It’s election season in Karnataka. Political leaders are busy wooing seers of various religious maths associated with specific caste groups. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Bharatiya Janata Party national president J.P. Nadda, senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and others have all been doing ‘math rounds’ in recent times. Sceptics caution that approval from a caste math does not necessarily translate into votes for the leader or party from that community as a whole. Nevertheless, these maths have emerged as one of the key ways of making electoral inroads into specific communities. Antagonising the maths seems to be out of question for any political party.
Over the last several months, the reservation matrix of Karnataka has been in a flux. The seers of various caste maths — Prasannanadapuri Swami of the Valmiki community, Jaya Mrutyunjaya Swami of the Panachamasali-Lingayat community, Nirmalanandanatha Swami of the Vokkaligas and Niranjanandapuri Swami of the Kurubas, among others — have been leading agitations, or appealing to or setting deadlines for the government for a better share of the reservation pie. The government has announced a hike in reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which will benefit the Valmikis. It has also proposed a hike for Lingayats and Vokkaligas. But not everyone is happy. In fact, there is simmering discontent among the seers of various maths. For instance, Jaya Mrutyunjaya Swami has led at least two agitations in Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai’s constituency Shiggaon. The Panchamasali agitation led by its seer seems to be shaking the carefully put-together vote bank of the Lingayats for the BJP.
Meanwhile, the BJP seems keen on wooing Nirmalanandanatha Swami of the powerful Adichunchanagiri math of the Vokkaligas, in order to make inroads into the community and the Old Mysore region, which has been the domain of the Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress parties so far. The BJP appears enthused by the seer’s recent comparison of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with modern Bengaluru founder and Vokkaliga icon Kempegowda. However, even Mr. Gandhi visited Nirmalanandanatha Swami during the Karnataka leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
While the maths of the Brahmins and Lingayats are centuries old, other communities have formed their own spiritual centres to organise themselves in more recent times. Over the last four decades, several communities in the Other Backward Classes, SC and ST blocs, and even several sub-castes within other communities, have come up with their own maths. These have now emerged as ‘non-partisan’ promoters and adjudicators of communities’ interests. The proliferation of maths and the fact that political parties are wooing them and recognising them as representatives of these various communities have only cemented the hold of these religious-caste institutions over the state’s public life. M.M. Kalburgi, who was assassinated in 2015 allegedly by a Hindutva group, had described a math as a “Paryaya Sarkara” (a parallel government).
The power that maths wield in Karnataka’s political landscape comes to the fore every now and then. For instance, BJP leaders initially defended the seer of the powerful Veerashaiva-Lingayat Murugha Math, who faced accusations of abusing minor girls in the hostel run by the math. Other parties shied away from even speaking on the issue. Though the seer has now been arrested, activists fighting for the victims allege that efforts are being made to derail the case.
In another instance, the State government recently held a roundtable of seers to decide on the contents of moral education in the State’s schools. Two Brahmin math seers who attended it — Gangadharendra Saraswati Swami and Vishwa Prasanna Tirtha Swami — called for only “satvik” food to be served to children at schools. Vishwa Prasanna Tirtha Swami also sought a ban on meat being displayed in marketplaces. Several seers belonging to communities whose members eat non-vegetarian food did not object to this suggestion at the roundtable. Many of them also now participate in Virat Hindu Samaveshas, which are organised by the Sangh Parivar’s affiliates. All these developments indicate how the proliferation of maths among subaltern communities is aiding Sanskritisation of several communities.