Does freedom to express give license to distort?

The Wars of Words that have engulfed Karnataka in recent months—U.R. Anantha Murthy versus N.R. Narayana Murthy, Anantha Murthy versus S.L. Bhyrappa, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw versus Anantha Murthy, M.S. Sathyu versus Karnataka Rakshana Vedike—on issues ranging from language and identity, and history and culture, to enterprise and intellect, either points to a flourishing intellectual climate in the State or to sheer intellectual anarchy.

Banjagere Jayaprakash‘s Aanu deva horaganavanu (Lakshmi Prakashana) is now pumping up the volume. The slim 85-page book makes the incendiary claim that the 12th century social reformer and Veerashaiva icon Basavanna was not a Brahmin but belonged to the untouchable maadiga (chamar) caste. The claim has proved to be pure dynamite, especially among the politically powerful Lingayats, who say Basavanna has been insulted.

The author’s academic credentials have been widely questioned, there have been calls to ban or to seize the book, and it has been alleged that Dr Jayaprakash is only angling for cheap publicity. On the other side, the author’s supporters say he is being targetted because he is a Dalit himself and that his freedom of express is being abused. And on Saturday, a discussion called by the Kannada Sahitya Parishat on the book dissolved into pure chaos.

Amid the heat and dust, the key questions have become inaudible and invisible:

# How did Dr Jayaprakash come to the conclusion?

# Has he conducted his research with due rigour?

# What are his sources?

# What is his methodology? Is it objective?

# Is Dr Jayaprakash only arriving at a premeditated ideological conclusion designed to create a ripple?

# And does the freedom to express give us licence to distort history?

Dr Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi, assistant professor of humanities at the San Francisco State University, has studied vachana literature for 15 years now. In this video critique (shot at the Open Air Theatre in the University of Mysore), Dr Shobhi contests Dr Jayaprakash’s primary premise that dissent and social criticism have come only from the backward classes leading him (Dr Jayaprakash) to conclude that Basavanna could only have been an untouchable.

On the whole, Dr Shobhi finds Aanu deva horaganavanu too full of “sloppy thinking, confused logic, bad speculation, and insufficient use of primary sources” to be taken seriously as a work of history. But that is no reason to ban the book or manhandle the author, he says. Instead, we need to debate and discuss its assumptions and conclusions with greater scrutiny than either side has been able to muster up until now.