When the news of the murder of the scholar, rationalist and teacher M.M. Kalburgi spread outside his home state, Karnataka, many had not heard of him. Some wondered, why should the death of an unarmed professor make headlines? Kalburgi’s murder in Dharward, Karnataka, on August 30, last year was preceded by the assassinations of two other rationalists and activists, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. They were not powerful in the usual sense of the word, but their ability to understand what passed off as tradition, decode what it does to a society, especially to those who could be browbeaten, and then question it sharply and loudly made false prophets run for cover.
Sheldon Pollock, the highly regarded Sanskrit scholar, once wrote about the late U.R. Ananthamurthy that he made his case “by way of a refined literary sensibility and a vibrant desi cosmopolitanism.” This rings true for the three rationalists who were killed in cold blood within a period of two years. They chose to combine literary sensibility and desi cosmopolitanism and it was this cocktail that killed the most conservative and bigoted arguments.
Kalburgi’s murder became the centre of a political storm last year. It was a time when the euphoria over India getting its first majority government in three decades was being tempered with the reality of the ruling party having lost Delhi. The party was on the backfoot on several issues. The NDA government was anxious to be seen as “winning” everything — elections as well as arguments — on matters related to India’s present, future and, of course, the past. Two formidable local rivals, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, had joined hands to take on the Sangh in the Hindi heartland and this was a serious challenge to the ruling party. The argument, broadly, of the resurgent Hindutva Right was that it stood for “change” and was the only force which had the “earthy” (and digital) language to communicate with “Indians” — whether in India or PIOs/NRIs. The assassinations of Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare meant silencing those who did not allow “tradition” to be gifted away to one side of the argument.
There have been such assassinations in Bangladesh and Pakistan in the past two years: Secular bloggers, baul singers and sufi qawwals have been seen to be deeply threatening. They are threatening because they bring their voices to bear in ways that are simultaneously literary, refined and “desi”. After August 30, a succession of literary figures, led by Hindi writer Uday Prakash — followed by Nayantara Sehgal, Ashok Vajpeyi, G.N. Devy and Krishna Sobti among others — protested the state behaving like a mob by returning state awards and titles.
Writers, intellectuals and poets have faced the heat — and will always do so — when they question the powers that be or when they reveal their politics. An intellectual has the responsibility to connect things, events and ideas in a manner different from other sections of the society. This holds true for Buddha, Kabir, Basava, Eknath, Tagore, Premchand and A.K. Ramanujan — the list is endless.
The French author, Emile Zola, once argued passionately for the innocence of a Jewish military officer. Zola was convinced that this officer was being falsely implicated on a charge of spying because of the anti-semitic wave in the country. The writer was proved right, though many years later. His defence of the officer was based on the idea that the bearers of knowledge and ideas had to articulate their views on what was happening — and loudly so — at a time when those in power were at their intimidating worst.
The fact that so many people — historians, sociologists, painters and sculptors — protested against the logic of the mob and unreason, is significant for another reason. Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar lacked the “network” that typically fuels furore and outrage. When members of the Pansare and Dabholkar families went to Kalburgi’s home to condole his death, they found themselves surrounded by books and literature, which they recognised as belonging to the genre that had proved fatal to their relatives. But they could not read any of those books; they were written in a language they did not understand. That is why those who picked up the baton in the silence that followed the deaths of these activists and developed it into a language of protest must be saluted.
Those who push the majoritarian idea of India would like to build an uncomplicated, false and unitary notion of the country. If you oppose a majoritarian India, you are not Indian, they argue. Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar represented the fine, defiant and desi voices that hit hard at that idea. In their death, they gave several people the language to spell out their opposition to this majoritarian idea. As the late Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali puts it: “My book’s been burned/Send me the ashes, so I can say/ I’ve been sent the phoenix in a coffin of light”.