For a man who has received 17 death threat letters over the past year and a half, 70-year-old Kannada writer Kumbara Veerabhadrappa (Kum Vee, as he is popularly known), remains irrepressible. On the day that Frontline met him in mid-July, he exuded a sense of blitheness to the potent danger posed to his life, and his relaxed demeanour was redolent of the bucolic charm that surrounded his modest home in the historic temple town of Kotturu in Vijayanagara district in eastern Karnataka. He lounged comfortably in a folding chair in the compound of his home just outside his workspace, which was a modified garage stocked with a divan, a minuscule cooking area, and shelves of books that spilled out everywhere, revealing the eclectic literary interests of their owner.
A large picture of Basava, the 12th-century reformer who rebelled against the prevailing Vedic social hierarchy of his times and founded the Lingayat creed, hung prominently on a wall. CCTV cameras, the only ones in Kotturu, poked out from the corners of his house. A lone police constable from the Karnataka State Reserve Police remained within hearing range and, as Kum Vee said, shadowed him day and night.
“I refused police protection, but the [police] department pressured me to accept this detail,” Kum Vee remarked in his lazy and deep drawl. Two other policemen come to check on him several times through the day. For a prolific writer like Kum Vee, who has forsaken the lure of larger cities to live an inconspicuous life in his hometown, the constant presence of policemen following him around is irksome but was necessitated by the constant death threat letters that were being mailed directly to the author.
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The letters began to arrive sometime in March last year and continue to be mailed at periodic intervals from different towns in Karnataka. That said, since no actual attempt has been made to harm Kum Vee, the district police suspect that the letter writer, believed to be a lone individual, is merely boasting. But then, this is also the same State where two other freethinkers, the scholar M. M. Kalburgi and the journalist Gauri Lankesh, were shot dead in cold blood in 2015 and 2017, respectively. Kalburgi and Lankesh, whose brutal killings made headlines globally, differed in their approach to the world: Kalburgi was a typical scholar, a historian, and an epigraphist whose collected writings, which run into 40 volumes, are a testimony to his vast and prodigious intellectual output.
On the other hand, Lankesh was a fiery and pugnacious scribe whose work blurred the line between activism and journalism. Both, though, were fearlessly outspoken, and while Kalburgi railed against the accretions to the Lingayat creed and its subsumption within the nebulous folds of Hinduism, Lankesh’s concerns were broader, and she boldly spoke out against the politics of Hindutva. Notably, both, like Kum Vee, were Lingayats, a large and dominant caste in Karnataka who are followers of Basava. The Lingayats are also considered to be avid supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and it is the community’s support that buttressed the ascent of the saffron party in Karnataka.
Popular scholar, prolific writer
Like Kalburgi and Lankesh, Kum Vee is also blisteringly forthright and speaks feistily at public forums. His opinions matter because he is a widely loved and much-feted writer who began to write in the 1970s as part of the bandaya (Protest) movement of Kannada literature that emerged in protest against the prevailing elitism of Kannada literature. He has written more than 50 books in his career so far, including approximately 30 novels, 15 short story collections, a few translations from Telugu to Kannada, biographies, and screenplays.
Some of Kum Vee’s famous works include Aramane (a historical novel on the colonial administrator Thomas Munro, which won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2007), Shamanna (an anti-Brahminical novel in which the main character, a Brahmin, enlists in the military), Gandhi Classu (his biography), and Supari (on the life of a notorious contract killer).
Rajendra Chenni, retired professor of English at Kuvempu University and Kannada literary critic, said that Kum Vee’s works are prominent because of three reasons: “First, though bandaya literature spoke about going to the lowest of the low, it was Kum Vee who did it; second, he introduced the idea of - what I call - ‘subaltern vigilantism,’ where the protagonist is pushed to the extreme and suddenly erupts into violence, and third, his language and locales are unique. He writes about people and society as witnessed by him in feudal Andhra Pradesh and the region surrounding Ballari. He uses the Ballari dialect and writes in an exaggerated and verbose style.”
S. Siraj Ahmed, editor of Bahuvachana Sahitya Vimarshe, a Kannada book review magazine, said, “In his inimitable mock-epic style, which meanders between many registers of local, classical, slang, and realist-magic-realist modes, he slits open the ugly underside of rural India. His novels, such as Shamanna and Yapillu, satirise feudalism, caste hierarchy, colonialism, and the discontents brought about by modernity and English education.”
“They killed Pansare, Dabholkar, Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh. After that, it could be Kum Veerabhadrappa; so what? My conscience will not allow me to keep quiet, and to speak is my writerly responsibility.”
While his literary output has established his cachet as a remarkable Kannada writer, Kum Vee is also a sought-after public speaker. The themes of his publicised speeches frequently dwell on the concerns raised both by Kalburgi and Lankesh, which include support for an independent Lingayat religion formalised by Basava and his peers, the vachana writers; the inherent fascist tendencies within Hindutva; and support for religious minorities to freely practice their religion in India.
Consequently, he is identified as a left wing and progressive writer, and it is precisely because of this that he has been targeted by these letters. Several other writers and public personalities are also intermittently threatened in these letters, but it is Kum Vee who has been the most regular recipient of these death threats.
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The latest two-page letter that Kum Vee received in July is filled with vile epithets to describe him because he is a “Hindu virodhi” (Anti-Hindu) and asks him to be ready as his “funeral procession would soon be taken out.” Apart from Kum Vee, 15 other persons are also named in this letter, including prominent Dalit and progressive writers such as Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy and Sanathkumar Belagali and popular heads of Lingayat mutts such as Nijagunananda Swamiji. The writer of the letter signs off his name simply as ‘Hindu.’ In the past, the Mysuru-based writer, K. S. Bhagavan, also received similar letters, and miscreants even threw ink at his face.
Kum Vee does not take these letters seriously and said with a chuckle, “If I actually meet the writer, I want to teach him how to write a threat letter in Kannada.” He added, “These threats are not new. Earlier, I used to receive phone calls asking me whether I was born into a Muslim household. I am vulgarly abused on social media. Kalburgi and P. Lankesh (Gauri Lankesh’s father) were my mentors. I was in Gaya at the feet of Buddha when I heard about Kalburgi’s death and at a teacher’s day function in Chitradurga when Gauri was murdered. I was stunned, but there was no question of being silent after these inhuman killings because I have been speaking against fundamentalism right from the beginning of my writing career.”
Always a critic of authoritarianism
For Kum Vee, who was born in 1953 in the Kumbara or potter caste, the decade of the 1970s was formative in his fledgling career because it was a period of great ferment in Karnataka society with the emergence of several people’s movements. This was also the time when he became a follower of Abraham T. Koovur, the well-known rationalist, who travelled through Karnataka in 1976 because Kum Vee saw many strands of his Lingayat belief echoed in the rationalist worldview of Koovur.
Kum Vee also protested against the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi between 1975 and 1977 but left Karnataka soon after for the rural, feudal heartland of Andhra Pradesh, where he became a Kannada teacher in a government primary school in the village of Vandavagili in Kurnool district. He remained here and in other villages of Andhra Pradesh till he retired in 2011 and continues to draw literary inspirations from his decades of experiences in the region.
When asked why he retains his caste name (i. e., Kumbara) so prominently even though Basava campaigned against caste, Kum Vee brought up another of his pervasive concerns, which is of his anti-Brahminism. “Unlike the non-productive communities such as Brahmins and Vaishyas, Kumbaras are a productive community who labor with their hands,” he said.
In one provocative speech in the past, Kum Vee said that he is “not a Hindu, but a Lingayat.” When Frontline asked him to explain this statement, he said, “There is no concept called Hinduism. ‘Hindu’ became a consciously used word only after the British began to use it. Centuries ago, people who lived outside the Indian subcontinent in the lands of Central Asia used to refer to the people who lived beyond the Sindhu River (Indus River) as Hindus. It is wrong to describe Hinduism as a religion, and Lingayats have forcibly become a caste in Hinduism.”
Kum Vee had also participated in the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests that rocked the country at the end of 2019. On being asked the reason for this, Kum Vee said, “The BJP and (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi are targeting religious minorities through this legislation. Hitler did the same thing in Nazi Germany against Jews by depriving them of their rights. But I also understand that Modi and BJP are mere tools in the hands of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), who want to impose their ideology.” When Muslims are asked to go to Pakistan, it angers Kum Vee. “When they have been part of this land, born here, buried here, and you call them Pakistanis, what sense does it make?” he indignantly asked.
Kum Vee’s foremost literary influence has been the work of Kannada writer K. P. Poornachandra Tejaswi. His views have developed because of diverse influences such as the works of B. R. Ambedkar, Ram Manohar Lohia, Mahatma Gandhi, Karl Marx, Buddha, and Basava, and he draws substance from their courageous lives even as he lives under the shadow of death threats.
“They killed (Govind) Pansare, (Narendra) Dabholkar, Kalburgi, and Lankesh. After that, it could be Kum Veerabhadrappa, so what? But my conscience will not allow me to keep quiet, and to speak is my writerly responsibility,” Kum Vee is unfazed.