The seer being investigated by the Karnataka Police over allegations of sexual assault heads one of the most prominent of the nearly 3,000 Lingayat mutts in the state. As the state gets into election mode, where the support of the Lingayats, the largest vote bloc at nearly 17% of the population, will be crucial, supporters of the seer, Shivamurthy Muruga Sharanaru, see a power struggle over the control of the mutt as behind the charges.
Two minor residents of a hostel run by the Jagadguru Murugarajendra Vidyapeetha Mutt, based in Chitradurga, have accused pontiff Shivamurthy of sexual assault. While police are yet to question him, Shivamurthy was briefly detained on Monday morning. Following his release, he blamed “a conspiracy in the works for 15 years, and now happening in the open”, adding that he would follow the law of the land.
Mutts like Murugarajendra wield huge clout in Chitradurga and similar places in central Karnataka, where they offer services like free education to people from backward, Dalit and tribal communities. With the Lingayats spread over Karnataka, the mutts also command political influence, and several CMs of the state, including the current CM, Basavaraj Bommai, and former CM B S Yediyurappa hail from the community. Yediyurappa is believed to be especially close to Shivamurthy.
In a quid pro quo arrangement, parties support such mutts with financial aid and expect support in return during elections, through their followers. Like Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who recently came to the Murugarajendra Mutt and took initiation into the Lingayat sect, they are often visited by politicians seeking their blessing. The more liberal of the Lingayat mutts, the Murugarajendhra Mutt leans more towards the philosophy of Basavanna rather than the more conservative Hindu religious line taken by other shrines.
Since Shivamurthy became its head, the Murugarajendra Mutt has grown and accumulated a huge amount of wealth, even earning it the nickname “Nava Koti Narayana mutt (or New Mutt with crores of wealth)”.
Before he became its head pontiff in January 1991, Shivamurthy was a student at the Murugarajendra Mutt. His supporters accuse former JD(S) MLA S K Basavarajan as directly having a hand in maligning the seer. Basavarajan, who worked briefly as the administrator of the mutt earlier, recently joined back as one, hours before the sexual assault FIR was filed.
The warden of the hostel where the alleged victims live has, in fact, filed a counter-complaint accusing Basavarajan and his wife of kidnapping the minors.
What also places the Murugarajendra Mutt and Shivamurthy at the heart of Lingayat politics is the pontiff’s support for OBC status to the community. He had also backed the movement seeking declaration of the Lingayat faith as a separate religion from Hinduism when the Congress was in power between 2013 and 2018.
While Shivamurthy has enjoyed the support of former CM and newly nominated BJP parliamentary board member Yedyiurappa, the Congress has been wooing him. Recently, after Rahul took Ishtalinga Deeksha from the pontiff, Karnataka Congress chief D K Sivakumar said that former Congress prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were both supporters of the Murugarajendra Mutt.
Political parties have reacted cautiously to the sexual assault charges, while coming out in support of the pontiff. Even before the seer was questioned by police, Yediyurappa said: “It is a false charge, there is no truth in it. After the completion of the investigation, he will come out clean.” Sivakumar described the seer as a “noble man”. CM Bommai said: “A POCSO case is registered and there is a kidnapping case as well. Police are investigating. In this situation, it would be inappropriate to comment. Police have full independence to investigate and the truth will come out.”
“As a society we owe it to ourselves that these allegations are probed thoroughly and impartially. The Karnataka government and all political parties have to ensure that there are no pulls, pressures, politics and interference in this case. The girls deserve nothing but justice, ” the BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Lahar Singh said in a statement.
“If there is even an iota of doubt that interests of justice will be served better if this case is transferred outside Karnataka, then that too should be considered,” he said.