In the two days since the 77-year-old scholar-researcher Dr MM Kalburgi was murdered in his quiet Dharwad home, there is hardly any progress on the investigation, except some hand-wringing about which agency, the Karnataka state police or the Central Bureau of Investigation, should conduct it. For obvious and chilling reasons, his murder is uncannily similar to those of rationalists Dr Narendra Dabholkar two years ago and Govind Pansare in February this year, both in Maharashtra.
If there’s a pattern to the pre-meditated cold-blooded murder of genial old men of scholarship, whose ‘crime’ in the eyes of their murderers and murder-masterminds was that they questioned the orthodoxy, charlatans and exploitative religious beliefs, then there is a pattern to the murder investigations too. The clues are either vague or lead to dead-ends, the murder weapons are not traceable, the motorcycles used by the murderers are not found and the murderers who pulled triggers at point blank range seem to vanish into thin air.
The murders have been called the death of reason. To question beliefs, even those that are deeply and widely held, is not an offense. To challenge charlatans and self-appointed religious leaders is not a crime. To reveal the science behind so-called religious miracles is not a violation of law or ethic. But in the climate of intolerance that seems to be sweeping across the country in the last decade or so, to be a rationalist or atheist is enough to bring trigger-happy gunmen to one’s doorstep.
As it happens, the Kalburgi murder trial is bringing investigators to Maharashtra to probe the link between the three murders, according to reports. There is much lament that Maharashtra, which once took pride in its intellectual and progressive traditions, is beginning to look like the centre of this unequal battle between rationalist and reactionary forces.
But dig deeper and history tells us of examples of reactionary radicalism here. Social reformers such as Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule, and Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, now worshipped, were insulted and humiliated for their beliefs and work. Maharashtra has been the crucible for extreme, right-wing and reactionary organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Abhinav Bharat and Sanatan Sanstha. Nathuram Godse was a Maharashtrian.
It was the Sanatan Sanstha that had put up Dabholkar’s photograph on its website with a red cross on it, as a warning to him. Days after he was murdered, unrepentant office bearers declared they would put up more photos of those who walked the path that Dabholkar had. The meaning was lucidly clear.
The climate of intolerance has not spared Mumbai either. Its commerce, multi-culturalism and glamour are not the insurance that many thought they would be. In this city where once progressive art, literature and theatre blossomed, where liberal and rational thought found space, there have been a series of shameful incidents in the last few years – writers have been threatened, books have been burned and banned, editors have been physically attacked and verbally abused, trade unionists have been murdered, rationalists have been threatened.
The early cosmopolitanism introduced by a gallery of endowed and enlightened people, both native and British, and the multi-culturalism that characterised it in the immediate decades after Independence are fading. It is now difficult to refuse a donation to a Ganapati or Dahi Handi mandal and be unafraid of consequences, it is tough to complain of intrusive pandals, processions and noise from loudspeakers whether on pandals or mosques, it is almost impossible to challenge the prevailing food preferences in a housing society without inviting physical attacks.
Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi would not have been necessarily safer and better protected had they been living in Mumbai. But others like them who have been threatened for questioning entrenched orthodoxy and pursuing rationalist thought may be better protected against the gun if their murderers are punished – and the state does not appear to reinforce the climate of intolerance.