In a bid to woo the Lingayats, a dominant community in the state, ahead of the assembly elections, the Karnataka cabinet on Monday decided to grant them the status of a separate religion.
"Based on the recommendations of Karnataka State Minorities Commission, the state cabinet has unanimously decided to grant status of religious minority to Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats (believers of 12th century social reformer Basava's ideologies)," state Law Minister T.B. Jayachandra told the media after the cabinet meeting.
Lingayats, who worship Shiva as the universal god, and Veerashaiva Lingayats, together constitute the largest community (17 per cent) in the southern state, and their votes could influence the outcome of the upcoming state assembly polls in April-May. The BJP is widely seen to have influence in the community which the ruling Congress is seeking to woo.
The BJP, whose Chief Ministerial face B.S. Yeddyurappa is a Lingayat, sees the Congress move as an attempt to divide the Hindu votes.
The state cabinet, chaired by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, has decided to forward the Commission's recommendations to the Central government for approval and notification under the National Commission for Minorities Act, the Minister said.
"The minority status has been granted on the Commission's view that a proper recognition is to be given to the Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayats, on condition that the recognition would not affect the rights of other minorities in the state," Jayachandra said.
A separate committee under the Commission, headed by former Karnataka High Court judge, Justice H.N. Nagamohan Das, had also recommended the grant of religious minority status to the sect.
Reacting on the decision, BJP slammed the Karnataka government for its decision, accusing Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of "playing with fire for vote bank politics".
Party general secretary in-charge of Karnataka P Muralidhar Rao accused the state's ruling Congress of practising a "divide and rule" policy.
"Congress carrying 'Divide and Rule' legacy of Britishers in India. Siddaramaiah ji is playing with fire for vote bank politics. Why has Congress done this before elections? Why haven't they done it 4 years back?" he said in a tweet.
Meanwhile, the Congress party asked the BJP to make its stand clear on the Karnataka Cabinet's decision, after the saffron party accused Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of "playing with fire" for vote bank politics.
Congress's communications incharge Randeep Surjewala said the issue should not be linked with elections or the political process.
"It is inappropriate to link the decision of Karnataka government viz-a-viz declaration of Lingayat Samaj as a minority community to the political processes," he told reporters.
Surjewala asked BJP chief Amit Shah and the party's state unit president B S Yeddyurappa to clarify whether they are in favour of the decision or against it.
"You need to clarify and come out clearly. Do not hunt with the hare. That is why we have clearly said the sinister propaganda of BJP on this issue is condemnable.
"For, they do not want to speak for the fear of annoying vote bank, yet they are opposing the demand of Lingayat samaj. It is condemnable and we dare Shri B S Yeddyuruppa and Shri Amit Shah to clarify their position in the open," he said.
Surjewala said the Karnataka government had followed the due process before taking the decision. Referring to the Jain community, which was recognized as a religious minority a few years ago, he said Lingayats should also be accorded such status.
He said the previous UPA Congress government had got the demand of the community examined and due process was followed by the Siddaramaiah dispensation. After examining historical and other evidences, the UPA government had come to a conclusion that the Jain community was a religious minority despite objections by the Agrawal community, which said they were part of them.