Bangalore: The All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha (AIVM) – the largest religious congregation in the Veerashaiva Lingayat community in the country – has decided to launch a campaign against religious conversion.
In a letter dated November 15, AIVM National President Shamanur Shivashankarappa, Karnataka’s top congressional deputy, wrote to all state, district and taluk offices in Mahasabha to “verify” religious conversions and help “bring back” these. who have converted to other religions.
ThePrint made several attempts to reach Shamanur Shivashankarappa via phone calls, but they went unanswered.
Veerashaiva Mahasabha’s decision comes as the BJP government led by Basavaraj Bommai in Karnataka is preparing for table an anti-conversion bill at the next Assembly session in Suvarna Vidhana Soudha in Belagavi.
“It is a matter of concern that in some parts of the state our people are converting to Christianity and other faiths due to various influences,” Shamanur Shivashankarappa said in his letter.
âThose who are facing economic hardships, struggling with personal problemsâ¦ innocent people who lack forethought are encouraged to abandon our great tradition and embrace other religions,â he added. âYou have to stay in touch with the mutts, the psychics in your area and make sure that such conversions don’t take place. You must also design programs to bring back those who have converted to our faith. “
The question, added Shivashankarappa, is “urgent”.
Fear of vigilantism
The Mahasabha’s decision comes at a time when minorities in Karnataka, especially Christians, have explicitly expressed fears to be attacked by vigilantes.
The decision to introduce a bill that further strengthens an already existing law against seductive conversion came after MP BJP Gulihatti D. Shekhar raised the issue in the assembly in September. The MLA then ordered an investigation of all churches in the state via the Legislative Committee for Backward Classes and Minority Welfare in October, to verify any forced conversions.
After being greeted with protests and a legal challenge, the investigation did not take off.
AIVM leaders without commitment
Speaking to ThePrint, several Mahasabha officials chose to keep their distance from the decision, citing various reasons.
âI have been busy with MLC electoral work. I do not know this letter well enough to comment, âEshwar Khandre, secretary general of Mahasabha and chairman of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress committee, told ThePrint.
Shankar Bidari, a retired IPS officer and BJP member who is Mahasabha vice-president, said: âI have yet to speak with the president about this letter. I don’t know when and why this letter was written.
Prabhakar Kore, another AIVM vice president, said he was not in the country and was unaware of developments.
Veeranna Charantimath, BJP MP for Bagalkot and also vice-president of the AIVM, justified the decision, but deemed it “apolitical”.
âThere is no connection between the anti-conversion bill and the Mahasabha’s decision. Any conversion is illegal, isn’t it? ” he said. When asked what motivated the decision, Charantimath said discussions have been ongoing for some time.
AS Veeranna, yet another vice president, insisted the move was aimed at protecting the Veerashaiva Lingayats. “It’s very simple. Christians and Muslims convert our people and encourage them to change their religion. We want to stop it,” he told The Print.
A big gap
The Veerashaiva Mahasabha initiative has drawn criticism from the Jagathika Lingayat Mahasabha (JLM), a forum that has spearheaded the movement to seek a separate religious label for the Lingayat community. The JLM challenged the AIVM’s position that the Lingayats belong to Hinduism.
Both organizations are representative of the division within the Lingayat community of Karnataka. While the AIVM – with its 1.75 lakh of members – claims to be the representative of the Veerashaiva Lingayats, the JLM maintains that the Veerashaivas are only a sub-sect of the Lingayats.
The JLM demands that the Lingayat community be granted a âseparate religion statusâ such as Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, while AIVM opposes it.
SM Jamdar, retired IAS officer and JLM secretary general, said he was “surprised that the Veerashaiva Mahasabha is expressing his deep concern that sections of the Lingayat communities are converting to Christianity and Islam” .
âIt is the same Veerashaiva Mahasabha who expelled 60% of the Lingayats from the ‘shudra’ communities, considering them to be non-Lingayats. They imitated the Sanatana Varna system and ostracized communities like shoemakers, leather workers, cleaners, which was contrary to Basavanna’s teachings, âhe added.
Jamdar, an authority on the history of the Lingayat, added: âIn 1904, when Veerashaiva Mahasabha was established, their first resolution was that the Veerashaivas – not the Lingayats – were Hindus. They said they would follow, honor and accept the Vedas, Agama, Upanishads, etc. They also decided that all of the mutts in Veerashaiva would have only Jangamas (an order of Shaiva monks) as their leaders.
“This is how they brought the caste system back into the fold of Lingayat, which was supposed to be casteless.”
Jamdar demanded that the Veerashaiva Mahasabha first apologize to the Lingayats belonging to the lower sub-castes for “historical wrongs”.
The Lingayats are followers of the 12th century social reformer and philosopher Basavanna, while the Veerashaivas have claimed that their faith predates Basavanna and is ruled by the “pancacharya”, or five teachers / gurus. As the Lingayats consider Basavanna and his followers vachanaLike religious scriptures, the Veerashaivas regard the Vedas, Agama and Siddhanta Shikhamani as their own.
The quarrel between the Veerashaivas and the Lingayats over identity has raged for decades now.
While the AIVM maintains that the Veerashaivas and the Lingayats are the same, the JLM insists that the Veerashaivas are only a sub-sect under the broader umbrella of the Lingayats.
âThere are 102 sub-sects in the Lingayats, and the Veerashaivas are one of the sub-sects,â Jamdar said.
In 2018, just before the Karnataka Assembly elections, then-Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had erased the âminority religion labelâ for the Lingayats, although it was opposed by the Veerashaiva Mahasabha. The Union government rejected the proposal.
Even as the debate rages on whether the Lingayat community is to be seen as distinct from Hinduism, a clamor for a reservation within sub-sects of the community is brewing as well.
In February of this year, the numerically influential Panchamasali Lingayats brought the BJP government of Karnataka to its knees with its quota shake.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)
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