In Karnataka on Sunday, protestors mourning the murder of M M Kalburgi, scholar, former vice-chancellor and Kannada folkore researcher, raised a familiar cry: “Nyaka beku! (We want justice!)” This demand is highly optimistic.
The grief that ran through Karnataka’s literary world was genuine, but let me say this: anyone who is shocked at the fact of murder has been sleeping through the last two decades in India. The rise in intolerance and the increasing acceptance of political and religious violence as an inevitable evil has seeped into every part of Indian life. It makes a kind of grim sense that some of our deadliest battles are now fought over literature, art, film and culture.
In these past two decades, there has been a steady waning of freedoms, even as the tab for destruction has run dangerously high. Writers and rationalists have been exiled, banned, forced into silence or self-censorship and physically attacked or seen their books and effigies burnt. Editors, publishers and troublesome journalists or activists have been ring-fenced by legal cases and state intimidation.
No government has clean hands: the responses of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the Left Front have ranged from tacit approval to appeasement to apathy. All three distance themselves conveniently from the “fringe” elements — either directly affiliated to political parties or inspired by the angry rhetoric of religious and political leaders — who carry out the dirty business of issuing threats or conducting the shooting of unarmed septuagenarians.
Kalburgi’s murderers shot the 77-year-old in his home before escaping on a motorcycle. The murder followed the recent killings of two prominent rationalists, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. The facts strongly suggest that Mr Dabholkar and Kalburgi may have been directly targeted for their outspoken criticism of religion or orthodox communities.
If there is no outcry from civil society, and no attempt to challenge the way of the gun, we should expect more murders. As has been the case in neighbouring Bangladesh, more rationalists, scholars and writers are likely to die as these culture wars intensify.
The first blow aimed at Kalburgi had landed in 1989. Religious fundamentalists from the Lingayat community objected to his research on the life of the philosopher and saint-founder Basava, and to his writings on Basava’s wife and sister. In the face of death threats, Kalburgi was summoned to a mutt in Hubli and forced to recant: “I committed intellectual suicide that day.”
But he had a lively mind, and he was steeped in the centuries-old Indian tradition of debate, doubt and questioning. Over the last few years, Kalburgi clashed with some Hindutva groups when he backed the late writer U R Ananthamurthy in a long-running controversy. Bajrang Dal activists burnt an effigy of Kalburgi in June last year. Bhuvith Shetty, co-convenor of the Bajrang Dal in Bantwal, tweeted on August 30 that those who mock Hinduism would die “a dog’s death”, adding a threat against another professor and rationalist: “And dear K S Bhagawan, you are next.” Bantwal police have taken up a suo motu case, citing attempt to cause riots and criminal intimidation, against Mr Shetty, who deleted his account and has not yet been located.
These threats are significant not because they connect the Dal to Kalburgi’s murder — there is no direct link, and the police are investigating other theories, given the background of conflict within the Lingayat community — but because of the climate of impunity they create. If these threats are not addressed, and if the right of thinkers and rationalists to critique religion is not unambiguously upheld, silence is too easily interpreted as permission to persecute or directly harm those who doubt. This cuts across all religions and communities.
Some years ago, the rationalist Sanal Edamaruku faced blasphemy charges and attacks on him by prominent members of the Catholic Church for questioning dogma, miracles and tenets of the faith. In 2012, he proved that water dripping from the toe of a statue of Christ was the result of bad plumbing, not a miracle. The death threats that followed sent him into exile in Helsinki. Every attack on rationalists in India makes it less likely that he might come home some day.
In May this year, an Ernakulam special court finally sentenced 10 convicts from the Islamic group, PFI, to eight years imprisonment for grievously hurting Professor T J Joseph – his “crime” was that he had set a question that appeared to blaspheme the Prophet Mohammed. In both cases, the police and the administration had been reluctant to act to protect either Mr Joseph or Mr Edamaruku, even in the face of escalating threats.
It is particularly dangerous when threats, killings or the exiling of writers and artists go unchallenged by members of the same community, party or religion. The silence of the majority, and the protection extended to those who threaten violence by religious or political leaders, is almost always seen as permission. The only thing more dangerous than a killer who thinks he is acting to protect his faith or community is the killer who knows he is acting with the sanction of his faith or community. In most cases, those who enact violence know that they risk very little, not even a term of imprisonment.
The 2011 Census may have introduced a new element, by counting atheists as a distinct group for the first time. Their numbers are still small, as is the size of the tiny but growing rationalist community in India, and it is significant that zealots have identified such a small minority as such a great threat.
The day after Kalburgi’s murder, Sanal Edamaruku tweeted from Helsinki: “Guns will not stop rationalists.” No; but even one more death would be one too many.