On keeping Open the Door that was Opened by Dr. Malleshappa Kalburgi

On Sunday morning, seventy seven year old scholar Dr. Malleshappa Kalburgi opened his door in Dharwad town in Karnataka to some people who asked for ‘sir’. They pumped bullets into ‘sir’ when he appeared in front of them. Throughout his life, Dr. Kalburgi had the habit of opening doors. His scholarship into Kannada literature opened many doors. Those who killed Kalburgi abused not just his hospitality, and his willingness to open his doors to strangers (he had asked that his security be ‘lifted’ despite threats to his life), they abused all the traditions in the world that promise kindness to strangers, and keep doors open.

Dr. Kalburgi is the latest in a growing line of people in our part of the world to be cruelly silenced for their willingness to live by their belief in the primacy of doubt and their insistence on upholding the right to question. Just a few days ago, a few men had similarly knocked on a door in a Dhaka neighborhood. They said they were interested in renting rooms. They walked in and then proceeded to hack to death a man called Niloy Chakrabarti, a blogger on their ‘hit-list’. The threshold of two doorways in Dharwad and Dhaka have now been darkened by the same dark shadow.The two shadows claim to answer to different gods, but they obey the same command to kill anyone who wants to stand for a moment in the light.

The saddest thing about the horrible killing of Dr. Kalburgi, former vice-champion of Hampi University, and an eminent scholar of Kannada Vacana literature is that news of this kind does not come as a shock to us anymore.

While it is too early to say whether Kalburgi was killed by those close to Hindu Fundamentalist outfits in Karnataka, or as a part of internecine conflict within and between the Lingayat sect and its Jangama Virashaiva antagonists (Kalburgi had offended elements within the Lingayat and Virashaiva hierarchies with his research on Basava and his outspoken views), or as part of a vortex of hatred that locked Lingayat sectarianism within the wider logic of Hindutva, the fact is, the life of a scholar dedicated to the open ended investigation of tradition was considered to be too much of a threat to those who want to dictate the terms of tradition, faith and identity in Karnataka.

The Wire Report on Kalburgi’s Killing has reported that Kalburgi’s murder is actually preceded by the July 2012 killing of Linganna Satyampete, a journalist close to Kalburgi. Satyampete, who is described by the Wire as a “fierce critic of conservative elements in the Lingayat mathas who he accused of abandoning the true spirit of the vachanas”.

Hindu extremists  close to the BJP will take the killing of Kalburgi as yet another signal that they enjoy impunity and the protection of power. Indeed, a man called Bhuvith Shetty, convener of the Bajrang Dal’s Bantwal cell in Karnataka, Bhuvith Shetty’s Hate Tweet, a man called K. S. Bhagwan. His tweet (for which he has apparently subsequently apologized) is unambiguous – “Then it was UR Ananthamurthy and now MM Kalburgi. Mock Hinduism and die dogs (sic.) death. And dear KS Bhagwan you are next,”

In the wake of the killings of Narenda Dabholkar and Gobind Pansare in Maharashtra, news of this kind continues to be deeply saddening, but it is no longer surprising. As has happened with the cases of Dabholkar and Pansare’s assassinations, the investigations will be slow and cursory, and in time, the tragedy of the last victim’s killing, will be superseded by the news of the next assassination. Meanwhile, thugs of different kinds, belonging to different faiths and markers of identity, will extol assassins.

In South Asia, we have become an equal opportunity society as far as the freedom to silence thought is concerned. It is as if as long as you act in the name of god, nation, community and tradition, you can more or less do what you like, including kill and maim people.

There is no dearth of champions of any major faith in our part of the world that has not killed, or intended to kill, or harmed, or threatened to harm, imprison and harass very different kinds of people simply because they happened to believe in things other than what the zealots believed in.

The destinies of Dabhokar, Pansare and Kalburgi, felled by Hindu fanatics, in India, are mirrored by what happened to Niloy Chakrabarti, Ananta Bijoy Das, Washiqur Rahman and Avijit Roy, all four of whom were free-thinking (‘mukto-mona’, in Bengali) bloggers assassinated by Islamists in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the so called ‘secular’ Awami League government, while it promised punishment to the killers, also called on bloggers and intellectuals to not write anything that could be considered offensive to religious believers. Some bloggers, who managed to survive attacks, were in fact arrested on the charge of ‘offending religious sentiments’. A few bloggers have managed to escape by leaving Bangladesh, for good.

In India, Muslim fundamentalist outfits (ranging from the MIM in Hyderabad to groups patronized by the Samajwadi Party in UP and the Trinamool Congress and the  CPI(M) in West Bengal) have repeatedly threatened the exiled writer Tasleema Nasreen. Muslim fundamentalist outfits in different parts of the country (often under the protection of ‘secular’ politicians)  have consistently conducted witch hunts of anyone, especially women, who have questioned misogynist community mores.

In Pakistan, the last few years have witnessed the killing of Sabeen Mahmood and the attack on Raza Rumi, again by shadowy actors linked to Islamist groups, or the intelligence apparatus, or to both.

In Sri Lanka, dissident Buddhist monks such as Watarkea Vijitha Thero, who refused to tow the line of anti-muslim hatred dictated by Buddhist chauvinist groups such as the BBS (Buddhist Power Force) have had the experience of being stripped, beaten and left for dead on the street. The role of the Buddhist clergy in inciting hatred against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar (Burma) is by now well known.

In Indian Punjab, Sikh Extremists have a track record of killing and threatening anyone opposed to their sectarian agendas. The harassment of Sikh scholars like Dr. Pashaura Singh and Dr. Harjot Oberoi by the ‘gatekeepers’ of Sikh tradition, and the assassinations of poets and activists Avtar Singh Pash and Jaimal Singh Padda, is still within living memory.

Instances of intolerance towards dissenting views mark even the different Christian communities in South Asia. The harassment and legal troubles that the rationalist Sanal Edamaruku faced at the hands of Christian zealots in India eventually forced him into exile in far away Finland.

It is time for us to call out the nonsense that declares that all religions are peace loving, and that those who threaten harm in the name of religious faith are in fact inauthentic. While it is true that the vast majority of people of faith are peaceable and tolerant, it is also true that the minority within each faith that seeks to do harm to others does so not because it is insincere or insufficiently religious. They are not even ‘perverters’ or ‘distorters’ of religious tradition. They simply take the command to hate (that is found in every religious tradition in South Asia) literally. The antidote to this cannot simply be based on a benign understanding of religious faith. Religious faith often does harm, its overt expression often offends the deepest convictions and sentiments of those who either do not have faith, or have it to an insufficient degree, or simply believe in things other than those mandated by any or all of the major religious traditions.

Those of us who do not live under the shadow of faith have to consider demanding the repeal of laws designed solely to protect religious sentiments. This means the demand to revoke all ‘blasphemy’ laws and laws that contain loose and vague wording about ‘offense to religious sentiments’. It is these laws that provide the rationale for the killers who come knocking on the doors of Kalburgi in Dharwad and of Niloy Chakrabarti in Dhaka. Our governments (whether in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan) may say that these fundamentalists took the ‘law into their own hands’ but it is the existence of the laws against the free expression of doubt and criticism of religious tradition that exist on the statute books that provide the context and justification which impels the assassins in the first place. It is time we demanded that they be scrapped.

No society can be free until the freedom to doubt can live. We must not lock our doors.

10 thoughts on “On keeping Open the Door that was Opened by Dr. Malleshappa Kalburgi

  1. Meenal Mamdani

    A timely and excellent article.

    In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, while there was almost universal condemnation of the killers, some disapproved the PEN awards given to Charlie Hebdo, myself included, saying that there is no bravery or glory in pointing out home truths to a person/ a community/ a religion, that feels it is under siege. Though I condemned the killings, I felt that Muslims felt under threat by the Western countries which occupied their lands, stole their natural wealth, humiliated them for not having had religious renaissance. In this atmosphere, why did the cartoonists jeer at the Muslim religious beliefs however ridiculous they may have been? Why not take on those who are more powerful in society?

    We see now why Charlie Hebdo did not poke fun at the hypocrisy of the West but went after a softer target. The killers of Kalburgi et al come from the dominant strata of society. They pretend that their religious views are under threat when the reality is that there are no hurt feelings; simply a revenge or teaching a lesson by the dominant actors to those who dare to question. PEN should honor such writers so that the world’s attention is drawn to their plight and the responsible govts are forced to take action.

    1. Madhulika

      “Charlie Hebdo did not poke fun at the hypocrisy of the West but went after a softer target”???
      Your comment shows that you are extremely misinformed on the subject. Please read the following article that was featured on Kafila.
      http://kafila.org/2015/01/25/long-live-charlie-hebdo-harsh-kapoor/

      Islamic fundamentalists are not a soft target by any means. Nor is Islam (the second largest ad fastest growing religion in the world). Given its power, reach and influence, it is definitely not a soft target. Charlie Hebdo has always mocked the powerful and hence the mocking of Islam. Besides, it is foolish to think of Islam as being disparate from “the West”. Islam is not new to the West and there are a growing number of adherents in all parts of the world.
      It is time to correct this outdated vision of the world.

      1. Meenal Mamdani

        Thanks for giving the link to the article you mention. I did read it and agree with the main points.

        Perhaps you have misunderstood what I wrote.

        I do not absolve the killers of the heinous crime no matter their justification. Freedom of speech must be protected every where.

        What I commented on was the response of the French people with massive crowds, almost all white, that protested the killings with banners saying “I am Charlie Hebdo”. I doubt that there would have been a similar outpouring for colored victims of police brutality. There is little understanding among the French of the discrimination faced daily by colored youth in France and no sympathy for the despair they feel at being treated as expendable by the establishment. To understand why an action occurs is not to condone or encourage it.

        Then PEN gave an award to the magazine and the journalists. Surely there are many other journalists working in far more dangerous places despite risks to their lives who could have been honored. PEN took a cheap way to get plaudits.

        1. Madhu

          Please read your first comment again. It says nothing about police brutality against black people (Btw “colored” is a slur, don’t use that word) or about the “Je suis charlie” march being “almost all-white” (Another gross misrepresentation from you).
          As for the PEN award, it is your opinion that you are entitled to, but the reasoning you offered is flawed. You said Charlie Hebdo goes for soft targets and ignores the legacy of colonialism. And your argument has been sufficiently refuted.

  2. Haris

    …….No society can be free until the freedom to doubt can live. We must not lock our doors………..

    The most befitting conclusion; with reservations on some points though.

    ……..it is also true that the minority within each faith that seeks to do harm to others does so not because it is insincere or insufficiently religious…………….

    I believe there is a “contorted and concerted effort” in maneuver to undermine the religions and their credibility being carried out by the anti-religious elements everywhere; not just in South Asia. Not to ignore the governments’ role in their favor or should I say “sponsorship”?!!!

  3. kaif

    A very good article, as usual from you.

    I have some difficulty with this part of it –

    “It is time for us to call out the nonsense that declares that all religions are peace loving, and that those who threaten harm in the name of religious faith are in fact inauthentic. While it is true that the vast majority of people of faith are peaceable and tolerant, it is also true that the minority within each faith that seeks to do harm to others does so not because it is insincere or insufficiently religious. They are not even ‘perverters’ or ‘distorters’ of religious tradition.”

    Certainly, religions are brutal and perverse. But to say that and merely stop at that does not do justice to the experience of some of us – and I speak of myself primarily here – who do not recognise in these brutes and perverts what they see in religion. The same verses and the same outlook on life can mean to us something seemingly far more profound and broad-minded than how it is understood by the extremists. Hence, in our experience, the extremists truly are inauthentic.

    Hence, to me, I think it is more valid to say that religions are indeed perverse, but that is not all that they are. Perhaps you are saying that too, but your characterisation of them seems more absolute in its negativity.

    One can think in similar ways about non-religious ideas. Materialistic worldviews can arise out of an intent to do a lot of good, but they too lead to repression and death. And then there are voices which say that the killers have distorted the true vision of their ideology, which was humane in nature. One could say this about modern science and technology – it aims to take forward human welfare. It may have done that, but it has also led to the destruction of nature and produced nuclear bombs, both of which are real threats to our very existence beyond this century. Does this mean that modern science is evil? I wouldn’t be certain about saying that.

    I think the truth is far more simple than many of us may have imagined, even to the extent of seeming simplistic. Ideologies can be both good and bad. What determines that is the nature of the human being who lives them. Hence, change comes not from replacing religion with humanism or something else, but with individual change. Else we will next see a totalitarian form of whatever new ideology we create to shape human sensibilities. In our ideological battles we tend to forget this very often.

    Having said all this – yes, I truly believe in the freedom to doubt and to voice one’s doubt in ways which are challenging and radical. In the freedom to doubt doubt itself, and to doubt everything else in the world and within oneself. That is perhaps the root of all other freedom.

    1. Jayant

      A very well-written comment, to an excellent article (I agree, as usual). Thank you for this reasoned response.

  4. Melange

    Why are there no marches or movements to condemn this killing? On this very blog, I have seen several calls for protest in support of Palestine, FTII director’s appointment and other such obscure but populist issues. But against a murder like this that threatens the very idea of freedom of speech, the liberals of our country are not doing enough.
    I am very frustrated with the way liberal thought is being suppressed with very little or no unrest from the country’s liberals. We will have failed the nation if this continues.

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