“When they make threats, it means they have not understood me and they don’t want to understand me,” said KS Bhagwan. The retired professor of English literature at Mysore University was the target of a Twitter rant by a Bajrang Dal leader just hours after Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi was shot dead. The tweet by Bhuvith Shetty of the Bantwal unit of the Bajrang Dal indicated that Bhagwan was “next”.

Bhagwan is unperturbed. Threats, he said, are not new to him. He has been dealing with them since 1982 when he wrote his Kannada book on Shankaracharya and his reactionary philosophy. He was worried in the beginning but soon got over it. Bhagwan proposed that Shankaracharya was not quite the reformer he is celebrated as because he promoted the Hindu caste system and the suppression of Dalits and women.

Bhagwan riled Hindu activists up earlier this year when he said that the Bhagavad Gita promotes inequality and should be burnt. His argument against the Gita is that it promotes a caste system in which everyone except the Brahmins at the top of the ladder are regarded sinners. “There is both elixir and poison in the Gita. The elixir is there as spirituality but poison is there in terms of caste,” he said. “I call for a thorough critical reading of the Gita, and the parts which are not good like the ones that say all are sinners must be burnt.”

A fierce opponent of caste discrimination, Bhagwan travelled to Mangalore in mid-August to support a Dalit man whose fingers were chopped off by his landlord but ran into trouble there with Hindutva activists for his critical remarks about the Gita and Hindu gods.

But Bhagwan is sticking to his guns. “I am worried about healthy thinking," he said. With all these threats, "we will not have a healthy society where people can freely exchange their views without fear”.

For secularism, against superstition

Bhagwan believes that Karnataka has been a strongly secular region since the time of Basava. He blames the gradual erosion of that secularism on the lack of political will to maintain diversity and the laxity of the police force. For instance, though the Karnataka state government tried to prevent harmful religious practices with the  Anti-Superstition Bill in 2013, the legislation was withdrawn due to pressure from religious leaders.

But other religious leaders have been campaigning for such a law to be passed. Among them is the Lingayat seer of the Nidumamidi Mutt, Veerabhadra Chennamalla Swami, who is part of the Progressive Pontiffs Forum ‒ a group of 200 Lingayat leaders.

Veerabhadra Chennamalla Swami has asked the government to now pass the bill to honour Kalburgi, a rationalist and staunch supporter of the  bill. “Any thinking man like Dr Kalburgi will aspire to bring about intellectual awakening, free thinking, secularism, rationalism in the society where he lives,” Bhagwan said.

Kalburgi was the authority on Basava, 12th century reformer and founder of Lingayatism. He had runs-in with the Lingayat establishment for his interpretation of the vachanas – verses that contained Basava’s teachings. Bhagwan says that Kalburgi’s opponents could never show any textual proof for why he was wrong. Bhagwan himself often says he would like to invite his detractors to argue the points of religious texts with him instead of issuing threats.

Bhuvith  Shetty of the Bajrang Dal who issued the threat to Bhagwan told Scroll.in that he didn’t mean to threaten anyone and only had a spontaneous outburst online. He was arrested on Monday but released on bail later on the same day.

He explained to Scroll.in:
Hello, its unfortunate that medias have taken it wrong way. I didn't mean to threaten Bhagwan or someone else. I just tweeted what I felt at that moment. Think over it, if one could insult Hinduism blatantly and it is his freedom of expression then don't I have my own rights to express my opinion on his demise? I just spontaneously vented my anger. I agree that tweet was bit harsh and media made it a fuss.. I pray his soul rests in peace. :)

Bhagwan himself doesn’t identify with any organised religion. “My father and mother never knew the word Hindu or what religion they belonged to. I am the son of a farmer and my religion is the farmer’s religion.”