From independence movement to Karnataka elections 2023: Understanding the role of Lingayats (2023)

By SM Jamdar : Caste has always played a vital role in India’s politics. The Karnataka Assembly elections are no different; political parties are wooing caste groups in the southern state that goes to polls on May 10.

For the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to retain power in the coming elections, it will need solid backing from the two influential communities, the Lingayats and Vokkaliggas.


Vokkaligas are found in only six districts of Karnataka, while Lingayats are present across the state, especially in the north and central parts.

Politically, Lingayats are found in almost every major political party. The Lingayats have been supporting the BJP since the late 1990s, but in recent years, their support for the saffron party has increased.

From 1918 to 1969, Lingayats dominated first in the freedom struggle movement, and later in the Congress party. From 1956 to 1969, four chief ministers of Congress were Lingayats (S. Nijalingappa, BD Jatti, SR Kanthi and Veerendra Patil).

From 1969 to 1983 after the split of Congress, Lingayats were in a political wilderness. From 1983 to 1989, Lingayats were dominant in the Janata Party, which had two Lingayat chief ministers (SR Bommai and JH Patel).

Now, Lingayats dominate the BJP, which made three Lingayats its chief ministers (BS Yediyurappa, Jagadish Shettar and BS Bommai).

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The BJP in Karnataka was built from nothing in 1983 to the ruling party for the first time in 2006-07 single-handedly by BS Yediyurappa. Till 2004, the number of BJP MLAs went on increasing in election after election post-1983 due to the untiring efforts of BS Yediyurappa.

In 2006-07, Yediyurappa joined as deputy CM in the first-ever BJP-JD(S) coalition government with a power-sharing agreement. But when the term of HD Kumaraswamy of JD(S) ended, Yediyurappa was denied the opportunity to become the chief minister.

The fight between the coalition partners led to the President’s rule. By the time elections were due in May 2008, Yediyurappa had relentlessly aroused anti-Vokkaliga feelings among Lingayats.

Vokkaligas and Lingayats have been political rivals at least since Karnataka's unification days in the 1950s. Thus, the 2008 Assembly elections were fought primarily on Lingayat vs Vokkaliga issue.

From independence movement to Karnataka elections 2023: Understanding the role of Lingayats (1)

It was not the fight between Yediyurappa and Kumaraswamy's family. Nor, was it a fight totally in favour of the BJP. Eventually, Yediyurappa became the CM in 2008 through a series of manipulations to form the majority.

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The political rivalry between Lingayats and Vokkaligas paid off in favour of the BJP.

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While in power, Yediyurappa wooed a large number of Lingayat mutts by giving grants and approvals to many of their educational institutions and supporting Lingayat MLAs. From then, he never looked back till he had to resign on corruption charges which led to his arrest and imprisonment.

He erred again by making Sadanand Gowda, a rival Vokkaliga the chief minister. His term was short-lived. Yediyurappa corrected his course by nominating Jagadish Shettar, another Lingayat, as BJP chief minister.

The BJP ignored him on grounds of corruption. In a hurry, he left the BJP and formed his own Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) which fielded candidates in almost all of the 224 constituencies in the next election. This led to the splitting of Lingayat votes.


The BJP miserably lost the election. Also, the KJP got only six seats, a lesson taught by Lingayats both to the BJP and Yediyurappa. Congress came to power.

In the next election in 2018, Yediyurappa rejoined the BJP which emerged as the single-largest party. Poaching Congress and JD(S) MLAs, the BJP formed another government after a short-lived coalition of Congress and JD(S). Again, Yediyurappa was removed on grounds of age.

BS Bommai, another Lingayat, became the chief minister. Now Yediyurappa is isolated, aged, and humiliated. His second son’s future is in a delicate balance.

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The BJP is faced with too much corruption, inept administration, and lacklustre CM. The Lingayat community is now not so keen on the BJP. Thus, the BJP faces a tough challenge from Congress on the one hand and JD(S) on the other.

In a major decision ahead of the Karnataka Assembly elections, the ruling BJP government approved increasing the reservation for Vokkaligas and Lingayats by 2 per cent each, while scrapping the 4 per cent Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservation for Muslims under the 2B category.


This is perceived as an attempt to set the two major communities of Karnataka against the Muslims. However, the move has been protested against by the Lingayats.

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Lingayats are spread across northern, central and a few southern districts of Karnataka. Lingayats in northern districts comprise more than a third of the population. In southern districts, they are thinly spread except in Mysore, Chamarajnagar, Shimoga and Hassan, where they are a major community.

The total population of Lingayats is around three crores in India, 1.5 crores in Karnataka, 1.09 crores in Maharashtra, around 50 lakhs in Telangana, and the rest spread over Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

Recognition of Lingayats as a separate religion on par with Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists does not pose any threat or danger or problem to the country or any part of it since they are a patriotic community who fought against Muslim invaders and the British.

There were several Lingayat kingdoms such as Coorg, Keladi, Punganur, and Mysore (till 1610AD).


The eighth to 11th centuries AD was a period of great changes in Indian socio-religious history. In the eighth century, the Shankaracharya-led revival of the Vedic and Sanatan religion was on the ascendance. That was also the period when Buddhism in India was on the verge of extinction.

Jainism was decaying. Consequently, the revivalist Vedic religion was the most virulent. Its followers were destroying Buddhist places like Sannati and erecting Hindu/Vedic temples thereupon. They were thoroughly discrediting the leftover influence of Jains and Buddhists.

This was also the period of invasions by Afghan Muslims like Muhammad of Ghazni and later by Muhammad of Ghor. The Sanatanis post-renaissance brought back the strictest Chaturvarna system by oppressing the Shudra categories of the populace.

By the early 12th century, the oppressive social segregation and exploitation of the poor, the untouchable, women, and the entire working class had reached inhuman and barbaric proportions.

In such a scenario of the early years of the 12th century, there was born a Brahmin boy by the name of Basava in the small town of Bagevadi in the present Vijayapura district of Karnataka. His father was the chief of Bagewadi agrahar (an exclusive Brahmin settlement with huge estates and tax-free income under the protection of the king).

Basava, also called Basavanna, as a child, keenly observed the happenings in his own very orthodox Saiva Brahmin household and its surroundings.

There arose the need for religious reforms and alternative religion. That is how Basavanna was forced to form an alternative religion as an antidote to Sanatan dharma.

The new dharma had to deal with and change every aspect of Vedic beliefs and practices. Thus the Lingayat faith was born as a revolt against Vedic dharma.


Rejection of the caste system, Vedas, Shastras and Puranas, hell and heaven and rebirth, idol worship, temple culture and priestcraft, and pollution and purification were the seminal thoughts of Basavanna.

They all went against Sanatan Dharma. He also rejected the polytheistic beliefs and worship prevalent in Vedic dharma, and instead said there was only one God.

For the common man, it was difficult to visualise an invisible God. Therefore, he created a miniature icon of the universe. It was named “Ishtalinga” -- a square inch-sized semi-spherical icon. The Ishtalinga is worn on the body all the time by tying it in a piece of white cloth around the neck of every person known as Lingayat.

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Lingayats preach equality of all human beings: men and women, rich and poor, haves and have-nots, powerful and powerless. Basava’s attack was against the presumed superiority of Brahmins.

He attacked the rituals of homa, havana, and animal sacrifice. Thus vegetarianism, total abstinence from intoxicating liquors and smoking became taboos among Lingayats then and now.

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He insisted that everyone must engage in work, preferably physical work to earn a living, and that every work is dignified.

Basavanna’s largest contribution was to liberate women from the shackles of Vedic prejudices. He said women were equal to men in all respects. He brought them out of the most dehumanising menstruation taboo.

He made widows remarry and prevented child marriages. He gave adoption rights to unmarried and widowed women. He gave them the right to property. These are surviving features among Lingayats even today.


The beliefs and practices prevalent in society at that time adversely affected the curious but the tender mind of Basava.

When his time to go through the ceremony of tying the sacred thread (yajyopaveet) arrived, Basava refused to tie the thread unless his elder sister was also allowed it.

Parents and elder Brahmins refused, whereupon he tore away the sacred thread and left his family and walked away to Kudal Sangam, a centre of Nath Panth known for progressive thinking.

Dalits lived in isolated ghettos. They had no right to own any property. No member of the Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya castes would touch them. They could not draw water from the wells of the upper-caste Sanatanis. He decided to do away with such an unequal and inhuman system and establish an egalitarian society.

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At Kudal Sangam, Basava studied for about 10 years till the age of 22. There he mastered the Vedas, Puranas, Shastras, and Agamas apart from the knowledge of prevailing branches of Shaivism such as Pashupat, Kapalika, Kalamukhi, Kashmiri Shaivism and Tamil Saiva Siddhant of Nayanmars. His writings amply indicate his deep knowledge of these systems and doctrines.

At 22, Basava married his maternal uncle Bakadeva’s daughter Gangambika and began his career as an accountant in the treasury of Kalachuri Bijjal II ruling as a Vassal of Western Chalukyas at Mangalvede in present-day Maharashtra.

Basava through his hard work and sincerity, rose through the ranks to become the equivalent of today’s finance minister under the rule of Bijjala II at Mangalvede. His reading of an inscription about the treasure trove in the palace complex led to the discovery of a huge treasure, probably a war chest, which embellished the wealth of Bijjala.

Basava was made the mahamantri equal to the present chief minister. During 1145 AD, Basavanna became the prime minister under Bijjala. Basavanna established Anubhav Mantap in 1145 AD, the first concept of the parliamentary system.

It is Anubhav Mantap that created the Lingayat society, religion and polity and economy. The basic principles were equality, universal fraternity, justice, and peace enshrined in our present Indian Constitution.


Bijjala’s son Sovideva and his army unleashed terror in which tens of thousands of Basavanna’s followers were butchered to death. The vachana literature was burned down. The Lingayat religion was banned.

There ended the boldest revolution of Basavanna around 1167 AD. Next 200 years, Lingayats and their faith were active in the underground movement just like Christians in the Roman empire because of persecution by Sanatan forces.

During the reign of the last three kings of the Sangam dynasty of Vijayanagar (Proudh Devaraya, Mallikarjun and Virupaksha) between 1422 and 1486 AD, the Lingayat religion was revived under royal patronage.

Leftover vachanas were compiled. Most of the Lingayat literature now available about this religion is of this period, except 9,000 vachanas which survived in the oral tradition and folklore.

By the 18th century, more than a thousand Lingayat mutts were established in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Telangana. The demand for separate religious status for Lingayats began in 1891. In the 1871 census, Lingayats were a separate religion outside Hinduism.

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They were grouped separately with Jains by AWC Lindsay, the Superintendent of Census in Mysore. But in the second census, the Diwan of Mysore C. Rangacharlu mixed Lingayats with the Shudra group of Hindus. This angered all Lingayats and a huge agitation started before the third census in 1891.

Later in the 1940s, the second movement for separate religion status began in the Bombay Presidency. Before it could be examined, the second World War began and the movement remained unheard.

After India’s independence, in the context of the country’s division on a religious basis, the Lingayats' demand as well as similar demands by Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists remained unattended.

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The third demand for a separate religion status started afresh and in a grand manner in 2017. It is continuing as of now in a systematic manner.

Today, the Lingayat community represents unity in diversity. It has in it several divisions representing many major castes that merged in the Lingayat mainstream.

Thus, there are Scheduled Castes comprising former untouchables like cobblers, scavengers, basket makers, tanners, rope makers, etc. Other Shudra castes like farmers, weavers, tailors, blacksmiths, carpenters, oilmen, ferrymen, shepherds, masons, barbers and so on.

Then there are Brahmin converts known as Veerashaivas, priests, Jangams, Aradhya, Ayyas and the like. There are groups like traders, businessmen, and industrialists. It is thus a polyglot community.

(The writer is a former bureaucrat and principal general secretary of the Jagatik Lingayat Mahasabha)

--- ENDS ---

Edited By:

Ritika Shah

Published On:

Apr 1, 2023

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