Bengaluru: Senior Congress leader and former Karnataka water resources minister M.B. Patil on Thursday criticized his party colleague D.K. Shivakumar for apologizing on behalf of the previous government for interfering in religious matters.

The statement by Shivakumar, currently irrigation minister, was seen as a reference to the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government declaring Lingayats, believed to be the single largest community in the state, as a religious minority. “There is no question of the government interfering in religious matters. So, there is no question of apologizing," said Patil, adding that to publicly apologize for something that did not happen “was not right".

On Wednesday, Shivakumar had said that it was a mistake on the part of the previous government to get involved in religious matters, which many believe led to the defeat of the Congress in the May assembly elections.

Speaking at an event organized by prominent Veerashaiva seers in Gadag, Shivakumar had said that the government and politicians should not interfere in matters of religion and caste. “Several ministers said many things, but there is no bigger testament to the fact than the people’s verdict recently," he said. The Congress, which had stormed into power in 2013 bagging 122 of the 224 seats, was reduced to 78 in the May assembly election.

Patil had led the Lingayat movement, which eventually prompted the then chief minister Siddaramaiah to accord the community with a minority tag—a demand that was over a century old. However, the decision to separate the Veerashaivas from Lingayats caused a huge uproar, with the BJP saying it was aimed to divide the society for electoral gains.

Subsequently, Patil was one of the first casualties when he was overlooked for a place in the H.D. Kumaraswamy-led cabinet for his role in the movement.

The latest tussle between the senior Congress leaders is threatening to intensify the infighting within the party. The Congress, which moved swiftly to ally with the JD(S) after the hung verdict in May, has seen leaders expressing their displeasure in public, adding to the woes of the four-month-old coalition government. Karnataka chief minister Kumaraswamy said he had nothing to do with the controversy. “I have stated it earlier as well, that whenever there is an issue concerning religion, religious heads should come together and resolve this. I maintain this statement."

Shivakumar’s statement comes at a time when political parties are clearly divided along religious lines in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. More so, when right wing parties are taking sides in the controversy surrounding the Sabarimala temple.