In July 2021, as news spread of the BJP’s plans to remove veteran leader B S Yediyurappa from the post of the chief minister of Karnataka, a group of 500 Lingayat seers gathered at the latter’s official home in Bengaluru to oppose the replacement of the Lingayat strongman.
One of the seers, Dingaleshwara Swami from the Balehosur Mutt in the Gadag region of the state, warned the BJP that replacing Yediyurappa would result in the destruction of the party in Karnataka.
“There will be irreparable damage,” the seer said after Yediyurappa’s tearful exit on July 26.
Two days ago, Dingaleshwara Swami accused the BJP government in Karnataka — led by Yediyurappa’s replacement Basavaraj Bommai — of seeking a 30 per cent commission for release of grants to the Balehosur Mutt. “Everyone knows about the levels of corruption in the state. Even a seer must pay a 30 per cent commission for funds to be released,” the Balehosur Mutt seer said at a public event.
The seer’s remarks have triggered a controversy as the BJP enters the final year of its tenure in the state. While the seer’s motivation for making the public remarks is not clear, the episode has caused some stirring in the BJP which is heavily dependent on the Lingayat mutts in the state for electoral success.
The nearly 3,000 Lingayat mutts in Karnataka – especially a few that are considered the most powerful — are wooed assiduously by political parties in the state on account of the ability of the mutts to sway the votes of the dominant Lingayat community which makes up nearly 17 percent of the state population.
The five main Lingayat mutts are the Siddaganga Mutt at Tumkur, the Suttur Mutt at Mysuru, the Murgha Mutt at Chitradurga, Moorusavira Mutt at Dharwad, and the Siddarooda Mutt at Hubbali. The seers of the five main mutts are known as the “panchacharyas” and are considered the most powerful.
Through hundreds of educational institutions and service organizations, apart from the religious services offered by seers for events, the mutts have a huge influence on the Lingayat community. The mutts have, in recent years, been largely aligned with the BJP and its Lingayat leader Yediyurappa who has ensured that the mutts are never short of state funds.
The community has backed the BJP and Yediyurappa since the turn of the century after the Congress lost support in the community in the 1990s over the shabby treatment of former CM Veerendra Patil.
Nearly 35 per cent of the BJP MLAs in the current Karnataka legislature are Lingayats.
“I took 500 seers and staged a protest to support Yediyurappa last year and this ensured that a Lingayat Basavaraj Bommai became the new chief minister of Karnataka,” the seer of the Balehosur Mutt said this week after being questioned by Lingayat ministers on his charges against the BJP government.
The significance of Lingayat mutts is evident in the fact that leaders from all political parties make it a point to pay obeisance at the mutts and religious sites before taking key political steps. The BJP minister K S Eshwarappa, a member of the backward Kuruba community, who was forced to resign last week on charges of corruption, visited the Siddaganga Mutt in Tumkur on his way to submit his resignation to chief minister Basavaraj Bommai.
The new president of the Janata Dal (Secular) party C M Ibrahim has stated that he will begin his innings as the party chief by holding rallies at Basavakalyan and Basavana Bagewadi — two towns considered central to the Lingayat faith on account of their association to Basavana, the founder of the faith.
The backing of the Lingayat mutts – especially the dominant ones like the Suttur Mutt and the Siddaganga Mutt – are considered essential for politicians to become ministers in a BJP tenure.
The wealthy BJP MLA Murugesh Nirani lobbied for inclusion in the BJP Cabinet through a Lingayat Mutt after he was kept out of the state Cabinet by Yediyurappa in July 2019. At a public meeting in Haveri the Lingayat seer Vachananda Swami said Nirani must be made a minister in the government since the community had helped the BJP come to power.
Nirani, who is now the minister for industries in the BJP government in Karnataka, recently facilitated the creation of a new Panchamasali Lingayat Peeta (mutt) in the Bagalkot region of the state. The move — seen as an effort at self-aggrandizement by some — was not welcomed by two existing seers and several BJP leaders from the Panchamasali sub-sect. The former CM Yediyurappa’s son B Y Vijayendra was among the prominent BJP leaders at the inauguration of the new mutt.
“The new Panchamasali mutt was created to bring the Panchamasali under the control of Nirani. The mutt has been created to lobby on his behalf in Delhi,” the BJP MLA Basavaraj Patil Yatnal, a Panchamsali Lingayat, said regarding the new mutt created in February through Murugesh Nirani.
Some of the Lingayat community ministers in the BJP government have suggested that the recent allegation of corruption against the Bommai government by the Lingayat seer Dingaleshwara Swami is a fallout of the BJP government’s decision to give grants to other Lingayat mutts.
The minister for public works, C C Patil, who is considered to be close to chief minister Bommai, has said an allocation of Rs 202 crore made by Bommai to the Tontadarya Math in Gadag had triggered the allegations by the head of the Balehosur Mutt in Gadag. “Dingaleshwara Swami began making allegations after the CM’s announcement of funds (for the Tontadarya Mutt),” Patil said. The agriculture minister B C Patil has accused Dingaleshwara Swami of acting like a “Congress worker.”
The Lingayats who are classified as a Hindu sub-caste called Veerashaiva Lingayats, are followers of the 12th century philosopher saint Basavanna who started a movement to help sections of society break away from the chains of caste and find truth themselves. The Veerashaiva Lingayats are an amalgamation of the followers of Basavanna’s teachings and Veerashaivas who follow more traditional Hindu practices. On account of the Lingayat community comprising many sections of society, there are many sub-sects of the community who are identified on the basis of the vocation they followed. Veerashaiva Lingayats have been provided reservations (five per cent) under a special 3B quota in the Karnataka reservation system.
A prominent section of Lingayats, the Panchamsali Lingayats, have been demanding inclusion in the OBC category to be eligible to avail 15 per cent of reservation in government education and jobs, instead of the current 5 per cent quota.