The gory assassination of Kannada litterateur and rationalist thinker MM Kalburgi on Sunday has shaken the placid world of art, culture and literature in Dharwad in Karnataka. The ripples of this cold-blooded murder of an erudite academic known for his radical ideas are being felt among rationalist thinkers all over the world.
The killing of Kalburgi - whatever its local context may be - is clearly a cowardly attempt to silence free speech and rationalist thought with the sound of a gun. It is a part of the chain of such incidents which India and the subcontinent have been witnessing in the past couple of years. The killing of rationalists in India and rationalist bloggers in Bangladesh complete this horrifying picture.
First it was Narendra Dabholkar in Pune, Govind Pansare in Kolhapur and now Kalburgi in Dharwad. Rationalist leader Sanal Edamaruku escaped by seeking refuge in Europe after he faced death threats for exposing the so-called miracle of "weeping Jesus" in Mumbai and tracing it to a leaking drainage pipe. All such people questioned traditional ideas, miracles, superstitions and proposed new ideas that are rational and at times, radical. Kalburgi, for instance, was a leading researcher on teachings of 12th century ascetic Basavanna and had denounced idol worship in his work and public lectures. Instead of confronting him with counterarguments or rational thoughts, conservative elements in Dharwad chose to kill Kalburgi. By eliminating icons of free speech and rational thought, fundamentalist forces want to reinforce intolerance and obscurantism.
Edamaruku has been continuing his fight against obscurantism from Finland where he lives in exile. "Rationalists are the defenders of common sense, scientific temper and social reform," he told me this morning from Helsinki. Rationalists dare and challenge bigotry, miracle-mongering and spiritual frauds. The proprietors of "superstition industry", he says, are scared of rationalists and therefore they want to silence them in all possible ways. In his view, threats that forced him to leave India as well as "assassinations of Dabholkar, Pansare and now Kalburgi, and systematic elimination of rationalist bloggers in Bangladesh" are all part of a larger conspiracy. Edamaruku has not given up his struggle. He continues to expose those who spread superstitions even in Europe, like TV evangelists who fool people with "miracles". While in India, he had continuously engaged and debated with conservatives and religious leaders on this issue.
The work of rationalists has become far more critical in today's context as superstitions rise and the "miracle industry" spreads its tentacles faster through digital media platforms as well as satellite television. People who peddle miracle cures for diseases like cancer and those who sell "yantras" for instant success in business on television not only go unquestioned but are also gaining political patronage.
The rise of the likes of Radhe Maa, Rampal, Ram Rahim are all products of a growing nexus between irrationality, political patronage and celebrity culture. This is a new kind of partnership that sees rationalists as its enemies. While this unholy nexus garners overt or covert political support, we never see political leadership come out in open to support or defend the work of rationalists and liberal thinkers.
The state, which is bound by the Indian Constitution that enshrines the concept of scientific temper, should denounce all attacks on rationalists and defenders of scientific temper. Not just this, the government should proactively promote scientific temper, dissuade people from superstitions and misdeeds of so-called godmen and godwomen. All constitutional and legal powers must be used to protect and promote rational thinking and scientific temper. The political leadership can't remain a silent spectator to killings of Dabholkars and Kulbargis.