Why are Karnataka’s religious mutts so powerful?

K Giriprakash Bengaluru | Updated on April 17, 2018 Published on April 17, 2018

Political gambles on election eve are known more to fail than succeed. And Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has made a big one at that.

By according religion status to the Lingayat-Veerashaiva community, Siddaramaiah’s Congress government has attempted to split the votes of the BJP’s most faithful, while also drawing the worshippers of Basavanna closer to his party.

But with the elections less than a month away, the leaders of the powerful Lingayat mutts have not revealed their preference yet. This should have the Chief Minister worried.

A measure of their sway

In 2014, a year after the present Congress government came to power, it tabled the Karnataka Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (Amendment) Bill.

The legislation sought to bring institutions controlled by mutts and other religious outfits under the government’s Endowment Department. There was massive uproar in the State from the Opposition and the pontiffs, who threatened to move the Congress high-command to have Siddaramaiah sacked. The government finally caved in. Last year, a notification issued seeking public opinion on the matter was also hastily withdrawn.

Religious mutts in Karnataka are perceived to be extremely powerful, and the fact that political leaders go-mutt hopping during elections only buttresses the fact.

According to various estimates, mutts belonging to Lingayats, Vokkaligas and to a certain extent, the Kurubas, own assets worth thousands of crores because of the land tracts they own and the institutions they run.

A slice of history

The first instance of the power of the mutts displaying their power was when Karnataka’s first chief minister S Nijalingappa suffered a stunning defeat in the 1962 Hosadurga by-elections.

Nijalingappa, who was also the last president of the undivided Indian National Congress, belonged to a certain sub-sect of the Lingayats. But the local mutt leader, Shivakumar Swamiji of Srigere, who belonged to a different sub-sect took it upon himself to ensure the defeat of the sitting chief minister, who eventually lost the elections to a virtually nobody from the Kuruba community. It is another matter that Nijalingappa was elected unopposed two months later, from Bagalkot in North Karnataka, and became the chief minister again.

The ascent to power

“The Lingayat and Vokkaliga mutts started gaining power and money during the mid-1980s when the then chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde, a Brahmin, gave them the permission and the land to set up engineering and medical colleges,” says Mahadeva Prakash, a journalist and author who is currently penning a book on the Lingayats.

Ever since, These mutts have attracted a large number of followers and have became closer to their respective communities.

He says that some of the mutts, like the Siddaganga Mutt, carry out extensive social work, which has endeared them to their respective communities. The mutt has set up free hostels in which about 10,000 children live. These children get free education irrespective of the caste they belong to.

Never overt

He points out that even though mutts play a major role in influencing the outcome of elections, their leaders never openly indicate their preference for parties or candidates, save a few occasions. “Whenever they want their followers to vote for a certain candidate, they say a few good words about the person during their meeting with their followers.”

Conversely, as R Sivaprasad, Professor of anthropology at University of Hyderabad, points out, if a candidate is not able to get support from a certain mutt, he goes hunting for another that can sing his praises. “This is because there are hundreds of mutts across the State, with each of them representing a sub-sect,” says Prakash.

However, this is not the case with the Vokkaliga mutts who seem to prefer the JD (S) and its supremo, HD Deve Gowda, more than the other parties.

This trend of mutts influencing their followers is quite unique in south India, says Sivaprasad. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, those who wield influence are caste associations. “In Karnataka, both have merged and at the same time, these mutts are also extremely rich unlike those in other south Indian States.”

Another political analyst says the electoral influence of these mutts have not been completely proven. “But, if they cannot help candidates win, they have the ability to divide the votes,” he says.

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Published on April 17, 2018
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