It has been four days since an FIR was filed under provisions of the Protection Of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act against Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru of Chitradurga’s Jagadguru Murugharajendra Matha — aka the Murugha Matha. No arrest has taken place in the case so far.
On Monday, 29 August, after he was escorted back to the matha by police, who intercepted him in Haveri, Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru filed an anticipatory bail petition in the Chitradurga sessions court.
After returning to the matha with a police escort, Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru said he would “cooperate with the investigation“, insisting that the allegations of sexual abuse against him were a “conspiracy”.
Over the last four days, several rounds of discussions have taken place inside and outside the matha on how to proceed in the case.
While the police haven’t detained or arrested the seer, cops have been deployed at the matha, creating almost a house-arrest situation. Hundreds of followers of the seer continued to gather and rally outside the matha.
BJP leaders, other seers back Murugha pontiff
On Tuesday, more than 20 religious seers from various mathas (monasteries) from across Karnataka arrived in Chitradurga in a show of solidarity with Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru.
“The matha has a history of being progressive and inclusive, and helping the poor. This is a conspiracy by some who dislike the seer’s initiatives. This is an attempt to smear him. We are confident that he will be exonerated,” said Mummadi Siddarameshwara of the Maralagavi Matha from the Ramanagara district of Karnataka.
The seer was talking to reporters at the Murugha Matha, flanked by saffron-clad seers from other religious institutions.
Leaders of the BJP, including former Karnataka chief minister and Lingayat strongman BS Yediyurappa, have backed the seer, deeming the allegations against him “fake”. State Food and Civil Supplies Minister Umesh Katti deemed it “wrong” to accuse the seer.
Leaders of Opposition parties like the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) have also kept mum over the issue, when not deeming it a “conspiracy against the Murugha seer”. Outspoken leaders like Siddaramaiah have also maintained an eerie silence on the case, in which two minor girls — both Class 10 students — levelled allegations of sexual abuse against the seer.
The minors have found barely any support from politicians or religious heads. Congress MLA Anjali Nimbalkar and BJP Rajya Sabha member Lahar Singh are among the rare politicians who have demanded justice for the complainants.
Why does Murugha Matha enjoy such support?
Counted among the top three Lingayat mathas, alongside the Siddaganga Matha in Tumakuru and the Suttur Matha in Mysuru, the Murugha Matha is among the richest, oldest, and most politically influential of monasteries.
Lingayats, according to some estimates, form nearly 15 percent of Karnataka’s population and are the BJP’s primary vote bank.
The 382-year-old matha, started by Murugha Shathaveereshwara in 1640 AD, is a cornerstone of the Virakta sect of the Lingayat community.
Seers of the matha were appointed “rajagurus” by the Nayaka kings in the 18th century. For centuries, the matha enjoyed the patronage of the rulers of Keladi, Kodagu, Mysuru, Kolhapur, and even Nawabs.
“The matha received several gifts in the form of land grants and royal paraphernalia from several kingdoms since it was a leading and influential religious institution. The matha has lakhs of followers,” Lingayat scholar and former IAS officer SM Jaamdar told South First, recalling the history of the matha.
Cut to today, and the matha has strong political relevance.
“Even today, the matha is seen as a progressive, secular, and inclusive institution that upholds and practices the teaching of Basavanna. Personal allegations against the seer should not extend to the institution,” said Jaamdar.
The Murugha Matha is also counted among the richest monasteries in Karnataka.
It also runs 150 educational institutions under the name of the Sri Jagadguru Murugharajendra Vidyapeetha, an apex body established under the Societies Act.
These include a medical college, dental college, engineering college, nursing college and school, pharmacy college, polytechnic institute, degree colleges, high schools, primary and nursery schools, and a school of dance, drama and music, besides multiple hostels and schools for differently-abled and orphan children, according to the matha’s website.
Role in Lingayat religion movement
Since its inception, the Murugha Matha has been a secular institution, drawing grants from even Muslim rulers. In 2017, the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government recommended that Lingayats be identified as a separate religious group. Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru was at the forefront of that demand.
Despite the BJP publicly rejecting the Siddaramaiah government’s move to accord a separate-religion status to Lingayats, Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru gave a memorandum to then BJP president Amit Shah during the latter’s visit to the matha demanding that the Centre approve a separate-religion tag for Lingayats.
Earlier this month, the matha hosted former AICC president Rahul Gandhi. The seer even gave the Congress leader “Linga deekshe”.
“The matha is politically influential, and parties have repeatedly attempted to woo it. The Murugha Matha and its seer backed Siddaramaiah on the issue of the separate-religion status. But it did not work in the Congress’ favour in the elections. However, it is still prominent and enjoys close relations with Yediyurappa,” Prof Narendar Pani, a political analyst and head of the Inequality and Human Development Programme at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, told South First.
Yediyurappa was the first prominent politician to come to the defence of the seer following the rape accusations. So, why is this seer important for the BJP?
“The perception is that Lingayat unity will fall apart if this seer is replaced or the issue goes out of hand. Mobilising Lingayat votes will become a challenge for the BJP,” noted Pani.
“There are two ways of political influence. The first is getting someone to do the things you want, whether or not they want to do it. The second is to put together an alliance of people who will do things that you want. The second part is about identifying and mobilising people who think like you. Mathas become influential because of the second part,” Pani said on why big mathas play a role in Karnataka’s socio-political stage.