Murder of reason

Print edition : October 02, 2015

The funeral procession of M.M. Kalburgi in Dharwad on August 31. Photo: AFP

M.M. Kalburgi, who was killed by unidentified gunmen on August 30. Photo: V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

CPI leader Govind Pansare, who was killed in February. Photo: PTI

Narendra Dabholkar, who was killed in 2013. Photo: AP

Megha Pansare (centre), daughter-in-law of Govind Pansare, after she met the family members of M.M. Kalburgi in Dharwad. She demanded a court-monitored probe into the murder. Photo: By Special Arrangement

In the shocking murder of M.M. Kalburgi, the country has lost an erudite and prolific writer, versatile researcher and the foremost authority on the history of Karnataka and its culture and folklore.

IN 1988, when Prof. Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi turned 50, the first volume of his collected articles, called Marga, was published. Ideally, this should have been a moment of great joy as it was the apogee of a lifetime of advanced research work by a major scholar, a landmark in the world of Kannada letters, but it was not to be. Instead, the event spiralled into a major crisis.

In one of his articles published at the time, Kalburgi attributed the parentage of Channabasavanna to a low-caste “dohaara” (leather tanner), on the basis of his primary research of vachana literature and examination of folklore. A 12th-century theologian, Channabasavanna was a close associate and nephew of Basava (1105-1167). The founder of a distinct social and religious movement in what is now northern Karnataka, Basava is held in high regard by his followers, who are known as Lingayats. Much of the framework of Lingayat discourse was provided by Channabasavanna, and a section of Lingayats were greatly offended by Kalburgi’s claims.

This was the first time that Kalburgi received a murder threat and it was not to be the last. It was common then to hear statements in Dharwad like: “Who is this Kalburgi? All we need is two litres of petrol to finish him off!” Humiliatingly, for a scholar who had acquired great repute by then, Kalburgi was summoned like a criminal to a prominent Lingayat mutt in Dharwad and forced to recant his statement with folded hands. When he returned from the mutt, in response to a journalist’s query, a terse Kalburgi had said: “Today, I have committed intellectual suicide.”

This event was recalled by Shashidhar Todkar, principal of Hiremallur Ishwaran Pre-University Science College, Dharwad, and former student of Kalburgi, as he sat in the porch of Kalburgi’s house. It was exactly a week after the murder of the septuagenarian by unidentified gunmen on August 30, and a number of Kalburgi’s close associates had gathered at his house. Megha Pansare, the daughter-in-law of Govind Pansare, had come to commiserate with the scholar’s family and also to chalk out a plan of action considering the similarity in the murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar.

Speaking to Frontline, Megha Pansare said that there must be a link between the three murders as all of them were progressive thinkers who spoke out against superstitious practices. “It has been two years since the killing of Dabholkar and six months since the brutal killing of Pansare and there has been no headway. I request the Karnataka government to take this investigation seriously,” she said. Two weeks after Kalburgi’s killing, the Karnataka Police have still not apprehended the killer or his accomplice.

Kalburgi’s legacy was evident in the kind of people who had gathered at his house, where a large vinyl poster of a smiling Kalburgi was prominently displayed in the porch. Apart from family members and journalists, former students who are now teachers were also present, as were litterateurs and activists.

Srivijay, Kalburgi's son, dismissed rumours that a dispute over family property could be the reason for the murder. He said: “My father was a scholar. If someone didn’t like his views, they could have debated those with him. Someone clearly didn’t like what he said, and killed him.” The killing has shocked liberal and progressive people in Karnataka and the country and, more so because it occurred in the peaceful town of Dharwad.

The twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad form the second largest urban agglomeration in Karnataka after Bengaluru. While Hubli is known as the industrial hub of north Karnataka, Dharwad’s reputation is built on its culture and its educational institutions. Home to some of the best Hindustani classical vocalists in the country and the highly regarded Karnatak University, Dharwad provided the space for the towering and versatile intellect of Kalburgi to thrive and flourish.

Kalburgi was born in Gubbewada village in the adjoining district of Vijayapura (formerly known as Bijapur) on November 28, 1938. He completed his undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Kannada, and then a doctorate. His doctoral research was on Kannada literature during the time when Kavirajamarga was written. This work, written in A.D. 850, is one of the earliest works to analyse the rhetorics, poetics and grammar of Kannada.

While his core work was in the discipline of historical Kannada literature, he used this expertise to establish himself as a versatile researcher whose works had an immense influence on the Kannada literary world. He was the foremost authority on the history of Karnataka and the State’s culture and folklore. His obsession with historical Kannada also made him an expert epigraphist and an authority on Kannada linguistics.

He worked in the Kannada department of Karnatak University, Dharwad, for 36 years before he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Kannada University, Hampi, for three years, from where he retired. Karnatak University has benefited immensely from the exhaustive research that he undertook and the administrative measures in various capacities he was tasked with during his long tenure. For his varied accomplishments, Kalburgi received many awards from the Karnataka Sahitya Academy as well as the national Sahitya Akademi and was also the recipient of the Karnataka Rajyotsava Award in 2006.

A prolific writer, Kalburgi wrote close to 80 books. Many of these pertain to epigraphy as he was an authority on the inscriptions. He had published district-wise compendiums for most of north Karnataka. Besides, he had also worked on the histories of the early kingdoms of north Karnataka. He was noted for his work on vachanas, epigrammatic rhythmic poems from 11th century Karnataka that were closely associated with Basava and his peers. During his career, he brought to light the work of many hitherto unknown vachana poets. He began this work in 1962, even before he had completed his doctorate.

Unlike many scholars who were buried in their books and research, he was outspoken and used his frequent invitations to public events and newspaper columns to comment on historically accepted truths. It should be noted that like any serious researcher, he did not make loose statements and backed his claims by citing from primary sources.

His dedication to meticulous research and primary sources can be vouched for by this correspondent, who interviewed him in May 2011 ( Frontline, July 29, 2011). The reason for the interview was to solve the riddle of the puzzling find of a heap of 600 skulls that were accidentally discovered in Annigeri, a village close to Dharwad. Kalburgi put forward the theory of ritual suicide after the results of carbon dating were made available. Even as many other scholars disagreed with him, Kalburgi staunchly stood by his claim and put together a body of evidence in support. That morning, when this correspondent visited him, he scurried away furiously to gather together separate pieces of evidence from a variety of tomes that helped buttress his claim.

Over the years, Kalburgi had made statements that did not go down well with various individuals and organisations. Some of these were mentioned by his associates in a discussion with Frontline and are listed here:

He staunchly believed that Lingayats, the followers of Basava, were a separate religion, distinct from Hinduism. He felt that the Lingayats had lost their separate identity because of their links with Hinduism.

He stated that the first religion of Karnataka was the Lingayat dharma and not Hinduism, the theology of which could be found in the vachanas. Karnataka has forgotten this legacy and instead seeks legitimacy in appropriating symbols from Hinduism.

He was critical of the Jangamas, the priestly class, or the “brahmins” of the Lingayat community, as their very existence went against the ideas of Basava, who advocated a casteless society where each man could establish an individual relationship with God without the interference of priests or temple visits.

He dismissed rituals, including idol worship, that accompanied Lingayat practices, seeing these as accretions. He was particularly harsh on the rituals prevalent among the Panchacharyas (Lingayats who are followers of Adi Sankara).

He stated that Krishnadevaraya, the ruler of the Vijayanagara Empire, whose reign is identified as a “Golden Age”, decimated Kannada culture.

He argued that the martial qualities attributed to Rani Chennamma were false and that she never led a rebellion against the British.

At a public forum, he publicly refused to accept the Bhagvad Gita as his religious text, stating that for him the only religious text was the corpus of the vachanas.

During the social and educational survey in Karnataka in April 2015 that recorded caste, Kalburgi raised the demand to include Lingayats as a separate religion.

(This list was put together after a discussion with Shashidhar Todkar; M.D. Okkund, professor of Kannada, Alnavar Government First Grade College, Dharwad; Vasundhara Bhupathi, member, Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishat; Hema Pattanshetti, Kannada poet; and Shankar Halagatti, general secretary, Karnataka Vidyavardhaka Sangha.)

It should be noted that Kalburgi was not an atheist. He identified himself as a follower of Basava, but he was particular about two things: the Lingayat creed was distinct from Hinduism, and rituals that had crept into the Lingayat faith were superstitious practices and not part of that religion. Thus, while he could not be called a rationalist in the same way that Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare were, his bold and aggressive methods were similar to that of the two Maharashtrian rationalists. It is perhaps more accurate to describe Kalburgi as a reformer.

Hindutva groups had also been attacked by him in the past few years. His endorsement of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s statement ridiculing idol worship at a seminar in 2014 was widely reported. Bhupathi, who had organised the seminar on the theme of the proposed Karnataka Prevention of Superstitious Practices Bill, 2013, said that the media also sensationalised the reportage around Kalburgi’s statement. “He made several useful comments that day but the media picked up only on that one statement,” he said. Todkar said: “When meshtru [teacher] saw the headline in a Kannada paper the next day, he told me: ‘This journalist has reduced my life by 10 years.’ He was aware that his statements were incensing people, but he was outspoken by nature and when we would warn him to tone down his statements, he would tell us: ‘Why should I be scared of fundamentalists? When they did not spare people like Gandhi and Basava, who am I?”

Over the past two decades, political commentators in Karnataka have commented on how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has become the leading political party among the Lingayats. The Lingayats are the largest social bloc in Karnataka and are predominant in north Karnataka. It is not surprising, therefore, that Kalburgi’s reformatory zeal for the Lingayats has run afoul of the Hindutva forces, as part of the social agenda of Hindutva has always involved the mainstreaming of the Hindu faith.

Kalburgi’s statements against the celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi by Lingayats, for instance, did not go down well with Hindu right-wing elements. A journalist in Hubli also recalled that Kalburgi spoke out frequently on public platforms against the communal agenda of Hindutva groups.

At the time of his murder, Kalburgi had been working on a mammoth project on the works of the Adil Shahi dynasty which ruled the region of north Karnataka in the 16th and 17th centuries. He wanted to translate these works from Persian, Arabic and Urdu into Kannada.

According to him, historians of Karnataka had done a great disservice to the Muslim rulers as they had completely ignored the medieval history of Karnataka while constructing a narrative of the State’s history. He was excited about this project that would make vast quantities of material available to Kannada researchers. “Once these works are published, we will have to rewrite the history of Karnataka,” he reportedly said.

Apprehending the murderers of Kalburgi should be top priority for the State government as it would send a message that it is serious about the law and order situation in the State.

The murder of Dabholkar led to the immediate passage of the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013, as an ordinance. The Karnataka government can also honour the memory of Kalburgi who was a strong supporter of the proposed anti-superstition Bill in Karnataka by approving it immediately as an ordinance.

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