Bengaluru: Over 300 activists, writers and religious leaders held a meeting in Bengaluru on November 21 in support of a Lingayat swami, who has become a target of a vicious hate campaign orchestrated by Hindutva groups.
Panditaradhya Shivacharya Swami of the Sanehalli matha in Chitradurga district of Karnataka had asked Lingayats to stop worshipping Ganapati three weeks ago. “Ganapati is not Lingayat culture. Instead of starting events with a prayer to him, Lingayats should sing Vachanas,” he had said. Lingayats consider Vachanas, short prose-poems composed by Sharanas or their founding fathers, as their holy scripture.
The swami’s remarks triggered a massive backlash from Hindutva groups, prompting his supporters to organise a meeting at the city’s Gandhi Bhavan and chalk out a plan to counter the campaign against him.
The meeting noted that the vilification campaign against the swami was following a trajectory that had earlier claimed the lives of Professor M.M. Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh. “What begins as a verbal attack ends in physical assault,” said writer Banjagere Jayaprakasha, who with a few other activists, S. G. Siddaramiah, Mavalli Shankar and Siddana Gowda Patil, briefed the media later. The names of the other participants have been withheld as the main event was held behind closed doors to allow a free flow of ideas.
Speaking at the event, an editor of a rapidly emerging Kannada news website said the police charge sheet on Kalburgi’s murder mentions Kannada TV channels, which ran a relentless campaign against him whipping up hatred. “The police found that an edited video clip of a Gauri speech had been shown to her alleged killer again and again,” he said. “A man who was recently arrested from Davanagere for writing threat letters to several writers has links with the alleged killers of Kalburgi and Gauri, according to the police,” he added.
Several speakers said there was an organised attempt to intimidate activists, who dissented from the one nation, one religion, one language narrative. “They went after Panditaradhya Swamiji, ridiculing and abusing him with savage words without caring for his revered position in the community,” said a participant. “It is important that we don’t back off. We have to push back.”
Citing a book translated by a writer at the meeting, a Bangalore university professor noted that political violence was endemic in ancient India as well. “But the intolerance we are witnessing now is historically unprecedented. Our inertia is their asset, we need to unite and counter,” the professor said.
Noted Dalit rights leader Mavallli Shankar recalled that Dalits in Maharashtra had mobilised massively when the Hindutva groups had tried to censor Ambedkar’s Riddles of Hinduism book in the 1980s. “We need to show a similar strength in Karnataka now. The swamiji, who speaks for Basava, has to lead this effort,” he said.
Many speakers pointed out that the progressive response had to go beyond reacting to the Hindutva provocation and come up with a constructive agenda instead. “They have a 100-year plan and all we have is knee jerk reactions to counter it. We need to build an alternate model of cultural politics and take it to people in all the 6,000 panchayats of the state,” said one of the state’s leading experts on education.
Echoing him a noted writer said, “They are radicalising our brothers from backward communities to attack us. We need to hold camps for our youth and prepare a few thousand cadres.” He noted that Dalit youths in Karnataka were politically aware thanks to Professor B. Krishnappa, who began organising training camps in the 1980s. “It is time for other communities such as Lingayats, Vokkaligas and Kurubas to follow that model,” he said. Krishnappa, who founded the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, led many landmark struggles in Karnataka.
Almost everyone who spoke at the event urged Panditaradhya swami to revive his popular mass contact programme ‘Matthe Kalyana’ or Kalyana Again. The 12th-century city of Kalyana was the site of the Lingayat movement that sought to create a society of equals. The swami had launched ‘Matthe Kalyana’ in 2019 in all 30 districts of the state to rekindle the progressive spirit of Kalyana through plays and lectures. He had travelled extensively, engaging hundreds of students and local residents in freewheeling discussions where anyone could ask him anything.
During lunch, a farmer activist said Hindutva groups had picked on the wrong swami. “He has been attacked before, he knows how to handle it. He is deeply ideological and a smart organiser, who can mobilise people and funds anywhere in Karnataka. The controversy has now turned him into a huge icon for progressive and Lingayat groups,” he pointed out.
The Lingayat branding of the new initiative to counter Hindutva turned out to be tricky. The Hindutva campaign against the swami drew immediate response from Lingayat activists, who are fighting for a separate religion. They interpreted the attack on him as an ‘attack on Basava philosophy’ as both had spoken up against superstition. The event was also held under the banner, Pragnavantara Anubhava Mantapa, named after a 12th century forum in which sharanas took part in wide ranging discussions without any caste or gender barrier.
Many participants like Professor S.G. Siddaramiah saw the new initiative as a continuation of the medieval movement led by reformer Basavanna, which had strongly come out strongly against a hierarchical and exclusive sanatana dharma. But one participant dissented and said Buddha, Basava and Ambedkar should be explicitly mentioned to make the effort more broad based. A prominent Dalit activist cautioned against letting narrow identities seep in and said to be successful the campaign would have to transcend caste. “When we started the Dalit movement, we thought it was a progressive act to bring together the most deprived castes. But the caste identity proved to be counterproductive in the long run,” he said.
He pointed out that while the Basavanna’s ideals were inspiring it was hard to find Lingayats, who lived by them, triggering an uproar from many participants, with one of them angrily asking him not to generalise. The main organiser of the event, Siddappa Mulge, said the initiative was a response of progressive groups, not just Lingayats.
But many also think that the Lingayat participation and Panditaradhya Swami‘s leadership may help in mobilising the large community, which forms the main vote bank for the BJP in Karnataka. “In these meetings we usually see the same people sitting across the table. It is refreshing to see so many new faces,” said Siddana Gowda Patil, possibly commenting on the heavy Lingayat presence at the meeting.
Panditaradhya Swami, who presided over the meeting, said the initiative would follow the ideals of Buddha, Basava, Ambedkar and Gandhi, among others. Agreeing that there was a need to reach out to people, he said he would be bringing out 10 small books within a month and asked the writers at the venue to send proposals for short books, which would encourage rational thought.
He said he was open to reviving the Matthe Kalyana campaign and asked the participants to set up a committee of 15 people with members from all communities. He noted that the previous edition of Matthe Kalyana did not have just Lingayats and it was the Dalit groups, which had made it successful. “In Ballari Muslims had organised the event and the food. The event In Mangaluru started with a prayer from a Muslim girl,” he said.
“People are willing to change and become more aware. We just have to take them on the right path,“ he added.
M.A. Arun is a Bangalore-based writer.