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Dying Of The Light

M.M. Kalburgi’s murder and the faith morass in Karnataka

Dying Of The Light
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Kalburgi Kerfuffle

The controversies that dogged the scholar

Divine Birth

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  • Marga-1 (1989), the first volume of Kalburgi’s research papers, was probably his most controversial work. He interpreted historical writings to question the belief about the divine birth of Basaveshwara’s nephew Channabasava, a prominent sharana. Some intellectuals did speak up for him but Kalburgi faced a huge backlash from the community. There were calls for him to resign from the Basava chair at Karnatak University. He was forced to recant, later said it was to save his family but it felt like he was committing “intellectual suicide”.

Idol Worship

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  • In 2014, Kalburgi referred to an extract from the late U.R. Anan­t­hamurthy’s book Bettale Pooje Yake Koo­dadu in which the Jnanpith awardee had narrated a childhood prank of urinating on a religious stone in his village to test its powers, and his fears following that. Kalburgi was speaking at a seminar on Karnataka’s Prevention and Abolition of Superstition Practices bill in the context of idol worship but the reference snowballed into a controve­rsy. It led vandals to throw beer bottles at his house in Dharwad, following which he was given police protection.

Hindus Or Not?

  • Kalburgi was vocal about the idea that Lingayats were not a branch of Hinduism, a line of thought that has been around for several decades now and has even been the subject of a court case. Though he was not the first to do so, Kalburgi’s contemporaries say he drew a distinction between Veerashaivas and Lingayats (some say he earlier used the terms as synonyms himself) which didn’t go down too well with conservatives in the community.

No Country For Non-Believers

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Govind Pansare, Communist writer and rationalist killed in Kolhapur in 2015  
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Narendra Dabholkar, Well-known rationalist
killed in Pune in 2013

***

“Killing a man who is 78 years old...only a coward would do this. He just killed him and ran away.” That was Srivijaya, son of the Kannada writer and scholar M.M. Kalburgi. He’s still mortified as he recounts the events of that day. A panic- stricken call from his younger sister in Dharwad had set him off on the road from Bangalore. But it was the flurry of phone calls from relatives that made him tune into the news an hour into the 423-km drive. Which is when he saw visuals of his father on a stretcher with the caption, “Hatye” (Kannada for assassination). “We got the shock of our life. We just stopped by the side of the road,” he says. “I had thought some people may have slapped or pushed him, maybe due to a difference of opinion. But killed with a firearm, that too in Dharwad. I can’t believe it.”

In fact, the Kannada literary world is itself in shock by the turn of events. Most famous names now have armed policemen protecting their homes (a rattled Congress government is taking no cha­nces). But nobody is drawing conc­l­usi­ons yet in the killing of Prof Mal­l­­eshappa Madivalappa Kalb­urgi. Indeed, the police are probing multiple angles, including speculation about a property dispute. The real worry, though, is that the atmosphere of intolerance in the bjp’s “gateway to the south”, Karnataka, has taken a turn for the worse. “This is a totally real situation and we have to accept the fact and prepare ourselves to fight it,” says Prof Chandrashekhar Patil, poet, playwright and a college mate of Kal­burgi’s at the Karnatak University in Dharwad. “We appear to be reaching zero tolerance levels...it’s a very dang­erous situation for our democracy.”

Retired Mysore University professor K.S. Bhagwan says he actually feels sorry for the Bajrang Dal member in Mangalore who had tweeted—just hours after Kalb­u­rgi’s death—that he was next in line. Nonetheless, the government has deputed armed guards at Bhagwan’s home in Mysore (also CM Siddaramaiah’s hometown) while the police have registered an FIR against the tweeter, Bhuvith Shetty, for criminal intimidation and provoking enmity between groups. They are now also contemplating a move to extern him from the Bantwal region, a fate which has befallen Sri Rama Sene chief Pra­mod Muthalik in neighbouring Goa.

Bhagwan, 70, says, “My works are int­ended to spread equality and rationalism and scientific inquiry but unfortunately the young man has not read them. He has been misled.” Controversy, however, is something Bhagwan is no stranger to, right from 1982 when his work, Shan­ka­racharya Mattu Pratigamitana (Shank­ar­a­charya and Reactionary Ideology), que­stioning the philosophy of the 8th century theologian, was published. Ear­lier this year, he had objected to some stanzas in the Bhagavad Gita, saying they were demeaning to women and the lower castes, raising the hackles of many. “If the audience allows me, I will burn these selected passages, I said. People became angry, but I told them it is there ...how can you accept it.”

Bhagwan recalls Kalburgi’s words—that they were “sailing in the same boat”—when the two first met some time in 1989. That was the year Kal­burgi’s first volume of ‘Marga’ kicked up a storm over his research articles on the birth of Channabasavanna, a 12th century Lingayat ‘sharana’ and nephew of the philosopher Basava. He was forced to back off, retract his views which, he later said, was because he feared for his family’s safety.

Kalburgi’s run-in with right-wing act­ivists started a year ago when he quo­ted a section from a book by Kan­nada writer and academic U.R. Ana­nthamurthy at a seminar on the anti-sup­erstitions bill proposed by the state. Till a few months ago, there were policemen guarding his residence but Kalburgi had that discontinued. To be sure, there’s been nothing controversial in the year since and most people believed things had died down. Srivijaya says, “He used to say, ‘I have not harmed anybody, what will happen to me. There is no need of security at all’...that’s the way he looked at life.”

The manner in which Kalburgi was attacked—he was shot point-blank at his doorstep in Dharwad by two men who came on a motorcycle at around 8.40 am on August 30—is already being linked to the yet-unsolved murders of rationalist-activists like Govind Pan­sare and Narendra Dabholkar. Unlike them, how­ever, Kalburgi, a former vice-chancellor of the Kannada University at Hampi, was not an activist or even a rationalist. People close to him say he wasn’t very clued in on politics either. He was primarily a linguist who explored Kannada culture through his expertise in the 12th century Vachana literature of Basavanna and the Lingayat sharanas. It was something that influenced him deeply and what he modelled his method of questioning and research on, reckon some.

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Kalburgi’s wife Umadevi is inconsolable

“He was an iconoclast,” says Shivanand Kanavi, journalist and adjunct faculty at the Bangalore think-tank, National Institute of Advanced Studies, of Kalburgi who was a next-door neighbour. In recent years, the scholar, who had been prolific throughout his career, was engaged in editing a volume of over 2,500 selected Vachana poems which were to be published in 20 languages. He had also edited and published volumes of Basavaraj Kattimani, a progressive Kannada writer, and the 20th century researcher, F.G. Halakatti.

Dharwad, the hub for Kannada literature, culture and Hindustani music, provided the ideal setting for his activities. It’s a slow-paced little town populated by retired folk, literary giants and hordes of youngsters studying at its many colleges. So the shock and anger was even more evident as Kalburgi’s funeral procession wound its way through the leafy lanes and the Karnatak University campus where the scholar was laid to rest. Slogans calling for the arrest of the killers were interspersed with those asserting that Lingayats were not Hindus. It’s an argument dating back over six decades. Kalburgi had been vocal about it besides arguing that Veerashaivism existed before Basavanna and hence the Lingayat faith. The two terms are usually used as synonyms to signify the community, a dominant one in northern Karnataka.

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“A big chunk of the mathadishas (seers) were with him but some conservative groups of this community vehemently opposed the move. So this struggle was there,” says writer K. Marulusiddappa. Kalburgi’s writings often explored new perspectives that riled conservatives. “In any argument, Kalburgi used to take an extreme stand,” he says. Marulusiddappa also points to the recent death of a local writer and journalist, Linganna Satya­m­pete, in Gulbarga district. He too wrote on the same topics. “There’s a lot more to this than just right-wing politics,” Marulusidappa reckons.

BJP legislator from the Hubli-Dharwad region and former Karnataka minister Basavaraj Bommai says, “His research was controversial and a talking point, but that’s not just now. This is an attack not on Kalburgi, but an attack on the entire research and literary world,” adding that “an attack on a literary stalwart and researcher is unheard of.” For the record, three of the eight legislators and the MP from Hubli-Dharwad are from the BJP.

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There is speculation about a possible property dispute angle also, but Srivi­j­aya, who has three sisters, says there’s never been those kind of discussions in the family. “My relatives are all well settled. We are in different professions and stay in different places. We haven’t had any fights,  in fact we get together to celebrate marriages and festivals,” he says seated in the verandah of the house his father built, and which houses his personal collection of some 4,000 books.

Karnataka police chief Omprakash told Outlook, “Right now, we are probing all angles but we do not have any specific clues.” A special team of detectives is investigating the case now but the Kar­nataka government has recommen­ded a CBI probe. Teams have been dispatched to various places, including Maharashtra where Pansare and Dabh­olkar were killed. Regardless of the direction the investigation takes, the literary field feels much more needs to be done to tackle strident voices. “The laws are there but they are not properly implemented. Only stringent action can put an end to these things,” says Bhagwan.

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By Ajay Sukumaran in Dharwad

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