June 1, 1996, is a red-letter day in the history of Vokkaligas — the second most powerful caste in Karnataka. HD Deve Gowda took oath as the Prime Minister of India on that day and a sub-regional caste celebrated its leader who had reached the pinnacle of power in India. That day, Gowda became their undisputed leader who still controls the Vokkaliga vote bank in Karnataka. It is a different matter that the same caste defeated the Gowda clan to make another Vokkaliga SM Krishna the chief minister, just three years later. But Gowda has remained their topmost leader for almost 30 years.
Karnataka politics, post-Independence, has been dominated by two castes — Lingayats and Vokkaligas. They have been ruling the state by turn barring a few terms. Unlike the Lingayats, who have a pan Karnataka presence, Vokkaligas (literal meaning ‘farmer’) are an old Mysore region centric caste with a huge population in just three-four districts.
This 100% agrarian community had a few medieval chieftains — Kempe Gowda — the founder of Bengaluru is the most famous among them. During the rule of Mysore Kings under the British, Vokkaligas were restricted to farming. Literacy level and political participation of the community were abysmal. The Independence in 1947, changed all that and Vokkaligas became key players in Karnataka’s socio-political life.
Between 1947 and 1956, till the reunification of all Kannada speaking areas under one state, Vokkaligas used to control the levers of power in old Mysore state. The reorganisation of the state changed that, forcing them to accept the hegemony of Lingayats, who are a dominant caste in north Karnataka and have a sizeable population in old Mysore.
Sometime in early 1950s, during the height of Karnataka Ekeekarana Andolana (Karnataka Unification Movement), top leaders of the Vokkaliga caste had gathered at a house in central Bengaluru to decide the future course of their action. All of them were Congress leaders and had participated in the freedom movement. Most had impeccable personal credentials. But majority of them were not too enthusiastic about the unification of all Kannada-speaking areas under one administration. They had many reasons for that. Some argued that Maharaja’s Mysore or Old Mysore was already a well-developed model state and merging poor Mumbai-Karnataka and Hyderabad-Karnataka regions would be a burden on the state exchequer and resources. Some had bigger fears. They argued that once all Kannada speaking areas unite, the Vokkaligas will lose their caste dominance paving way for the Lingayat hegemony. Two most powerful castes of the state were wary of each other even then.
But the then chief minister of old Mysore state, Kengal Hanumanthaiah, was all for state unification. A freedom fighter and an able administrator, Hanumanthaiah was a tall leader of the Vokkaligas.
Vetoing his own caste leaders, Hunumanthaiah told them that future generations of Kannadigas would never forgive them if they opposed unification for caste and political reasons.
The Vokkaliga leader threw his might behind the unification movement and the new Mysore state with Kannada-speaking regions of Bombay Presidency – including some districts of present-day Karnataka, Nizam’s Hyderabad, Karnataka, Madras Presidency, and an independent, tiny state of Kodagu (Coorg) was born on November 1, 1956.
Sadly, Kengal Hanumanthaiah lost power and a Lingayat strongman, S Nijalingappa, took charge as the first chief minister of New Mysore state. As expected, the Vokkaligas lost the chief minister’s chair to Lingayats and they had to wait for 38 years to reclaim the chair. In 1994, HD Deve Gowda became the first Vokkaliga chief minister of united Karnataka.
Between 1956 and 1972, four Lingayat chief ministers (S Nijalingappa, BD Jatti, SR Kanthi and Veerendra Patil) ruled the state. Between 1972 and 1983, a Kshatriya D Devaraja Urs and a Brahmin R Gundurao ruled the state minus much Lingayat backing. Ramakrishna Hegde, who became Karnataka’s first non-Congress chief minister in 1983, was also considered an uncrowned Lingayat leader even though he was a Brahmin.
To end Hegde’s rule, the then Prime Minister and Congress president Rajiv Gandhi made a Lingayat stalwart Veerendra Patil KPCC president and chief ministerial candidate in 1989. Under his leadership, the Congress swept the polls by winning 181 seats in the 224-member house. But the Congress chose two Other Backward Class (OBC) leaders – S Bangarappa and M Veerappa Moily — to succeed Patil and the Vokkaligas had to wait till 1994.
The Lingayat faith was born out of a 12th century movement for a casteless, egalitarian society led by a Brahmin Basavanna and his followers took it to all corners of Kannada speaking areas over the next centuries. They even came to Vokkaliga heartland old Mysore, and many lower castes and untouchables embraced the new faith. But the Vokkaligas, the landed community, mostly stayed away from it, though there is no record of any clash between the two. For centuries, it was a harmonious co-existence.
SM Krishna, a young educated Vokkaliga, secured a Fullbright scholarship in 1954 and left for America to pursue higher studies. Many other young Vokkaligas also followed him in the next few years exposing the community to Western education and thinking.
In the 1960s, the creation of Adi Chunchanagiri Mutt and anointment of a seer brought several sub-castes under one religious head. The Mutt expanded rapidly with the patronage of Vokkaliga politicians and became a behemoth. During the time of elections, all political leaders make a beeline to the Mutt seeking its endorsement and it plays a big role in southern Karnataka politics and social life.
According to leaked Caste census data, Vokkaligas form 11% of the total Karnataka population. They rank number four after SCs, Muslims and Lingayats. However, this data is disputed by both Vokkaligas and Lingayats. Vokkaligas claim that their number is much higher, that is, 16%. Like Lingayats, Vokkaligas also have many sub castes and they normally view each other with suspicion. Gangatakara, Dasa, Marasu and Kunchitiga are the four sub-castes among the Vokkaligas.
Vokkaligas decide the outcome of the elections in about 80 Assembly seats, and they are a dominant force in about 50 Assembly constituencies.
In 2018, nearly 42 Vokkaligas won the Assembly elections. Of them, 23 were from the JDS. A Vokkaliga, HD Kumaraswamy even became the chief minister with the support of Congress for 14 months.
Both Lingayats and Vokkaligas had backed the Congress post-Independence. It changed after 1972. The then Congress chief minister D Devaraj Urs, a Kshatriya, became a champion of the Other Backward Classes, SC/STs and Muslims, threatening the political hegemony of these two castes. In 1983, they ganged up and threw the Congress government out. Between 1983 and 1989, the Janata Party government was mainly a Lingayat-Vokkaliga alliance. Again in 1994, these two castes came together to defeat the Congress. Only in 1989, both had backed the Congress.
In the past whenever their political hegemony was threatened, these two castes had buried their differences and voted together against a common enemy.
HD Deve Gowda is now 90 and ailing. He is leading the JDS run by a warring family to save his legacy. With the departure of BS Yediyurappa from electoral politics, the Lingayat community is looking out for other opportunities. Though the BJP is trying its best to keep them intact, the Congress, which is mainly a party of OBCs, SCs and Muslims, is hoping that a sizeable number of Lingayats and Vokkaligas will back them in the coming Assembly elections.
KPCC president DK Shivakumar is a Vokkaliga and campaign committee chairman MB Patil is a Lingayat. But these two castes are still wary of Siddaramaiah, the most popular leader in the state. His brazen AHINDA (OBCs, SC/STs and minorities) card has offended them. Unless the Congress gets at least 30% votes of each community (Lingayats and Vokkaligas), it is highly unlikely they will come to power.
The ruling BJP, which is fighting a tough election, hopes the Vokkaligas stay with the Gowda clan (JDS) ensuring Congress’ defeat.
In the recent years, the BJP has tried to appropriate Vokkaligas by linking their Mutt Adi Chanchanagiri with Goraknath Mutt in Uttar Pradesh, allege some community leaders. Since Vokkaliga Mutt is an ancient Nath Panth Mutt (again there are many versions), UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath has visited it on a few occasions in the last five years. The current seer Nirmalananda Natha Swamy (he was a technocrat before embracing Sanyasa) has an excellent personal rapport with Yogi and had even attended his swearing in. This kind of a new bonhomie has not gone down well with the JDS and Congress. Though they are not openly expressing it.
The Congress is making an all-out effort to breach the Gowda fortress to capture Vidhana Soudha in summer. The BJP, which has half a dozen important Vokkaliga leaders, argues that the community is nobody’s monopoly, and a sizeable number are with the saffron party.
When the votes are counted, we will come to know how Vokkaligas voted.
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