Murder, and a revolt in the Akademi

(On the morning of August 30, 2015, the scholar and former Karnataka University vice-chancellor MM Kalburgi was murdered in his home in Dharwad; he had opened the door to his assailants; his family heard gunshots and found him dead. He had received death threats in 2014 and 2015 over comments he had made at a seminar on the anti-superstition bill.)

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 and the 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 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.

Column on 14th September: The Forgotten Pleasures of History

The Palace of the Pandava Brothers, Nainsukh
In The Spirit of Indian Painting, BN Goswamy includes a light-filled, meditative mid-seventeenth century painting of a gathering of Sufis at the Mughal court.


He writes: “There are a number of paintings of Sufi saints from the – men of learning and insight seated together, most often in a small circle with a little wooden chauki at its heart, on which some books are piled. Most often, these men are of different orders, belonging to different periods of time separated from each other not by years but centuries, and drawn from places that have nothing to do with each other.”


Today’s debates over in India have become increasingly vociferous, intemperate and ugly; they revolve almost exclusively around history as a possession. For politicians and from the rightwing, particularly from the RSS, history is treated much like unclaimed forests — not, unfortunately, as a shared resource to be preserved and tended for the greater national good.


The debates are over who owns history, what “corrective” measures need to be taken, which roads, rulers, schools of history or undervalued artworks must be erased or whitewashed. As the historian Irfan Habib said in an interview this week, “The desire is not to improve anything but to destroy what has been achieved.”


17th century India may have been more liberal than our times; it was certainly more inviting. It is easy to see what we might lose when you think of that unknown painter, beckoning figures from up and down the centuries to sit together in amicable debate, united by their mutual love of books and learning.


Aside from the obvious damage caused by the wilful wrecking of institutions, there is another problem with focusing on just one story about history, whether that story is Liberals versus Leftists, Leftists versus the Rightwing, The Rightwing versus the Rest of India, Brahmin history versus Dalit history, Hindu India versus Muslim/British India etc.


It might seem frivolous to argue that the great casualty of contemporary history debates is also the loss of pleasure in the past, but I would argue that this is actually the more serious loss.


There are two approaches to trying to understand the past. The first is the approach of the bigot, but it is also the path taken by the absolutist. Both are certain that they know from the present what the past should have been. In both cases, history ceases to be about real people, or complex political structures, or economic migration, or gender, or travellers crossing borders in medieval and ancient times. It becomes a minefield where you must explode the facts that do not fit your truth, and preserve the ones that do. There may be serious intent behind this approach – bigots are often voracious, if selective, readers – but there is no pleasure in it, only the grim urge to impose your story on others.


Anything that doesn’t fit with this narrative is either an annoyance or a threat, and this is true of all schools of history-as-certainty, from the Soviets to modern Hindutva extremists. But history is like memory: as malleable as it might seem to be, it is only useful when it rests on truth and accuracy, not a wishful imagining of how things should be.


Following history in the spirit of pleasure is another matter all together, and it leads to surprising discoveries. Postdoctoral fellow Audrey Truschke’s curiosity led her to study Sanskrit and Persian in the Mughal court, consulting archives in India and Pakistan. Her forthcoming book Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court is a fascinating look at exchanges between the Mughal, Jain and Brahmin elites in the 16th and 18th centuries.


Between the 1570s and the 1650s, she records, “dozens of Jains and Brahmins visited the central courts, and worked as resident scholars, musicians, political negotiators, intellectual informants and astrologers”.


This world is messy and complex, displaying neither the cartoon wickedness of the brutal invader crushing all before him or the equally blurry idea that everyone lived in an oversimplified harmony. In the 1590s, Tapa Gaccha Jains defended themselves against accusations of atheism from Akbar, prompted by his discussions with Brahmans at the court. Devavivmala had recorded a debate between Abul Fazl and Hiravijaya over the merits of Islam and Jainism – as Truschke points out, the story may have been apocryphal, but it is revealing that it should be recorded at all.


How much do we lose of ourselves and our own memory if we insist on a limited, narrow view of the past? Truschke’s research opens up another way of seeing the Mughal courts and how the debates of that time eddied and changed over the centuries, fuelled by the mutual, sometimes wary, sometimes open, curiosity between different religious groups. And this is what history is supposed to do, beyond the battles waged by one school against another: make the past more clear, and make it come to life.


In The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and his Empire of Truth, the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty frames a correspondence between Sarkar (1870-1958) and his fellow historian, Rao Bahadur Gobindrao Sakharam Sardesai (1865-1959). The letters were mentioned in the appendix of a book he found in the Regenstein Library in Chicago; he was immediately intrigued: “Here were two of India’s pioneering historians writing to each other for decades about issues crucial to historical research…”


Chakrabarty acknowledges that the pursuit of truth Sarkar believed in is long since outdated, but what drew him to this material was perhaps just the understanding that the past is not a static thing, frozen in textbooks. It is built of human exchanges, like the one between Sardesai and Sarkar. For months, Chakrabarty sat in the National Library, copying some 1200 letters by hand.
 “His was a clear and steady hand… After a while it was impossible not to feel the presence of a person who paid attention to every detail in front of him. It was as if Sir Jadunath reprimanded me from behind every sentence of his that I copied, for there was so much difference between his writing and mine.”


That is the biggest difference between the historian or the reader who follows history for pleasure, and the one who enlists history as a weapon in his cause: one sees the rich muddle of human lives, the other sees only ammunition. We need to recover the first way of relating to the past, before yielding our collective memory so easily.

Column on 12th October: The Writers’ Revolt

The India of and the India of politicians are such different places: the politician might rule over a nation, but it is often the writer who is the true voice of the country.

In this last week, writers have spoken eloquently, and loudly, from regions, states and languages across India and this landmark is only growing larger.

Many writers have either returned awards given to them by or resigned from the Sahitya Akademi. Some have aimed their protest at the Akademi, asking why it has not held condolence meetings for the late M M Kalburgi, the respected scholar and vice-chancellor who was shot dead in his Dharwad home on 30 August.

Some, notably Nayantara Sahgal, Uday Prakash, and G N Devy, have widened their protest, expressing their dismay over attacks on free expression and killings such as the lynching of Mohammed Ikhlaq in Dadri recently. Krishna Sobti, now 90, returned her fellowship saying that India needed no more “Dadris and Babris”. The Karnataka writer Chandrashekhar Patil gave back his state Pampa award in protest at the inaction in the wake of M M Kalburgi’s murder.

Some writers, like the Malayalam author and the English-language poets and Keki N Daruwalla, have chosen other methods of protest, writing to the Akademi to express their disappointment.

Once the leading forum for authors, representing 22 of India’s languages, the Sahitya Akademi is now increasingly seen as a “desensitised” institution; if it cannot express the concerns of writers any longer, it must be replaced by a forum that can. Sahitya Akademi president V P Tiwari admitted in an interview that he could not make a statement against the government, branding the Akademi as one that holds the interests of the establishment higher than the interests of writers.

The anger among writers has been building for a while now. Mr Prakash, the eminent Hindi writer known for his short stories and novellas – Warren Hastings’ Bull, The Walls of Delhi – set the protest rolling when he returned his Akademi award. “He [Kalburgi] was killed and the Akademi did not even send a condolence message to his aggrieved family, let alone express concern about the violent suppression of all dissenting voices.”

In September, six young Kannada writers – Hanumanth Haligeri, Shridevi V Aloor, T Satish Javare Gowda, Chaidanand Sali, Veeranna Madiwalar and Sangamesh Menansinakai – had said they would return their Aralu Sahitya state awards if Kalburgi’s murder was not thoroughly investigated; they have kept their promise.

In September, too, the poet Rajesh Joshi had said independent-minded Hindi writers were being kept away from the World Hindi Conference. “The government was apprehensive they would have discussed issues like murder of Kalburgi which it does not want discussed,” he told In October, he and Mangalesh Dabral return their awards in protest at the Akademi’s continued inaction.

The growing list of authors protesting in one form or another also includes: Aman Sethi, Ashok Vajpeyi, N Shivdas, Shashi Deshpande, Sarah Joseph, Rahman Abbas, K Parakkadavu, Ajmer Aulakh, Atamjit, Gurbachan Bhullar, Waryam Sandhu and Ghulam Nabi Khayal.

Ms Sahgal spoke up on October 6, calling this the unmaking of India: “The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology.”

Just a few days later, Mr Satchidanandan submitted his resignation to the Akademi. “I am sorry to find that you think this is a ‘political issue’; to writers like me, this is an issue of our basic freedom to live, think and write. Annihilation should never be allowed to replace argument, the very essence of democracy.” The linguist Mr Devy was cutting: “I fail to understand why there should be such a deafening silence at Ravindra Bhavan about what is happening to free expression in our country.” The Kannada writer and Dalit poet Aravind Malagatti resigned, believing that the Akademi should have spoken out condemning the murders of Kalburgi and the rationalist Pansare.

It would be a mistake to assume that the fears and the anger that these writers express are not shared by a wider community – and yet in their responses, commentators from the right-wing displayed incredible ignorance. Their first line of attack – that this was an elitist protest – was swiftly silenced when it became clear how many states, languages and classes these writers represent.

Their second line of argument – that these writers were obscure, unknown, irrelevant – was revealing, because it displayed their disconnect with the India outside their small right-wing bubble. Messrs Aulakh, Bhullar, Malagatti, Prakash, Joseph, Champa, Sobti and others have large and loyal audiences. It takes blind arrogance to dismiss those links (an arrogance shared by the right wing and TV luminaries such as Suhel Seth).

The third line of attack is based on denial that India has descended into some of the worst anti-intellectual, communal, violent times. But Mr Aulakh condemned the attacks on “progressive writers, leaders of the rational movement and the forcible saffronisation of education and culture”; Mr Khayal returned his award in protest against the growing hatred of minorities in India.

No amount of whataboutery, references to the Emergency, or demands that protesters silence themselves can erase the list of murders, violent attacks, bans, engineered communal micro-riots that brought these writers out protesting in such an unprecedented way.

“We cannot remain voiceless,” Rahman Abbas wrote, and they are not. They speak for millions across India who are alarmed at where this country is headed.

(Columns published in the Business Standard, August-October 2015)


One response to “Murder, and a revolt in the Akademi”

  1. How India’s writers are fighting intolerance | nilanjana roy Avatar

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