Malleshappa Madivallapa Kalburgi, who was shot dead on Sunday morning in his home in Dharwad in Karnataka by two armed assailants, was a Kannada literary scholar who was unafraid of asking critical questions and had the nerve to stand by the unpopular answer.

“He was very open-minded and very progressive and he had the courage to speak the unsavoury truth without fear of consequence,” said HS Shivaprakash Kannada poet and playwright and professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Kalburgi, who was the former vice-chancellor of the Kannada University at Hampi, dedicated much of his life and career to the study of vachanas ‒ verses that contained the teachings of 12th century philosopher Basava, who is also the patron saint of the Lingayats. Lingayats, the largest community in Karnataka, are considered to be somewhere in the middle of the caste hierarchy. Though Kalburgi was himself a Lingayat and an eminent scholar of the vachanas, his interpretation of the texts did not always sit well with the community establishment.

The 1989 Lingayat outrage

In his first volume of research articles on Lingayat or Veerashaiva literature, Kalburgi implied possible strained relations between Basava and his second wife Nilambike. He linked his theory to a myth in which a disguised Lord Shiva asks Basava to find him a consort. When Basava is unable to do so, Nilambike tries to help her husband by offering herself to him upon which Shiva sheds his disguise and ploy and blesses her. In the same work Kalburgi also suggested that Basava’s sister, who is mother to the important Lingayat figure Channabasava, may have married a lower caste man.

While Kalburgi extolled the devotion of Basava’s wife and the progressive thinking of his sister, his reading enraged Lingayat groups. They called his work blasphemous and demanded that the government ban the book. Kalburgi even received death threats. The dispute ended only after he issued an apology and recanted what had been his life’s work. Speaking to India Today at the time he said, “"I did it to save the lives of my family. But I also committed intellectual suicide on that day."

Said Dalit poet and writer Aravind Malagatti, “Kalburgi looked into questions about society and because he never compromised on his research he got caught in controversy.”

Kalburgi didn’t stop being critical of the Lingayat practices. He often tore into the Lingayat maths, accusing these monastic establishments of forgetting Basava’s ideology. He spoke against blindly following rituals saying they were against Basava’s teachings. He also accused the maths of leaving the religion poorer as they grew richer.

At the same time, Kalburgi supported the demand of groups like the All India Veerashaiva Sabha for Lingayats to be to be recognised as a religious minority separate from Hindus, on the grounds that it originated as a non-Vedic tradition.

Kalburgi's legacy

Apart from his scholarship on Basava and the vachanas, Kalburgi was a noted epigraphist with great insight into ancient and medieval texts. His latest project was the translation of the literature of Adil Shahi, the Shia Muslim rulers of Bijapur, into Kannada. Kalburgi was the head of the Adil Shahi Literature Translation Committee set up by the state department of Kannada and Culture that released the first six volumes of translated works this year.

“His legacy was to promote direct intellectual debate without any rancour or malice about the person you are debating with,” said BK Chandrashekhar, former Karnataka education minister, about Kalburgi.

Chandrashekhar spoke at a condolence meeting for Kalburgi at Bangalore’s town hall on Sunday evening. Although the perpetrators of Kalburgi’s murder remain unknown, the tone of the meeting was one of protest against right-wing groups. Parallels were drawn between Kalburgi’s killing and the murders of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare in Maharashtra over the last three years.

Last June, Kalburgi drew the wrath of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal for quoting the late UR Ananthamurthy on the latter urinating on spirit stones in his village as a child. Hindu groups also complained against Ananthamurthy, who had written about the incident 18 years before to discuss the idea of what is sacred.

But, as Shivaprakash pointed out, Kalburgi’s runs-in with Hindutva groups were much more recent and less significant than the long history of friction with his own Lingayat community. “In Karnataka, most of the attacks on books have been made by the Lingayat community. When it comes to literature there is a different chemistry in Karnataka,” he said. “But there is an attack on academic freedom through the country, which is unfortunate. This is another example of the culture of violence and intolerance spreading in the country.”

The identity of Kalburgi’s killer and their motives remain unknown. “This is not just the murder of one Kalburgi, it is the murder of development and freedom,” Malagatti said.