September 09, 2015

India: Ask, and you shall be shot dead (Imran Qureshi)

Business Line, September 8, 2015

Ask, and you shall be shot dead
[by] Imran Qureshi

Irrational killings Can never silence the voices of people such as Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, and MM Kalburgi

The tweet was remarkable for its directness. It mentioned the names of Kannada literary doyen, UR Ananthamurthy, and the epigrapher and researcher, MM Kalburgi, as having been dealt with yesterday and today (meaning that day) and warned KS Bhagwan, a Kannada writer, that he would be next in line.

But, more ominous was the line in between these names. It read: “Mock Hinduism and die a dog’s death.”

Strictly speaking, such a line could well apply to any other religion or caste group. In recent times those who have objected to the concept of “be proud to say I belong to x or y or z religion/caste group” have not allowed themselves to be cowed down (such as the Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan).

The pressure to conform or fall in line with dominant mores and values has also been seen in neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, where a Tamil writer was hounded out by Muslim fundamentalists because she had supported the legalisation of prostitution for the betterment of sex workers.

Basavanna and society

In the case of Sharmila Seyyid, the Tamil writer, the subject had more to do with a social issue rather than a religious one. Yet, she was forced to take refuge in India because the local religious establishment was shocked at the audacity of a woman to comment on what was considered illegal in her religion.

But, Kalburgi’s story is slightly different. He was going beyond merely pointing out his research findings to his Lingayat community. He took to campaigning that the followers of the 12th century social reformer, Basavanna, were not Hindus.

His argument was very simple. Basavanna propagated his social reforms to fight the caste system in Hinduism. He was of the view that idol worship and temple building was not what Basavanna had propagated. Basavanna believed in a classless, casteless society.

It was obvious that the powerful Lingayat mutts did not like what Kalburgi had deduced after studying ancient Kannada literature and Lingayat philosophy.

Fearless voice

His research into the vachanas (simple, philosophical poetry) was enormous. It was difficult to advance any argument against him because he was an authority on the subject and, without doubt, unrelenting in his campaign against the popular belief systems that religious institutions had come to represent and propogate. Some community leaders, a couple of decades ago, had publicly hoped that he would die.

Last year, Kalburgi irked them further by quoting from an old book written by Ananthamurthy to buttress his opposition to idol worship, inviting yet another wave of anger and attacks from religious leaders as well as rightwing forces.

Clearly, Kalburgi was never hesitant to deliver his messages with a shock and awe effect. He was a believer in the true spirit of the teachings of Basavanna. He was not a believer in rituals nor was he an agnostic. He simply wanted the Lingayat community to follow the norms laid down 900 years ago by the poet-philosopher-reformer as propounded in the vachanas to express faith in God. He was going back to the basics and questioning the established norms of those whom he believed had distorted the faith.

But, to those who believe in established norms, it appeared that Kalburgi was being “blasphemous” and non-conformist. He was seen as a person who was taking on the might of religious institutions and those who followed them.

It was not as if he was gaining followers, like the Christian evangelists have in recent years, by weaning people away from the established church or even from Hinduism; the established institutions or their believers had nothing to worry about. Kalburgi was just an unsparing critic of a particular religious order. What it boils down to is the fact that the expression of liberal thought within one’s religious faith is becoming more and more irksome to the establishment. The sense of insecurity among those who believe their way to God is the only way is evident when incidents like the killing of Kalburgi or the situations other writers have faced, come to the fore.
Great insecurity

That this sense of insecurity has spread rather wide comes out through the tweet. It did not come as a surprise that the tweet came from the coastal belt of Karnataka because that is the ground on which the “Hindutva laboratory” experiment has been conducted over the years. This is where the lines were drawn against a Hindu boy or a Muslim/Christian girl or vice versa having an ice cream together. That this continues even two-and-a-half years after the Congress government took over and has done nothing about, speaks volumes about how cautious the party is about protecting vote-banks. Vote-banks, in this case, do not necessarily mean the traditional Muslim/Christian vote-banks but that of moderate Hindus. They were the ones who were disgusted with the Mangalore pub attack by the rightwing Sree Rama Sene and voted Congress.

The approach of a “secular” government to dealing with those who have disturbed social harmony in the coastal belt has also given impetus to such open threats being issued on social media.

The exact reasons for Kalburgi’s murder will take some time to unravel; they may even take longer than the investigations into the killing of Narendra Dabolkar or Govind Pansare. But the tweet is a reflection of majoritarianism that has shaken Kannada literary and cultural circles.

Kalburgi’s killing has sent the message that no more can the Kannadiga trust the adage: “swalpa adjust madi” (please adjust a bit). The question is whether Kannada writers and cultural activists will be cowed down by the fear psychosis that is attempted to be imposed. Or, will it lead to a proliferation of ideas to meet this major challenge to the socio-cultural and religious-political fabric of Karnataka.

The writer is a senior journalist