The politics of identity is swarming us all, and even though the minorities are said to be in danger, the Lingayat community in Karnataka has re-kindled the fire within to be recognized as a separate religion from Hinduism. Identified as "caste hindus" in pre-independent India, Lingayats form about 19% of Karnataka, constituting the single largest community, and hence a valuable vote bank. Lingayats who consider saint Basavanna as the founder of their community are considered as Other Backward Classes and are entitled to several legal benefits. At the same time, a minority religion tag will bring in more legal protection as well as give them a distinct identity in the Indian republic.

The Leader of Opposition in Karnataka has demanded that the Government form a Committee to see if Lingayatism is a different religion. If and when that Committee is formed, it will have no choice but to follow the legal steps that are required to identify a religion under the law. The five judge Bench of Supreme Court in SP Mittal case (1983) 1 SCC 51 pronounced upon this aspect and gave a three pronged test for recognition of a religion, viz.

  1. it must be a collection of individuals who have a system of beliefs or doctrines which they regard as conducive to their spiritual well-being, that is, a common faith;
  2. common organisation; and
  3. designation by a distinctive name.

Importantly, it was also held that the terms above are to be interpreted as per Article 25 (Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion) and 26 (Freedom to manage religious affairs) of the Constitution of India, and not any other law.

Justice Chinappa Reddy, who had otherwise partly differed from the majority in SP Mittal, said the Constitution considers religion as "a matter of thought, expression, faith, belief and doctrine, concerning the human spirit and conscience, expressed overtly in the form of ritual and worship. It has been considered as one of man's attributes like race, sex, language, residence, etc. It may be professed, practised and propagated by anyone and it may even have some economic, financial, political or other secular activity associated with it, though such activity is not covered by the guarantee of freedom of conscience and right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion under Article 25, which flow out of the expression "Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship" in the Preamble to the Constitution."

The Veerashaiva Mahasabha had even approached the Karnataka High Court in 1990 to seek a different code for Lingayats in the census. However, the petition was rejected as providing of a code was only administrative convenience and answers as reported by persons were being recorded. It remains to be seen whether a fresh petition for declaration of Lingayatism as a religion will be filed. Until that happens, and even thereafter, the political hullabaloo is sure to continue.

 

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