Vote bank politics keeping Mahadayi issue alive: Basavaraj Hiremath, senior advocate

Sixty-three-year-old advocate, Basavaraj D Hiremath, who successfully led the movement for the Dharwad high court bench, is a prominent face in agitations for the development of North Karnataka. His struggle to realise long-pending dreams of the region has earned him accolades from people of all walks of life. Hiremath who served as president of Dharwad High Court Bar Assocation, spearheaded the demand for early implementation of the Kalasa Banduri project. He was also the first to unfurl the separate state flag for the region in Dharwad in 2000. In an interview with Deccan Chronicle, he spoke on the twin issues of Mahadayi and the Lingayat religion row as he belongs to the community. Here are excerpts.

Do you think the recent developments — the call for a statewide bandh and staging a protest in front of one political party’s office — suggest that the Mahadayi agitation has taken political colour?
The farmers’ claim for Karnataka’s share of Mahadayi water is justified and it is deplorable that their demand is not fulfilled even more than five decades after the project report was prepared. Surely, the Mahadayi movement has taken political colour as all parties are trying to take benefit. I welcome the protest held by farmers in front of the BJP office in Bengaluru. But, we should note that one party cannot take a decision on the issue. The BJP government in Goa has no clear majority. It is an inter-state dispute which requires involvement of all parties to arrive at an amicable settlement.  Goa CM Manohar Parrikar should have written to his Karnataka counterpart instead of handing over a letter  promising Yeddyurappa water. CM Siddaramaiah also should have taken advantage of Parrikar’s assurance by seeking intervention of AICC president Rahul Gandhi to convince the Goa Congress unit. The farmers should have protested against leaders of the Karnataka Congress as well to exert pressure on them.  

Many have said that Kannada activists did not even consult them before calling for a state-wide bandh on January 25.
We managed to pressure political parties by observing several bandhs. But, we failed to attract the attention of national leaders through such agitations. The movement will gain more strength only if the majority of farmer organisations are taken into confidence before giving such bandh calls. It is essential to hold a thorough discussion with all farmer leaders before adopting strategies for agitations.  

Do you see unity among farmer organisations on the issue?
Congress and BJP leaders are trying to divert the Mahadayi agitators by attracting them to their party through their farmers’ wing. But, we should note that there is involvement of the entire farming community as well as general public in the movement. It is indispensable to strengthen unity to force parties to arrive at a concrete decision. A show of strength will force national leaders to fall in line.

You succeeded in a movement for securing a permanent High Court bench in North Karnataka. But  you stayed away from Mahadayi movement. Why?
We succeeded in setting up a High Court bench in Dharwad and Kalaburgi as we never allowed any party to politicise the issue. We permitted politicians to take part in our struggle without flags or banners. I stayed away from the Mahadayi movement as the agitation lacks a proper framework and this has helped parties to take benefit by misleading  farmers. My health problems too forced me to stay away. 

Do you think electoral politics is behind this issue? Otherwise why should they call for a bandh now?
It is a big tragedy that party leaders, who are decision makers, are themselves taking part in the agitation.  All parties are trying to keep their vote banks intact as elections are a few months away. Due to this, the agitation has suffered a setback to some extent.  But  I am optimistic that farmers will get justice.   

What is the way out on the Mahadayi row?
Several Prime Ministers have set a precedent to resolve  inter-state water disputes through negotiations. It is high time that leaders cutting across party lines come together to find an amicable solution. They should exert pressure on the high command of their respective parties. An all-party meeting will become meaningful only if efforts are made in this direction.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to take the lead role to bring relief to the drought-hit farmers of nine taluks in four districts. Otherwise, we have to wait for final verdict of the tribunal until August this year. I am confident Karnataka will get its share of water.

Moving on, as an independent observor, do you think the Lingayat religion movement is losing steam?
Voices for a separate Lingayat religion have gained momentum as elections are round the corner. It is a false impression that religion and caste based politics will help get  votes. Both the Congress and BJP should shed the belief that they will win or lose Lingayat votes by favouring or opposing Independent religion status.  I feel that people should keep matters pertaining to religion private.  

Wasn’t it a ploy by the ruling party to divide the Lingayat vote bank and get a large chunk of votes?
I agree. The state government is trying to gain political mileage by indirectly supporting the minority tag for Lingayats. But, their calculations will prove wrong as the majority of people from the community will vote without considering the stand of the political party on minority tag. Lingayat leaders are trying to erect ‘a caste fence’ on the pretext of seeking independent religion status though 12th century social reformer Basavanna advocated a casteless society and equality!  

Is separate religion status the only way to uplift the downtrodden in the community?
Lingayat leaders are fighting for separate religion tag on the pretext of giving justice to the downtrodden in the community. But, how can they uplift all marginalized people with a small percentage of reservation when there are crores of such people in the community?  Let them voluntarily give free education and other facilities first to poor youth in their own educational institutions without waiting for the minority tag. This is only a political gimmick to divide and rule. 

The verbal duel has intensified as both Lingayats and Veerashaivas have made it a prestige issue. 
I endorse the stand taken by the Dr Shivakumar swamiji of Tumakuru Siddaganga Mutt that Lingayats and Veerashaivas are the same. Both factions should go together if they want separate religion status. Though both factions have their historical records to support their claim, there will be always strength in  unity. 

Now that the expert committee has sought six months time to make its recommendations, do you think Lingayats are upset with the ruling party?
Thousands of Lingayats might have turned up in the rallies for independent religion tag. But, they cannot represent the entire community. The government has formed an expert panel in a hurry with an eye on the Lingayat vote bank. But, it has failed in its motive as the panel has sought six months time and by then, the polls will be over. This is a big blow to the state government and Congress leaders who hatched a conspiracy to divide the community. 

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Note from Kannada.Club :

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