lingayats are concerned, the transfer from 2(1)a to 2(1)b now seems a natural corollary.
Golwalkar’s view of the Sikhs as “communalists” who are “tearing asunder” the golden thread of Hinduism has been the basis for much of the RSS’s activities among the Sikhs in Punjab. In 1985, at the height of the crisis in Punjab, the RSS floated a body called the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat. Initially, the Sangat was supposed to focus on spreading the message of a shared Sikh and Hindu heritage but in truth its aims were to propagate what Golwalkar had articulated: the inseparability of Sikhs and Hindus. The journalist Dhirendra Jha in his book Shadow Armies, devotes a chapter to the Sangat (much of the work of the Sangat noted here relies on Jha’s exposition). Jha writes:
As the militancy in Punjab came to an end and a BJP government came to power in the state in a 1997 alliance with the Akalis, the Sangat more overtly followed its goals. At one of its meets, a resolution was passed, demanding “that a magnificent temple of Shri Ram should be made.” It was a move that had no resonance among the Sikhs, but was reflective of the ideology the Sangat was advocating.
The Sangat organised a march of 300 sadhus to Amritsar during the tercentenary celebration of the Khalsa—established by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699 by instituting a baptism ceremony that required his followers to don the five symbols, including uncut hair, that are now identified with Sikhism. A pamphlet distributed by the Sangat at the time claimed, “The followers of Lord Rama, Krishna and Guru Sahiban are not different but they are part of one society and that is the Hindu society.” Resentment began building up within Sikh institutions even though they were largely under the control of the Akalis.
In December 2002, the Sangat planned a programme of the recitation of the Granth Sahib in Hindu temples in Punjab. Stating that the Granth could not be recited in the presence of idols, Sikh institutions strongly criticised the move. The Sangat was forced to cancel its plans, but now the backlash from Sikh bodies could not be contained. The jathedar, or head, of Akal Takht—Sikhism’s most important temporal institution—declared, “In its outlook the RSS is like Aurangzeb. The latter wanted to convert everyone to Islam, either by sword or otherwise. Similarly, the RSS also wants to convert everybody to Hinduism. Its ideology is dangerous not only for the Sikhs but for all other religions.”
When the Sangat planned a nationwide march in 2004 to commemorate the four-hundredth year anniversary of the compilation of the manuscript of the Granth Sahib, Jha reports that “the Akal Takht issued a directive, naming the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat an ‘anti-Panth’ organization which was trying to ‘mislead’ Sikhs in order to obtain their support for its ‘anti-Panthic activities’. The directive asked the community and its religious bodies not to extend any support to the Sikh wing of the RSS.”
Over the next few years the Sangat scaled back its activities to a considerable degree, even as its leaders alleged that the Sikh clergy was acting at the behest of Sikh hardliners abroad. In 2009, the Sangat chief Rulda Singh was shot dead in Patiala, in all likelihood by hardliners opposed to its activities in Punjab. It was the most visible act of terror in Punjab since 1993. After lying low for the next five years, the coming to power of Modi has seen the Sangat once again trying to revive its activities. Mohan Bhagwat has taken a direct interest, and this has once again invited a warning from the Akal Takht.
In Punjab, where the mix of religion and politics is often combustible, the Sangat’s activities remain one of the biggest sources of mobilisation for Sikh hardliners. Well over a century after the question of Sikh identity was fully settled, the RSS continues to resist the reality of what has unfolded. In doing so it constantly threatens to unsettle the fragile balance of peace in the state, and at the same time it continues to provide encouragement for Sikh hardliners who would otherwise have little traction in the community.
Judging by the RSS’s rhetoric in Karnataka, its activities in Punjab will likely serve as a template for its future engagement with the Lingayats. The organisation seems to have learnt nothing from its misadventures among the Sikhs. The problem that this poses is straightforward, the Indian Constitution as it is structured today provides a space for various faiths—Indic or non-Indic—to coexist, but the RSS’s view of nationhood, predicated upon an overarching Hindu identity, ends up placing legitimate assertions of identity into the category of separatism. As a result, the degree of comfort with which Lingayats, Sikhs or people from any other religious minority live in India is now largely dependent on how much traction the RSS’s worldview gains in the country.