THE past few months have witnessed a heightened demand by some caste and sub-caste groups in Karnataka for a share in the reservation pie. Religious leaders of two caste groups, Panchamsalis and Kurubas, have been spearheading movements to demand an increase in the percentage of reservation for the respective communities in the total reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Panchamsali is a numerically large sub-caste of the dominant Lingayat community and Kuruba is the third-largest caste group in the State after the Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities, if one excludes the Scheduled Caste (S.C.) and Muslim communities.
While Panchamsalis are demanding that the caste should be moved from 3B to 2A category in the OBC list, Kurubas are demanding that the entire community, which is currently classified under the 2A category in the OBC list, be designated a Scheduled Tribe (S.T.). According to data gathered from the Social Welfare Department, 50 per cent of government jobs and admissions to educational institutions in the State is reserved for OBCs (32 per cent for 207 castes spread across five categories), S.Cs (15 per cent for 101 castes) and S.Ts (3 per cent for 50 tribes) in the State.
Kurubas hope to benefit from the weaker reservation pool by moving to the S.T. category Similarly, if the Panchamsali caste is moved from the 3B category (which has 5 per cent reservation for 41 castes and mainly includes Lingayat sub-sects) to the 2A category (which has 15 per cent reservation for 102 castes), it will gain from the larger reserved pool of candidates.
On February 7, members of the Kuruba community gathered for a massive rally in Bengaluru held at the culmination of a padayatra by Niranjananda Puri Swami, the pontiff of the Kanaka Guru Peetha of Kaginele in Haveri district and religious head of the community. The pontiff began his padayatra on January 16 from Kaginele.
Seers of the Panchamsali sect are currently on a padayatra covering 450 kilometres from Kudalasangama in Bagalkot district to Bengaluru. They are slated to join a massive congregation on February 21 in a show of strength. Basava Jayamruthyunjaya Swamiji, the pontiff of the Panchamsali Peetha based in Kudalasangama who is leading the padayatra, articulated the demands of the community in an interview. “The Panchamsalis are mainly farmers and a socially, economically and educationally backward community. We have only one demand: the Panchamsali community must be included in the 2A category. While we have reservation under the 3B category, our youth are competing with powerful communities for only five per cent of the reserved pool. If we are moved to the 2A category, our youth will have an advantage.”
Prominent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders have lent their support to the demand. K.S. Eshwarappa, the most visible Kuruba leader belonging to the BJP in the State, was often seen walking with Niranjananda and even addressing meetings at which he railed against former Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, widely regarded as the sole leader of the Kuruba community. Siddaramaiah has backed the demand for S.T. tag for Kurubas but has stayed away from the agitation, which he has described as an “RSS-backed movement”.
Aim to bolster BJP’s base
The participation of BJP politicians in the two movements has led to intense speculation that the aim of the agitation is to bolster the party’s political support base and at the same time sideline Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa in the run-up to the 2023 Assembly election. Ever since Yediyurappa came to power in 2019 after engineering the collapse of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government, he has been involved in a complicated tussle for one-upmanship in the State BJP (“The Caste Card”, Frontline, January 1, 2021).
According to Muzaffar Assadi, a political scientist at the University of Mysore, “Both the movements aim at expanding the base of the BJP in the State. The Kuruba demand is strategically aimed at wooing away the community from Siddaramaiah, while the Panchamsali demand is backed by the desire within the community to encourage an alternative Lingayat leader to emerge within the BJP fold.”
Statements made by Jayamruthyunjaya Swamiji make this aspect of the Panchamasali agitation clear. The pontiff stated in an interview that Yediyurappa had aged and was not capable of handling the affairs of the State. “If the Prime Minister and Amit Shahji, ask me for my suggestion, I will advise them to appoint a Panchamsali Lingayat leader from north Karnataka as the next Chief Minister.” Karnataka has had eight Lingayat Chief Ministers since the reorganisation of the State in 1956, of whom only two—S. Nijalingappa and J.H. Patel— belonged to the Panchamsali sub-caste. Yediyurappa belongs to the Ganiga sub-caste of the Lingayat community.
Religion and politics
The intermingling of caste-based associations and politics is not new in Karnataka but the demand of the Panchamsali and Kuruba communities, which manifested in dramatic walkathons by their spiritual heads, has given an aggressive tone to these articulations. The Panchamsali seers have even threatened to undertake an “indefinite fast” after February 21 if their demands are not met.
Asked about the participation of religious leaders in protests demanding reclassification of the respective communities for getting the benefit of reservation, Sanathkumar Belagali, a Kalaburagi-based senior Kannada journalist, stated: “These religious gurus are being utilised for political purposes. That is all. There are deprived communities such as Muslims, whose backwardness has been demonstrated by the [Justice Rajinder] Sachar Committee Report, who truly deserve affirmative action but Muslims are not even articulating such demands because they are in an insecure position.”
There are two major problems with the Kuruba and Panchamsali demands, according to experts. First, these demands are not backed by any scientific evaluation. As D.C. Nanjunda, an anthropologist at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the University of Mysore, explained: “If a community wants to be identified as S.T., a complete anthropological study has to be done which looks at five criteria to demonstrate the primitiveness of a group, which has not been done in the case of Kurubas. Similarly, only a rigorous socio-economic survey will validate the Panchamsali claim that they need to be moved to a different category within the OBC list.” Two microscopic Kuruba communities—the Jenu Kuruba and the Kaadu Kuruba—are already in the S.T. list. “How can you equate these primitive tribal groups with the broader Kuruba community?” Nanjunda asked.
Second, it is certain that if any reshuffle of caste-based reservation is done, minor communities in the S.T. and OBC categories that are already in a disadvantageous position will further lose the benefits of reservation.
Participating in an online discussion on the theme, Justice H.N. Nagamohan Das, retired judge of the Karnataka High Court, expounded this aspect: “In the past 71 years, we have provided reservation as per the Indian Constitution and some people have benefited from this. It is also true that small communities have not benefited from this. We should be concerned about this. Take, for example, Adivasis, nomadic tribes, safai karmacharis, Devadasis and their children, etc.”
Justice Nagamohan Das suggested that in order to find a solution to the vexed issue of reservation, it was necessary to “scientifically examine the plight of each community and distribute benefits accordingly”.
The argument for internal reservation within the broad quota of each sub-section of society that Justice Nagamohan Das was referring to is not a new one. Madiga Dalits have been demanding this for a long time, but to apportion reservation benefits to each caste group it is necessary to conduct an extensive study of the socio-economic conditions of all the communities in the State along with significant judicial go-ahead (“Politics in Dalit Quota”, Frontline, October 9, 2020).
Caste census report
A study of this kind, formally known as “Social and Educational Survey” but informally referred to “caste census”, was conducted during the tenure of Siddaramaiah (“Critical Exercise”, Frontline, May 15, 2015). Siddaramaiah did not make the report public, while his successors, H.D. Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (S) and Yediyurappa, have not mustered the courage to reveal its contents. The fear is that the implementation of the report will lead to an explosive realignment of social equations in the State with the emergence of true caste numbers. For instance, portions of the report that were leaked showed that Lingayats, who have for long claimed to be the largest community in the State, had a much lower population than S.C. and Muslim communities.
There is a feeling in progressive circles that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) is backing the demand for reservation by Kurubas and Panchamsalis to muddy the logic of reservation. Rajendra Chenni, director of the Manasa Centre for Cultural Studies, Shivamogga, argued: “The RSS has always been against the policy of reservation; their aim is to dilute it to the maximum. The strategy of the upper castes has been to ask: ‘Why don’t you give reservation to us?’. If these two numerically large communities [Kurubas and Panchamsalis] get what they want, the whole reservation policy will get muddled.”
C.S. Dwarakanath, former chairman of the Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes (KSCBS), expressed a similar opinion. He told Frontline: “The entire strategy has been developed in the Nagpur laboratory [the RSS headquarters]. They just want to defeat the idea of reservation in the long run, that is why they are doing all this.”
The agitations by Kurubas and Panchamsalis have, predictably, led to other caste groups staking their claim for separate quota or quota within quota. The latest to join the bandwagon is the powerful Vokkaliga community, which wants all the sub-castes in the community to be included in the OBC list and a increase in the share for the caste group in the reservation pool commensurate with the higher numbers of the community in the OBC population. The Valmiki-Nayakas, a powerful S.T. community which is often accused of grabbing a disproportionate share of benefits within the S.T. quota, has renewed its demand for increasing the quantum of the S.T. quota from 3 per cent to 7.5 per cent. The Savitha Samaj and Uppara castes, besides a host of smaller communities, have also joined the chorus.
Yediyurappa is becoming increasingly beleaguered by these pressure groups. It was he who gave a new orientation to caste politics in Karnataka when he assumed the leadership of the Lingayat community in the 1990s. At that time, he cultivated a symbiotic relationship with the several Lingayat mutts and gained their backing. With the Panchamsalis displaying a readiness to abandon him and the brazen challenges posed by Lingayat leaders such as Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, BJP Member of Legislative Assembly from Vijayapura, Yediyurappa finds himself in a quandary.
After a heated debate in the Assembly on February 6 with Yatnal, who has endorsed the Panchamsali demand, Yediyurappa initially stated that he did not have the “powers” to decide on the issue. But he backtracked on the statement and decided to refer the decision to the KSCBC. His move to assuage the demands of Lingayats by recommending that they be included in the central OBC list was shot down by the Central government in November last year leaving him without many options to retain his hold over the community.
The Kuruba demand received a fillip when MLAs such as N. Nagaraj (MTB), A.H. Vishwanath, Byrathi Basavaraj and R. Shankar, who defected to the BJP from the Congress and the JD(S) in 2019 endorsed the community’s demand for the S.T. tag. On February 7, Niranjananda underlined this when he said: “Our community MLAs along with others trusted Yediyurappa and gave him support. The Chief Minister should recommend our case [to the Central government] immediately.”
For Yediyurappa, it looks like the classic case of chickens coming home to roost.