By recommending minority status to the Lingayat community, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has indeed opened a Pandora’s box. With the move made prior to the declaration of the State assembly elections, he has scored a political point over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Meanwhile, the issue of recognising Lingayat sect as an independent religion has been kept at an abeyance.
The issue of granting the status of an independent religion is not so complex. The Lingayat community has many sub-sects which include Scheduled Caste (SC) and Other Backward Class (OSC) sections. After securing recognition as an independent religion, it is feared that the SC and OBC members of the Lingayat community will be automatically deprived of the reservation and other benefits which are presently available to them. This was pointed out by the Union ministry of home affairs in a reply to the Karnataka government. The fear of losing the benefits of the Scheduled Caste category deter some Lingayats from seeking separate religion status, but this is an only half truth. There are some precedents in the past 70 years which reveal that religion is not a barricade to deprive a community of its rightful Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe benefits.
The Constitution has provided for special benefits to the deprived sections of the society, referred to as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, to compensate for their centuries old neglect. As per a Presidential order issued in 1949, only members of the Hindu religion were entitled to the Scheduled Castes status. However, the Scheduled Tribes (ST) status was also accorded to non-Hindus, to Christians as well, owing to the majority of the Christians in northeastern statues who belonged to various tribes.
The Presidential Order was amended in 1956 to accord the Scheduled Caste status to the erstwhile members of the untouchable communities or the Dalits in the Sikh religion. Incidentally, Punjab has a large percentage of Dalits who are part of Sikhism.
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism along with lakhs of his followers in Nagpur in 1956. There was the possibility of these Dalits losing their Scheduled Caste benefits after moving out of the Hindu religion’s fold. In his historic address after the mass conversion ceremony, the architect of the Indian Constitution had vowed to ensure that the Dalits embracing Buddhism would not lose their benefits granted by the Constitution. Unfortunately, Dr Ambedkar died within a couple of months after the mass conversion. Hindu Dalits who became Buddhists were not eligible to avail of the benefits granted by the Constitution prior to their conversion. This anomaly was removed three decades later by the Janata Dal government led by Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh in 1990.
This shows that SC and OBC members of the Lingayat community would not forfeit their claim over the reservation benefits if Lingayat is treated as an independent religion. There are also other sections of society who are demanding Scheduled Caste benefits, these are Dalits who have embraced Christianity during the past few centuries.
Dalit Christians are demanding that like Hindu Dalits, Sikh Dalits and Buddhist Dalits, they should also be given benefits of the SC reservation facility. The national parties have never perceived the Christians as a vote bank and hence, the issue has never been considered sympathetically. This is not the case with the Lingayat community which has a sizeable presence in Karnataka and Maharashtra. The parties eyeing power in these states or at the Centre can ill-afford to ignore the demands of Lingayats for an independent religion.