M.M. Kalburgi

Murdering scholarship

Print edition : September 29, 2017

Gauri Lankesh with Girish Karnad (right) and other writers at a meeting to condole the death of M.M.Kalburgi in Bengaluru on August 30, 2015. Photo: K. MURALI_KUMAR

Why was M.M. Kalburgi, a top-notch scholar who doggedly pursued the path of truthful research, assassinated two years ago? What, in his research, moved Hindutva bigots to mow him down?

Professor M.M. Kalburgi was an extraordinary scholar who dedicated himself to research and writing for over 50 years. His writings collected in several volumes under the title Marga (the path) run into nearly 5,000 pages. His first scholarly article on Shabdamanidarpana, an early work on Kannada grammar, was published when he was 25 and, until the morning of his brutal murder on August 30, 2015, at the age of 77, Professor Kalburgi had literally spent all his life in scholarly pursuits.

The outstanding feature of Kalburgi’s scholarship is the mind-boggling heterogeneity of the subjects and the plurality of approaches and methodologies he employed. The subjects ranged from proverbs used in his village to the linguistic loyalties of the Vijayanagara empire; from names of places in Karnataka to the real history of the Lingayat religion. Like his research agenda, the sources of evidence he employed were just as diverse. He employed literary-textual interpretations, epigraphic studies, archaeology, popular culture, analysis of socio-religious practices, linguistics, interpretation of written records (especially the kaifiyats) and oral traditions in his research. His research also involved a vast amount of fieldwork. From these details one would probably construct the image of Professor Kalburgi as a typical traditional scholar covered in the dust of old epigraphs and manuscripts, with an otherworldly outlook, totally unconnected to the mire of cultural politics so dear to activists.

Therefore, it came as a surprise to read Kalburgi’s statements on research as “treading on a dangerous path” or on the fate of the scholar as having to “bear many crosses”, and so on. His scholarly style was neither polemical nor provocative. Instead, it depended largely on the empirical method of compiling information from various sources and drawing reasonable inferences. Since Kalburgi did not make any major attempts at theory-building, there is very little ideological aggressiveness in his writings. How then does one explain the ferocious attacks on Kalburgi, of which his murder was the culmination? What was it in his scholarship that touched a raw nerve among at least two groups?

For an appropriate answer, one has to go back to the events of 1989 when certain Veerashaiva Lingayat groups unleashed verbal attacks against Kalburgi and he also narrowly escaped physical assault. Nearly three decades later, the details of these attacks are still unnerving to any scholar.

In the first volume of Marga, Kalburgi had published research articles on Naagalambike, Basava’s sister and Channabasavanna’s mother, and Neelambike, Basava’s wife. Kalburgi had tried to interpret some of the obscure details figuring in the poet Harihara’s narrative about Basava and similar grey areas relating to these three individuals. He had made a reasonable surmise that Naagalambike could have been married off to Dohara Kakkayya from the untouchable caste by Basava as an exemplary inter-caste marriage. He had also questioned the myth of Channabasavanna being born of “Prasada”. In the same volume, Kalburgi had suggested that the adjective “Punya Stree” preceding the names of the spouses of some vachanakaras probably indicated their low-caste origin or that they were mistresses who had converted to Basava’s religion. These surmises, based on the reinterpretation of available material, were seen as slanderous and derogatory by certain sections of the Lingayat community, especially because they were iconic figures in the Lingayat tradition which was being reconstructed.

The controversy snowballed into a movement, involving threats to Kalburgi’s life. He was asked to appear for a trial at Murughamatha in Dharwad. At the trial he was asked to tender an unconditional apology, promise not to write anything which would hurt the sentiments of the community and give up his position at the Basava chair of studies at Karnatak University, Dharwad. He was also forced to retract the controversial parts of the book. Until his death, Kalburgi continued to recollect the episode in great anguish as an intellectual suicide.

Years later, he gave his own explanation for research turning out to be a dangerous profession. He said that in an emotionally driven country people were unwilling to accept any truth that upset their beliefs and prejudices. He lamented the lack of an intellectual culture that valorises the truth at any cost. In another statement, he said attacks happen on scholars when a debate is shifted from the academic intellectual domain to which it properly belongs to the public domain in which truth and objectivity are not seen as values. In a way, this statement summarises the situation in recent years in Karnataka and elsewhere in India.

Religious institutions such as mathas, communal organisations, caste associations and political parties become the major participants in debates involving books, intellectual discourses and research. These groups are obviously partisan, with powerful biases and prejudices, and ranged against scholars who question their cultural, religious or caste icons. The history of Karnataka during the late colonial period witnessed the consolidation of dominant caste groups, which began to stake their claims for more representation in education and employment. The Veerashaiva Mahasabha and the Vokkaligara Sangha were established by the two dominant caste groups that control Karnataka politics even today. The consolidation and institutionalisation of caste groups required the construction of real or imagined historiographies of religious icons of Puranik historical relevance as well as of contemporary individuals of the community. It also demanded the construction of the “Other”. These processes also involved a great deal of sanskritisation since the two dominant communities had been considered Shudra communities and derogated as uncultured. This explains why the sub-caste groups of jangamas and aradhyas tried to project themselves as Vedic and brahminical by claiming that they adhered to the varna system, studied Sanskrit and owed allegiance to ancient Saiva sects.

A tale of two sects

The second attack on Kalburgi had to do with the two sects that are now in open and bitter conflict in Karnataka. The Veerashaiva sect loyal to the Guru Mathas and the Panchapeethas (the five mathas) claim that Veerashaivism has a hoary ancient tradition and that Basava, the leader of the 12th century Vachanakara movement, was only a late reformer and not the founder of a new religion. They also seem to have no problems identifying their religion with the Hindu religion. The other sect loyal to the Virakta mathas believes that the Lingayat religion was founded by Basava and that it is an independent religion opposed in many ways to the essentials of the Hindu religion.

Kalburgi, undoubtedly the finest, most erudite scholar of the vachanas, was categorical in his support of the Lingayat sect, arguing that it was the only indigenous Kannada religion and that other major religions had their origin elsewhere. He believed that the vachanakaras had heralded a great revolution by rejecting the varna system and caste and gender inequalities. The major research questions he formulated for himself focussed on how such a radical religion ended up as a mere caste or at most a conglomerate of sub-caste groups. What were the causes for its regression into Vedic and brahminical practices? This led him to theorise that the Guru Matha and the Panchapeetha sect had little to do with the radical religion of Basava and his companions. The battle between the two sects supported by hundreds of powerful mathas and pontiffs on both sides is a fierce one.

Kalburgi’s scholarship, consistent within its own premises, was seen as ideologically adversarial by one sect. Such was the animosity that when Kalburgi was murdered, it was seen by many as related to the sectarian conflict.

The third and last phase in the conflictual engagement of Kalburgi’s scholarship with cultural politics has everything to do with the fanatical Hindutva organisations. In reading out certain passages from U.R. Ananthamurthy’s writings on his boyhood experiences, Kalburgi gave the unfortunate impression that he was also in favour of desecrating religious objects. The Kannada electronic media ran a frenzied 24x7 campaign against Kalburgi, targeting him as a vilifier of Hindu idols and icons. Kalburgi, whose 5,000 pages of scholarship had not been read by the masses, suddenly became a household name as a Hindu-hating rationalist. His view that Hinduism was not a religion (what he meant was that it was not a revealed religion, with a prophet and a holy book) was also seen as slanderous. A tireless researcher and a fine academic scholar was demonised as a Left-leaning anti-Hindu rationalist. Alas, as he had said years ago, an emotionally driven society has no special love for scholarship and objectivity. The vicious media campaign most certainly put him on the hit list of an organisation that believes in eliminating anti-Hindu rationalists.

There is absolutely no doubt at all that Kalburgi’s murder was an ideological murder. It is tragic because his scholarship was not in itself ideological.

Professor Rajendra Chenni, Professor of English at Kuvempu University and a literary critic, was closely associated with Prof. M.M. Kalburgi from the mid 1970s until his assassination in 2015.

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