Murder in the Academy: MM Kalburgi’s Dangerous Literary Studies

The context of Kalburgi’s life’s work – and the likely context of his death – is the fraught cultural politics of the Lingayat community in Karnataka

Youth Congress members protest against the killing of former Vice-Chancellor of Hampi University M M Kalburgi who was shot dead at his Kalyanagar residence by unidentfied gunmen in Dharwad on Sunday. Credit: PTI

Youth Congress members protest against the killing of former Vice-Chancellor of Hampi University M M Kalburgi who was shot dead at his Kalyanagar residence by unidentfied gunmen in Dharwad on Sunday. Credit: PTI

Bengaluru: The esteemed literary scholar M M Kalburgi was shot dead outside his home in Dharwad today, producing a wave of speculation on the identity and motive of his killers. Kalburgi died in hospital after being shot at close range by two assailants, who arrived at his doorstep at 9 am on Sunday morning.

Gatherings to condole his death, and demand justice for his murder, took place across Karnataka including at the Town Hall in Bengaluru, where outrage over the crime was mixed with ambivalence over who might be behind it.

At the Town Hall, many supporters had turned their suspicion on unspecified right-wing forces, and some were already comparing Kalburgi’s murder with those of the rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare in Maharashtra. Others present cautioned against jumping to any conclusions.

The context of Kalburgi’s life’s work – and the likely context of his death – is the fraught cultural politics of the Lingayat community in Karnataka. Kalburgi, a former vice-chancellor of Kannada University, was a progressive voice among the Lingayats, the middle-caste group that dominates state politics.

The Lingayats originated as a social movement led by the 12th century philosopher Basava. The founding literature of the movement is in the form of vachana verses, of which Kalburgi, as a scholar of Old Kannada, was a leading authority. As a result, Kalburgi’s work had implications not only for the theology of the Lingayat establishment, but for its enormous political and financial power.

Kalburgi frequently riled the Lingayat orthodoxy, most memorably in 1989, when he completed a study of the vachanas of Neelambika, Basava’s second wife. Kalburgi linked them to a minor myth in which Basava, unable to refuse anything to a supplicant, gave away his second wife to a Jangama sanyasi. According to Kalburgi, Neelambika’s own vachanas suggest that she and Basava did indeed cease their conjugal relationship. Another controversial claim was about the virgin birth of his nephew, Channa Basavanna, who took over the leadership of the movement. Conservative Lingayats were outraged and Kalburgi received death threats; eventually, he was forced to apologise and retract his statements.

File Photo of Former Vice-Chancellor of Hampi University, M M Kalburgi who was shot dead at his Kalyan Nagar residence by unidentified gunmen, in Dharwad on Sunday. Credit: PTI

File Photo of Former Vice-Chancellor of Hampi University, M M Kalburgi who was shot dead at his Kalyan Nagar residence by unidentified gunmen, in Dharwad on Sunday. Credit: PTI

More recently, Kalburgi has declared that the Lingayats cannot be called Hindus – attracting the hostility of the RSS (the Lingayat vote was crucial to the election of the first BJP government in Karnataka in 2004, and its first chief minister, BS Yeddyurappa, was a Lingayat). In June last year, Kalburgi dismissed the sanctity of religious idols, which brought protestors from the Bajrang Dal and VHP to his doorstep. Kalburgi was placed under police protection.

At the Town Hall, some speakers referred to posts on Facebook and Twitter, posted by activists of the Bajrang Dal right after the news came out, which openly celebrated Kalburgi’s murder.

But according to professor K M Marulsidappa, Kalburgi’s murder is less likely to implicate conventional Hindutva groups, and more likely to involve the fine rivalries and high political stakes within Lingayat caste politics.

Speaking to The Wire, Marulsidappa explained that Kalburgi’s work had touched on sensitive questions that divide mainstream Lingayats from the minor subsect of Virashaivas, who believe that their tradition precedes Basava – and blame him for the degradation of the movement. The Virashaiva community is led by the Jangama priesthood from five seats, the panchapeetha. Kalburgi’s work had provoked intense hostility from Jangamas and extremist factions behind them.

Marulsidappa pointed out that Kalburgi’s murder followed the murder of Linganna Satyampete, a journalist believed to be Kalburgi’s disciple and supporter in the district of Gulbarga (Kalbargi’s surname is derived from the name of the area). Satyampete’s body was found semi-naked in a drain in Gulbarga town on July 26, 2012. He was also a fierce critic of conservative elements in the Lingayat mathas (religious schools), whom he accused of abandoning the true spirit of the vachanas.

The scholar M.  Chidananda Murthy, seen as a conservative rival of Kalburgi’s within the community, also spoke at the Town Hall meeting. He said he had often disagreed with Kalburgi but never lost respect for him.

M S Asha, who is currently editing a translation of Kalburgi’s writing, told The Wire that she had spoken to him the previous morning. They chatted about his play on Basava, The Fall of Kalyana, translated by M C Prakash; Kalburgi mentioned a critic’s comment , comparing the play to a verse drama by T S Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral.

He also discussed his next work, which would examine the disappearance of women writers from the Kannada canon between the 12th and 16th centuries, that is, in the period that the vachana tradition was suppressed and the priestly class established its hegemony among Lingayats.

Kalburgi was a key organiser of the Dharwad Sahitya Sambramha, or the Dharward Lit Fest. As an example of his liberal mind, Asha said, he invited the controversial right-wing author Bhyrappa to the festival. “When everyone questioned him, his only answer was – ‘He is a writer too’.”

The overarching concern expressed at the Town Hall in Bengaluru was that a culture of lethal violence might overwhelm the hallowed culture of discussion and questioning in Lingayat society. Indeed, one of the first victims of the temptation to violence was Basava himself – martyred at the end of the celebrated period of social reform, when he was thought to have gone too far by marrying a Brahmin girl to a Dalit boy. One protestor on the Town Hall steps had evidently thought of this: “Yesterday Basavanna”, his sign read, “Today Kalburgi.”

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  • Deshaabhimaani Damodardas Subo

    Dangerous times have settled in! New Indian political philosophy and organisations are proclaiming their arrival and the great enormous power they have on India, life in India and the lives of any and every Indian they choose!
    This 77 year old Scholar is a great harmless man that would perhaps not kill a fly! He wasn’t into politics or political parties or political agenda of any kind! He wasn’t into elections. His only wealth was scholarship and love for humanity and countrymen and women and children and he gave it away liberally enriching everyone and everything, becoming richer in scholarship by the day!

    Not withstanding the noble and guarded statement of the learned young IPS OFFICER, belonging to the great service founded, nurtured and nourished by our British colonial masters for the noble purpose of enslaving and exploiting India, there can be no person on this planet who would want to kill this old Scholar, slowly walking to his meeting with the gods above whenever they were free to receive him! Yes no one!
    And write it down, no person has killed him! From what even some die hard bjp RSS gentlemen, some peethaadhipathies appear to be saying, it is clear that this old man was too harmless!

    Hey Ram! Hey Ram!

    Then who killed him! Who were those motor cycle borne killers?! Ha ha, they were just messengers!
    So simple to know and understand even for gobbledygooks like me, and may be you!

    Narendra Achyut Dabholkar , aged 67 years was shot dead on 20 August 2013 in Pune, by two young men point blank, who sped away on a MOTOR CYCLE, while he was on his morning walk. He was the founder president of Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samithi, organization against superstitions! He was also against black magic and trickster babas and godmen indulging in magic etc to fool people.

    There was no progress in the case. the Bombay High Court handed over the investigation to the CBI in May 2014. The noble cbi is stated to be ‘ short of hands’. On his second death anniversary, the maharashtra government deputed a team of seven officers to ease the shortage of ‘hands’ of the CBI!

    Pune police commissioner Gulab­rao Pol took the help of self-proclaimed spiritualists to communicate with Dabholkar’s spirit and ask it for leads!

    Hey Ram! Hey Ram!

    Another old, frail, poor, and harmless man, a Scholar called a rationalist and that went by the name Govind Pansare aged 8 1 years on his morning walk with his wife was killed on 16 February 2015 by two “motorcycle borne youth”
    He is most known for his scholarly work, book on shri shri shivaji maharaaj!
    His research showed that shivaji was a great valiant king, he was not communal, his secretary and chief of canons and many generals were Muslims, one third of his army were Muslims, he was kind and rational to his farmers and toiling people and reduced taxes, he respected women in general and in a legendary case sent back a Muslim daughter to her family when captured and brought as part of bounty of war! Shri Pansare also was a leading a movement against toll tax in maharashtra! He also spoke strongly against that great monster of a man, named nathuram vinayak ramachandra Godse and his glorification!

    Hey Ram! Hey Ram!

    Earlier a whistleblower, Satish Shetty, in Talegaon, near here, in January 2010 was killed at a road side kiosk in broad day light! The company he revealed against was alleged to be behind killing. The probe was given to cbi. Special director of cbi scolded an investigation officer for making some progress in 2012. They closed the case. Case reopened again in 2015! The company is alleged to be related to shri nitin gadkari related scams!
    There are more killings similar in madhya pradesh, gujarath and a few other states. These are new type of killings. Meticulous planning. No personal motive. Except the rti activist, all others are frail old men who are not against anyone in any manner other than propagating their beliefs selflessly.
    Yet all the different state governments could not probe these cases to logical end?!
    Are we to believe that the police officers investigating these killings are children without any idea of what criminal investigation is? Not possible. They are all men who understand the complete system on India upside down, criminals, politicians, political and so called cultural political and terrorist organisations. It is impossible that they are clueless!

    Hey Ram! Hey Ram!

    The only conclusion is political power, sympathetic or under control of someone or some body, ips Babus and some money of people and organizations that are opposed to the beliefs upheld by the killed are taking necessary steps to kill these people and then not letting the killers and the plot behind the killings not becoming public.

    We need to go back in history. Similar things and killings happened in fascist Italy under shri benito mussolini, in Germany under shri Adolf Hitler, in Spain under general Franco etc.
    Now similar things are happening in India for sometime. Who can it be?!

    Obviously it can only be those who believe in similar things as believed by benito mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

    Do the ips Babus not know this?

    They must know Because they are young and smart and have studied world history. But if they too believe in benito mussolini and Adolf Hitler, and also believe in their present day followers in India, or if they are of the opinion that it is better to fallow the political bosses and money power and sail with the system, then no one is going to be caught in these killings.

    If and ever caught, nobody is going to be convicted.

    If convicted No one is going to jail!

    If gone, no one is going to suffer.

    It is the sun of the killers and their philosophy that is on upswing in India.

    Unless a huge mass movement gets built against these enemies of people, the killer and killing philosophy, the freedom and liberty throttling philosophy, the women oppressing philosophy, the harmony and peace opposing philosophy, india is doomed for a while!

    But evil like fascism in any form or disguise will never be a final winner!

    The vast masses of patriotic people do always get to realise the true nature of these transient victors!

    The power and strength of the people is always enormous!

    So people will come together, take necessary steps, however tough or difficult they may be, and the life of the people, country, culture goes onto right track, at least till the setting in of next serious aberration!

    Satyameva Jayathe!

    Long live liberty, equality and fraternity of all peoples!

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  • Moahmmad Rais Siddiqi

    The social reformist mostly see this type of ends from their own people. But the killer forgot that both of them have eliminated their own reformist and a prominent scholar, who cannot be brought back due to their criminal mind.

    • Laxman Udapudi

      Say this in case of Salman Rusdi.

  • janvi

    Hinduism is liberal religion. we are given freedom of speech, we can question anything, we can be atheist and we can refuse any practise if we don’t want to do.. that’s Hinduism..extremism has no place in Hinduism. I condemn this act of violence

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  • Elbot

    In June 2014, addressing a seminar on Anti-superstition Bill in Bangalore, Kalburgi cited U. R. Ananthamurthy’s 1996 book Bethale Puje Yake Kudadu, (“Why nude-worship is wrong”) in which the writer narrated his childhood experience of urinating on idols as an experiment to see whether there would be divine retribution.

  • Laxman Udapudi

    What punishment is to be given to the killers of belief of religion and God?

  • Laxman Udapudi

    God is our belief, who is kalburgi to say our God is bogus. We believe or not but who has given powers to him to talk over the god. One side he writes on Basavanna other side critises God. Is Basavanna not a god or he criticises both.

  • War On Terror

    These kind of persons should be exposed by writing and putting true facts, I don’t support his killing, but I have no respect for this person.