Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru, one of the most prominent seers of Karnataka’s Lingayat community and pontiff of the Murugha Mutt in Chitradurga, has been in the news in the State over the past few days after he was accused of sexually assaulting two minor girls residing in the mutt’s hostel.
On August 26, a Mysuru-based non-governmental organisation called Odanadi Seva Samsthe (OSS) assisted the aggrieved girls in lodging a complaint against the pontiff, who was charged under sections of the Protection of Children under Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO). Four other persons who were working at the hostel or were employees of the mutt have also been named in the first information report (FIR).
The FIR was initially lodged in Mysuru but was subsequently transferred to the jurisdiction of the Chitradurga Rural police station. The two minor girls are currently lodged in a State-run children’s home, Bala Mandira, in Chitradurga. So far, no arrests have been made in the case while Shivamurthy Sharanaru has already applied for anticipatory bail.
Since one of the two girls is a Dalit, a case has also been lodged against the accused under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Saraswathi, a counsellor working at OSS, told mediapersons that the girls had approached the NGO. She said: “The girls approached us directly and informed us about the mental and physical harassment and sexual assault that they have been undergoing for the past three and half years. The two girls are aged 15 and 16 years old respectively and are from north Karnataka. We approached the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), which lodged an FIR on their behalf in Nazarbad police station in Mysuru.”
Addressing his followers recently, Shivamurthy Sharanaru said that the accusations were a “conspiracy”. He said: “The conspiracy to defame me is not new and such attempts have been made against me from the past 15 years but what was happening internally is now happening openly. I respect the law of the land and will cooperation with the investigation.” The mutt authorities accused S.K. Basavaraj, a former mutt employee, of having conspired against Shivamurthy Sharanaru and of having “coached” the girls in their testimonies.
There has been an unusual outpouring of political support for the seer from senior BJP leaders in Karnataka even before a formal investigation has commenced. Former Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa, one of the top BJP leaders in the State and a Lingayat himself, termed the charges as “false”. Similarly, another former BJP Chief Minister, Jagadish Shettar, also came out in support of the seer. Former Ministers K.S. Eshwarappa and C.T. Ravi also expressed support for Shivamurthy Sharanaru.
Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai took a more circumspect position by stating that it was “not appropriate” to comment on the case as investigation was still under way.
Lingayat seers in the State are seen as powerful representatives of the politically dominant community, which constitutes an estimated 15-18 per cent of Karnataka’s population. The BJP counts Lingayats among its loyal votebank, but politicians from all parties woo prominent pontiffs of the community as it is believed that they strongly influence the Lingayat vote in Karnataka.
Shivamurthy Sharanaru is arguably the most notable religious leader of the Lingayats. In early August, he had also given deeksha to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, incorporating him into the Lingayat fold. Home Minister Amit Shah had met the pontiff in 2018 ahead of the State Assembly election.
Activists and Dalit leaders have said that the seer was being protected by the State government because of his status as a Lingayat religious leader and accused the police of treading cautiously in the case.
Shivamurthy Sharanaru also has widespread social and economic clout in Chitradurga since the mutt he heads manages several educational institutions in the district.