When Gauri Lankesh decided to “give a piece of my mind to the local Lingayats” in a small town in Karnataka

12 May, 2018

In September 2017, the journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead outside her home in Rajarajeshwari Nagar in Bengaluru. Her murder appeared similar to the killings of noted rationalists in the four preceding years—Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi, were all, like Lankesh, shot dead. Lankesh’s death, like the previous three murders, appeared motivated by a similar ideological conflict, and preliminary investigations indicated a similar modus operandi, including the use of a common weapon. Lankesh and Kalburgi in particular, who was shot dead at his home on 30 August 2015, shared a common ideological position, especially on the issue of the Lingayat religion. They were both outspoken critics of Hinduism and distinguished it from the Lingayat theology. Both drew the ire of Hindu groups for their vocal positions.

In his upcoming book, Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason, the senior journalist Chidanand Rajghatta examines the political landscape in India that formed the context to Lankesh’s murder. Rajghatta was married to Lankesh, and though they got divorced in 1990, he writes that they remained close friends until her death. In the following excerpt from the book, Rajghatta discusses an incident when Lankesh riled up a crowd while giving a speech on Lingayatism, and her serendipitous meeting with Kalburgi later that day.

Gauri herself clearly did not expect to be the target of an assassination bid, although physical menace and violence were occasionally in the air when she and the other rationalists spoke at public events. In a column she wrote for the tabloid Bangalore Mirror, Gauri described an incident at a Lingayat matha(monastery) some years earlier. A riled-up conservative gathering had shouted her down during a speech she was delivering on Lingayatism—a twelfth-century reformist movement that led to the birth of what she and a few scholars argued was a separate religion.

The incident took place, she said, in 2003 or 2004, in a small town called Malebennur where a few Lingayat youth had reportedly stripped and raped two women from a minority community “while gleefully chanting religious slogans.” I emphasise reportedly because much of the reporting in India on such matters is dodgy, and facts are never clear. Riots and looting had followed. The incident disturbed Gauri, because Malebennur was very close to her ancestral village on the maternal side; it was also a town where Hindus and Muslims had lived in harmony for generations.

Communal peace was an article of faith for Gauri Lankesh. She was one of the moving forces behind the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum, and had been warning for years that the state’s fabric of communal peace was fraying, mainly on account of inroads made by right-wing extremists.

So, what did she say that riled the audience?

In Gauri’s eyes, the local gathering at Malebennur was only professing to be Lingayat. They were not really followers of the progressive, reformist Lingayat religion that its founder had conceptualised. Rather, they were Veerashaivas, practitioners of what she (and Kalburgi and many others) saw as an older, Brahminical or Brahminised form of Hinduism that had swept in from the north. The two are very different and distinct, she argued vociferously, insisting they were often mixed up for political reasons.

Her argument was that keeping Veerashaivas and Lingayats together underwrote a single vote bloc, usually for the BJP and right-wing parties, in Karnataka. For the longest time though, this was a non-issue. The consensus in Karnataka was that Veerashaivas and Lingayats referred to the same community.

At the heart of the Veerashaiva–Lingayat debate, and that of the current debacle, is the issue of nativism and reformation. Founded in northern Karnataka by the twelfth-century political and social reformer Basaveshwara (also, and informally, called Basavanna or just Basava), Lingayatism was a Shiva-centric reformist Bhakti movement that essentially sought to “cleanse” rituals such as idol worship, and inequities such as gender discrimination and the caste system, from the precursor Veerashaivism traditions. The reformers said the old order was suffused with ills that ought to be removed to usher in a more fair and equitable society.

Basaveshwara preached and practiced equality and egalitarianism, rubbished idolatry and discrimination on grounds of gender. He identified with the “lesser” or “lower” castes, and founded a religion that drew millions, including women, into the fold over the centuries. He challenged the orthodoxy and domination of Brahminical Vaishnava and Veerashaiva practitioners, taking on these and other strains of the Hindu dharma of the times.

By most accounts, Basava’s assembly of social revolutionaries, philosophers, poets and mystics is unmatched for its creativity and social commitment in the history of Karnataka, perhaps in the history of India itself. They were called sharanas: bhaktas or devotees who had surrendered themselves to the Lord. And they spread their message through vachanas, short epigrammatic verses, poems or songs.

To return to Gauri, having walked into the lions’ (or Veerashaivas’) den at the Malebennur monastery, in her talk, she cited what is arguably Basaveshwara’s most famous vachana:

uLLavaru shiválaya máduvaru nánénu mádali badavanayyá
enna kále kambha dehavé degula shiravé honna kaLashavayyá
Kúdala Sangama Devá keLayya sthavarakkaLivunTu

It is a searing takedown of the priestly class, their wealthy followers, and the formal, temple- and idol-centric religion that was prevalent in the day. Translated into English by the poet and folklorist AK Ramanujan, who brought many vachanas to life in English in the classic Speaking of Siva, the vachana means:

The rich
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
of gold.
Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.

Gauri then asked the gathering of the Veerashaivites professing to be Lingayats: “Basaveshwara was against building temples and worshipping idols. If you claim to be Lingayats, why are you consorting with forces that want to build a temple to an imaginary god?” It was a thinly disguised jab at the right-wing Sangh Parivar and its political offspring the BJP, which have long been agitating for a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

The audience did not like it one bit.

Not surprising, because after the Malebennur spat, she wrote to say that she had accepted the matha’s invitation after declining several such solicitations in the past “so that I could give a piece of my mind to the local Lingayats.”

Among those who worked to restore and interpret vachanas through a lifetime of work was MM Kalburgi. By happenstance, Kalburgi was in Malebennur on the same day Gauri was heckled and was staying in the same hotel that she had checked into. The two theological—if not ideological—soulmates met. Not for the first time, although Gauri did not make the connection.

Steeped in Lingayat research and learning, Kalburgi endorsed Gauri’s views with a scholarly disquisition citing various vachanas to explain how Lingayats were not Hindus and the Lingayat dharma had been undermined by renewed Brahmin orthodoxy. He maintained that Lingayats were distinct from Hindus from the time Basaveshwara led the twelfth-century reformation based on the equality of people and of sexes, in a movement that believed in none of the hierarchical stratification of society, the caste system, reincarnation and karma that the “Hinduised” and “Brahminical” Veerashaivas had embraced. While Veerashaivas believe in an idolised Sthavaralinga (Shiva), Lingayats believe in Ishtalinga or Atmalinga, which has no form.

‘“What you said is correct, don’t be afraid to voice your ideas,’ he encouraged me,” Gauri would write later. What she didn’t know at that time was that voicing their ideas would cost them both their lives.

This is an extract from Chidanand Rajghatta’s upcoming book, Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason, which will be published by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications, in late May 2018. The extract has been edited and condensed.