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.