Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Thoughts on Dr M M Kalburgi's Murder: In Kindle Magazine

Dr M M Kalburgi was murdered, for having an opinion and voicing it. That his comments were backed by solid research seems to not matter, for those killers of free speech and independent thought. Here is a comment I wrote for Kindle on the murder. Or see below.


I started to write of how so much like a witch hunt of Pennsylvania this feels like. To be hunted down and murdered, to be burned at the stakes, albeit in more modern ways with a weapon, for something as (ir)relevant as an opinion. But a witch hunt seemed an anachronism to compare this murder to. It seems unfair to try to find recourse in ancient hysteria, in misplaced perceptions. Anything but full focus on what happened, to be unwavering in its full condemnation, total in the shock it generates seems unfair. Even that does not seem enough.

Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi was murdered Sunday morning at about 8.40 am. Aged 77, the writer, critic, intellectual, thinker, rationalist – people now assign many names – was shot at point blank range by two men who claimed they were fans of his books and research papers. The facts are all already a day old now. There are other things of national importance that are taking over already.

I knew him by association, I could say. We share a birth date, 45 years apart in years. A beloved uncle, a writer, critic, intellectual himself and his late wife, an aunt I get my writing, and the shape of my nose from, were close associates of Dr Kalburgi. Uncle tells me this morning that he was like to a dear teacher, taking pride in the career path and research fields uncle took (controversial, anti-Hindu in his own way), encouraging, supporting, “like family.” They went to each other’s houses, knew of each other’s works, that sort of thing.

Vachana sahitya was his area of research, Dr Kalburgi’s, the literature of the likes of 12th century philosopher Basavanna. His comments on the wives and sister of Basavanna, revered by the politically powerful Lingayat community, did not go down well. No criticism of religion ever goes down well in this country, or elsewhere. Such a culture of taking offense we have developed. As a leading authority in the origins of the Lingayat movement and the vast literature it gave birth to, his research findings did what no religion likes to find itself having to face – rational criticism, a level headed look into the human-ness of its founders and by extension into their faults and mistakes. He explored the origins of Hakka-Bukka, the founders of the prestigious Vijayanagara dynasty, placing them in a tribal setting, again, bringing them down from a pedestal of faultless hero-hood to give them more practical human personas.

Five volumes of Margas, collections of his research papers, brought him national recognition by way of a Kendra Sahitya Akademi award. Along with this voice to influence came threats, condemnation and immense pressure to denounce his findings and retract his statements. Which he did, reluctantly, in an infamous episode from 1989. But it was to prove to be just a minor step back. Dr Kalburgi neither stopped his work, nor did he stop talking about the things, nearly always controversial, that he was coming across.

His works on the beginnings of Kannada literature in the 9th century is something my uncle remembers. All his lectures and writings were marked by fearlessness, a telling of something as it is, I am told. What could possibly go wrong when you spoke of a few ancient things in some obscure academic papers? Well.

Prof U R Ananthamurthy, the other outspoken intellectual who was often up in arms with the saffron brigade, wrote a much quoted essay in the 1980s, against the practice of nude worship by women in the town of Yellapura in Karnataka. The annual ritual, many decades old, was banned after one year, infamously, journalists and policemen were stripped and paraded naked by an angry mob. Dr Kalburgi raked up an anecdote in this old essay last year. In the criticism of idol worship, URA had written how, as a young boy rebelling against religion and its idiosyncrasies, he had urinated on some idols to prove that idol worship was a mere superstition, that no stone could curse. Dr Kalburgi’s quote brought criticism from many and URA himself, for raking up an old, old idea that he had written many decades ago. By then URA had begun to play a little safe, though never failing to admit that his views on religion and much else was a work in progress, always maintaining that he had changed his mind several times about several things.

At the heart of the matter is the politics that surround the Lingayat community. A much sought after vote bank, they are regularly appeased by different parties. Any liberal voices are quickly silenced. It pays to maintain a certain status quo for many sections. In this narrative, Dr Kalburgi’s story is a familiar one. He does some research and is not afraid to talk about it, even after he knows a lot of people don’t like it. One morning he gets killed for it, when they realize that he hasn’t learn the lessons they tried teaching him, that he would never learn.

You would think that communities are generally a little more tolerant of those among themselves that raise awkward questions. It did not matter that he was a Lingayat himself. He was still not forgiven. It does not matter that no religion, however widespread or ancient or strong or important, will collapse overnight under the weight of a criticism, however much that criticism might shake the very foundations of said religion. No religion is that weak, no faith is that fragile. No religion, no faith is based wholly on logic, to begin with. That does not matter of course, in the narrative of a section that deems it fit to witch hunt when it suits them so.

While chatting with an old journalist friend from university earlier today and discussing this, he named a name that is doing the rounds, that of a powerful person who is said to have ordered this hit. It is not for us to speculate or turn our heads towards some very obvious suspects. It is not for us to do anything but condemn, condemn, condemn. And to be brave in the quiet speeches we make, in the conversations we have, in the things we read and write and see and make. Religion, and every other institution in this wide world, can stand that. Should stand that.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire.

It is as very simple as that. It is as very difficult as that.


Evoking that abused idea of collective conscious in this degenerate dystopia we inhabit, I hang my head in shame today for the way we have become.

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