A renowned Kannada scholar, Sahitya Akademi award winner and former vice-chancellor of Karnatak University M M Kalburgi, 77, was shot dead by two unidentified assailants at his residence in Dharwad in north Karnataka on Sunday morning.
A straight-talking, rationalist researcher of ancient Kannada literature, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi had over the years had a few run-ins with radical elements within his own Lingayat community and the Hindutva fringe over his writing and speeches.
He was shot in the head by two visitors who knocked on his door around 8.40 am, claiming to be students. The assailants managed to flee.
Based on eyewitness accounts of the killing, including that of Dr Kalburgi’s wife, police sources in Dharwad said two youths, aged between 20 and 30, showed up on a motorcycle at the residence of the scholar, located in the narrow lanes of the Kalyannagar area of Dharwad.
“One of the assailants remained seated on the motorcycle while the other went up and rang the doorbell. Dr Kalburgi’s wife opened the door and the person asked for Dr Kalburgi saying he was a student. Dr Kalburgi’s wife left the youth in the hall of the house with her husband and went to the kitchen, when she heard shots fired,” police said.
The assailant was seated briefly in the living room of the house and exchanged a few words with the scholar before firing two rounds at him at point blank range. Police have identified the weapon used as a 7.65 mm countrymade gun.
Two empty cartridges were found at the crime scene. The assailants may have been hired killers, said sources.
Dr Kalburgi was rushed to Dharwad Government Hospital, but was declared dead on arrival.
The Hubli-Dharwad police is investigating the case from multiple angles, including the run-ins Dr Kalburgi had had with members of his own community and the Hindutva fringe over his research work and forthrightness on traditional religious beliefs and practices. A property dispute with the in-laws of Dr Kalburgi’s widowed daughter Roopadarshi is also being probed, multiple sources in Dharwad said. Roopadarshi, however, has ruled this out as a reason for the killing, sources said.
“We are investigating, the motive for the murder is not known as yet,” Ravindra Prasad, the police commissioner for the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad, stated. While other Kannada literary personalities too have questioned religious practices and beliefs in the past and faced protests, there is no precedent of a murder.
In 1989, Dr Kalburgi had received a threat to his life from the Lingayats over a collection of research articles on Kannada folklore, religion and culture titled Marga One. His exploration of the life and relationships of patron saint of the Lingayat community Basavanna had attracted the ire of radicals in the community — which forms the single largest group in Karnataka. “In one of the articles, he wrote that Channabasava, who is also a Lingayat seer, was born from a relationship between Basavanna’s sister and a cobbler. In another, he raised questions over Basavanna’s relationship with his wife,” senior journalist Subhash Hugar said.
Following the threat, Dr Kalburgi taught students at Karnatak University under police protection. Later, under pressure from Lingayat seers and citing threat to his family, he withdrew the controversial portions from the book. He called it “intellectual suicide” and swore not to write anything pertaining to the history of Lingayat culture and literature anymore.
With his Leftist views he, however, remained a foe of a section of the Lingayat community, that is today the bulwark of BJP’s support base in Karnataka. Born in the Bijapur region, bordering Maharashtra, Dr Kalburgi himself hailed from a wealthy, landholding Lingayat family.
More recently, in 2014, Dr Kalburgi walked into a controversy while speaking on a proposed anti-superstition bill in Bengaluru where he claimed that it is alright to urinate on the idols of gods and that there would be no retribution. He referred to a piece of work by Kannada Jnanpith award-winning writer U R Ananthamurthy, who claimed to have urinated on idols of gods as a child.
The speech attracted the ire of right-wing groups and trolls on the Internet but caused more problems for Ananthamurthy rather than Dr Kalburgi. A case was filed against both for “causing hurt to” religious sentiments and beliefs.
“Stones were pelted at Dr Kalburgi’s residence and he was provided police protection. The protection was withdrawn a few months later at the request of Dr Kalburgi, who said he was unable to interact freely with his research students,” a senior police official in Dharwad said.
A senior BJP official in Hubli-Dharwad insisted a property dispute was behind the murder, and that a legal case was on. “It is true that we protested against some of the utterances of Dr Kalburgi last year, but this is purely linked to a family dispute,” Lingaraj Patil, the BJP’s spokesman in Hubli-Dharwad, said.
Police are hoping to get clues from the weapon used in the killing, the motorcycle on which the assailants came, CCTV footage from traffic cameras, and cellphone location data.
Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaram-aiah expressed grief at the killing, promising “strong action against the culprits”.
Dharwad MP and BJP state president Prahlad Joshi said, “Dharwad is a peaceful place. Such incidents are not known to occur here. Dr Kalburgi had extended political support to me in the past,” Joshi said.