In a span of 50 days, two seers belonging to the Lingayat community took their lives in Karnataka. The deaths of the two pontiffs that came just days after the arrest of another seer, Dr Shivamurthy Murugha, in a child molestation case under POCSO in Chitradurga, have brought up the question: Is police investigation into happenings at mutts in Karnataka difficult?
The Quint spoke to investigating officers in both the cases of suicide, former police officers, and Lingayat devotees to decode what happens in the mutts to understand how tough it is to solve cases related to alleged crimes or tragedies in mutts.
Here's what we found out.
Did ‘Blackmail’ and ‘Honeytrap’ Force Seers To Take Their Lives?
More than a month ago, a Lingayat seer from Sri Guru Madiwaleshwara Mutt in Belagavi’s Neginhal village in Baihongal taluk died by suicide. This was just days after the arrest of another prominent Lingayat seer Dr Shivamurthy Murugha, who has been accused of sexually assaulting minors in Chitradurga.
The Madiwaleshwara Mutt's attendants who suspected something to be wrong on 5 September, forced open the room door to find the pontiff’s body hanging from the ceiling.
The police investigating the case retrieved a suicide note, which read, “Forgive me, my devotees. Nobody is responsible for my death. I am fed up of this life. The future of the mutt is in the hands of the devotees. I once again apologise to my mother and all the devotees of the mutt.”
However, things changed quickly when members of a local organisation called Basava Kendra claimed that the seer was blackmailed by two women. Sources in the mutt revealed to The Quint that the seer was upset over his name appearing in an alleged audio clip, where the two women had spoke about the former’s illicit relationships.
In Belagavi, a devotee who wished to remain anonymous told The Quint that seer Basava Siddalinga Swami was being harassed by two women and that this was one of the reason for the pontiff to take his life.
"I have been visiting Swamiji from the past 10 years. Never before was he disturbed. This time when I visited him, he spoke about how his name came up in a conversation, where two women allegedly spoke about his sexual affairs," the devotee added.
However, the police ruled out abetment to suicide and have filed the case as an unnatural death.
Meanwhile, in Ramanagara’s Kanchugal Bande Mutt, 45 year old Lingayat seer Basavalinga Swami also took his life leaving behind a three-page suicide note.
As per highly placed police sources, the seer is said to have been honey-trapped and the cops are probing the angle of blackmail as mentioned in the seer's suicide note.
Just days after the Basavalinga Swami killed himself, an alleged clip of a video chat between the seer and an unknown woman started making the rounds online. The video clip added to the existing suspicion that the seer was honey-trapped systematically and that the evidence was used against him by a group of influential people in the mutt.
In an interaction with The Quint, K Santosh Babu, Superintendent of Police in Ramanagara said:
"We have filed a suo moto case as per section IPC 306. We have collected video clips of the Swamiji which is in question and also retrieved two letters – one written to the police and another written to the devotees. We are yet to arrest the suspects and are currently examining the evidence that we have."
Speaking to The Quint, Ambareesha Kumar, devotee of Basavalinga Swami of Ramanagara said, "I have been living in the mutt from the past 15 years, and I used to assist Swamiji in daily prayers. He had never expressed anything that was sad or upsetting. I am not aware of video or the relationship the swamiji had. The police will have to investigate and give justice."
However, police sources told The Quint that the seer had indicated in his letter that he was being blackmailed by one woman, and that she was trying to malign his image.
Is Mutt Politics an Obstacle for Police Investigation?
The two suicide cases have once again opened the Pandora's box of how politics influences the functioning of mutts. Despite gathering evidences to probe foul-play and abetment to suicide, are the police walking on eggshells to avoid any misinterpretation?
The two mutts – Guru Madiwaleshwara Mutt in Belagavi and the Kanchugal Bande Mutt, the largest monastery in Magadi taluk, were founded more than 200 years ago, and have a significant following in districts of Belagavi, Mysuru, and Tumakuru.
Politicians like ST Somashekhar, GT Devegowda, Renukacharya, and Lakshmi Hebbalkar have allegedly been patrons of these mutts.
Lingayats who form 17 percent of state's population are spread across the state, and the community's relationship with the mutts is not just spiritual but is also a social one.
Taking forward the concept of 'Dasoha’ – distribution of essentials, free education, and accommodation for students – as opposed to Daana – accumulation through gifts – the lives of devotees and the pontiff heading the mutts are strongly intertwined.
A former IPS officer, who wished to remain anonymous said, "In cases such as these, there might arise an issue of law and order, as devotees believe that pontiffs have overcome their sexual desires, and that they are working for the society. Whenever the evidence suggests otherwise, the followers might try to hamper the probe. So, senior officers investigating these sensitive cases must tread carefully and speak with mutt authorities concerned. This is the only way to ensure that the probe is not affected."
Bhaskar Rao, Vice-President of Aam Aadmi Party and the former commissioner of Bengaluru also suggests that the two cases are being subject to media glare as victims in both cases are spiritual heads.
"Investigating officers face difficulty at all levels. In these two cases, it is a combination of hurdles. The police might face law and order situation given the huge number of followers these pontiffs had and emotions play a major role, as devotees think that the pontiff is unassailable. And lastly, political patronage and internal affairs of the mutt can also cause hinderance to the case, if the evidence is not secured immediately."Bhaskar Rao, Former Commissioner of Bengaluru Police and AAP's Vice President
Despite finding evidence of alleged blackmail, the police must verify all aspects before proceeding with the investigation. This is because of the emotive nature these religious and politically fuelled cases.
While Belagavi police have ruled out abetment to suicide, the Ramanagara police, are yet to make arrests in the case.
In his interaction with The Quint, Political analyst SM Jamdar says, "This is not limited to the Lingayat community alone. Apart from being influenced by the vote-bank and majoritarian politics, mutts of all communities have internal tussles. At the end of the day, the pontiff heading these mutts and the one who manages large institutions are often subjected to accusations by people who see them as enemies. So, they want to discredit pontiffs and engage in tactics such as blackmail."
In this regard, Jamdar also highlights how the police face impediments in solving these high-profile cases. He asserts that the police department is a part of the same cultural, social, and political milieu as the devotees of mutts and that the influence of political power over these is unavoidable.