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Byron Shire
October 19, 2021

Thousands march against the murder of freethinkers in India

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Prof M M Kalburgi, gunned down by opponents to free-thinking in India. Photo The Hindu
Prof M M Kalburgi, gunned down by opponents to free-thinking in India. Photo The Hindu

Harsha Prabhu

‘You can silence me, but you cannot silence the truth.’

These words by Prof. M M Kalburgi echoed through the streets of Dharwad, Karnataka, India, as thousands of people marched through town on August 30, the first anniversary of Kalburgi’s assassination.

They were also marching to protest the cold blooded murders of Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar. Organisers estimated the turnout to be close to 8,000.

Kalburgi was an academic who critiqued caste; Pansare was a social activist who criticised the glorification of Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Gandhi, and wrote a best-selling biography of Shivaji, icon of the Hindu right, pointing out the inconvenient fact that some of Shivaji’s generals and nearly a third of his army were Muslims; Dabholkar was a rationalist who spoke out against superstition, self-styled godmen and fake miracle makers. All three were progressive intellectuals who ran afoul of Hindutva groups.

Kalburgi was gunned down in Dharwad on August 30 last year by two young men who entered his residence posing as students. Despite a whole year of investigations the police and CID have yet to make an arrest. Dabholkar was killed in August 2013 in Kolhapur; Pansare was shot in February 2015 in Pune. All three murders remain unsolved by police and investigating agencies.

The march was flagged off by Umadevi Kalburgi, Shaila Dabholkar and Sau Uma Pansare, wives of the slain activist-scholars. Over 90 civil society organisations supported the action.

Starting from Kalburgi’s residence in Kalyan Nagar, the silent marchers wound their way through the leafy Dharwad streets, holding placards saying ‘Communalism is the biggest threat to our country’, ‘Guns cannot silence ideas’, ‘Cowards kill thinkers and cowards protect killers’.

They marched past the brown brick Karnataka University campus; past the multi-hued Ganesh temple; past the bronze-coloured statue of Basaveshwara on a horse; past the golden statue of Dr Ambedkar – with the Indian constitution in one hand and one finger of his other hand raised as if pointing to the future – and effectively shut down Dharwad’s CBD before ending at RLS College.

Students and teachers from over 10 local colleges participated in the march. I asked one teacher about the presence of so many young people. He said: ‘Prof Kalburgi supported us, both socially and financially.’

Kalburgi was a much-loved teacher, but his activism met with harassment, police complaints, warnings and, finally, assassination.

Hindutva organisations like Vishva Hindu Parishad, Bajarang Dal, Sri Ram Sena and Sanathan Sanstha had him in their sights. Sanathan Sanstha’s members are being investigated for the murders of Dhabolkar and Pansare. While some arrests were made, all three cases remain unsolved.

Kalburgi – and Pansare and Dhabolkar – challenged the poisoning of public discourse by the ideology of Hindutva. They spoke about issues like caste, communalism, superstition, the suppression of Dalits and women and emphasised rationalism, the scientific temper and progressive ideas.

Prof. Kalburgi, who had retired as Vice Chancellor of Kannada University, Hampi, was a noted scholar, playwright and activist and author of over 100 books and over 700 scholarly articles. His work covered diverse fields including epigraphy, folklore, history, prosody, poetics and linguistics.

Kalburgi wrote: ‘The researcher needs to unravel actual history in order to stop the exploitation caused by false history. Research is not a purely historical exploration but a struggle with those who invoke false history to profit from the present.’

Kalburgi revitalised interest in Basavanna, 12 century Kannada reformer who was persecuted for taking on the evils of India’s medieval caste system. Basavanna was also a poet, who famously wrote: ‘things standing shall fall,but the moving ever shall stay’ – prophesying the annihilation of caste. Kalburgi’s play on the life of Basavanna emphasised Basavanna’s attempt to create a casteless society, his anti-Brahmin stance, his criticism of priestly orthodoxy. That Kalburgi was assassinated in 21st century India for espousing the 12 century Basavanna’s ideas – Basavanna, of whom Gandhi said at the Belgaum session of the Indian National Congress in 1924 ‘Had he lived during our times, he would have been a saint worthy of worship’ – is a horrific indictment of the ubiquity of caste in India today.

Basavanna was persecuted by caste Hindus; Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu Mahasabha/RSS activist; and Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare’s killers are suspected to be from the Hindu right. Hindu caste orthodoxy casts a long, murderous shadow.

Today’s rally began with drums and songs eulogising poet-reformer Basavanna, social critic Jyoitba Phule and revolutionary Bhagat Singh, followed by cries of ‘Kalburgi, Dabholkar, Pansare amar rahe’.

Speaking at the rally scriptwriter and academic Anjum Rajabali said: ‘In these times when our freedoms of thought, expression and political choice are under threat, we have not only learnt to value them, but also realise we shall have to struggle for them. These three great thinkers are our inspiration. By murdering them, the killers have actually made them and their ideas immortal. We strongly appeal to the government to decisively conclude the investigation into their murders and let the rule of law prevail.’

The rally continued with a the packed-out crowd attending patiently in the rain to the words of a distinguished line-up of speakers but this writer had to leave early to catch a flight.

Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare’s killers remain at large. Activist have had to approach the courts to seek the involvement of the National Investigative Agency and Criminal Bureau of Investigation to crack the Dhabolkar and Pansare murders, citing lack of faith in the state police.

These unresolved murders hang heavy on the conscience of the police and judicial process in India and on the Indian state. They are, indeed, an indictment of the lack of the rule of law in India. The state, while happy to slap sedition charges on activists speaking out on social issues, seems unwilling or unable to pursue and prosecute cases of Hindu terrorism.

Will the Indian people rise up as one to demand that the dream of India as a secular democratic nation with equality for all citizens dreamt by our founding fathers and mothers – a dream that is enshrined in the Indian constitution – become a reality? Going by the evidence of today’s rally and the recent resurgence in Dalit, Muslim, student and progressive activism, the future looks hopeful. Through the dark clouds of Hindutva fascism there rises a silver lining.


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