At age 78, writer M.M. Kalburgi remained hard at work at his home in southern India. He was putting the final touches on a lengthy introduction to a volume of ancient Kannada-language verse, which was due to be translated into Mandarin, Japanese, French and Spanish.
But one morning late last month, two young men knocked at his door and introduced themselves to his wife as his students. Without warning, they shot Kalburgi twice in the forehead and fled on a motorbike.
Kalburgi, who vocally opposed the Hindu practice of idol worship, is the latest secular thinker to be assassinated in South Asia. His slaying late last month raises questions about freedom of expression and highlights the growing might of religious fundamentalists across the region.
Besides India, where several prominent secular figures have been killed in the last three years, Muslim-majority Bangladesh has seen a string of deadly attacks on atheist writers, including a U.S.-based blogger, Avijit Roy, who was hacked to death outside a book festival in the capital in February. Christians and members of other religious minorities have long been under threat from Islamist militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In Hindu-majority India, a secular democracy, liberal activists and writers have come under increasing pressure. For months, Hindu extremist critics had thrown stones at Kalburgi’s home in the southern state of Karnataka and disrupted his speeches. Three years ago, the naked body of Linganna Satyampete, editor of a weekly publication that featured Kalburgi’s writings, was found in a storm drain.
Hours after Kalburgi was killed, Bhuvith Shetty, a member of the Hindu militant group Bajrang Dal, tweeted in celebration: “Mock Hinduism and die a dog’s death. And dear K.S. Bhagwan you are next.”
Bhagwan, a retired university professor in Karnataka, has criticized the Bhagavad Gita, Hinduism’s holy book, for promoting the hierarchical caste system and argued that Ram, a Hindu deity, was polygamous. He received threats, prompting local authorities to increase security at his home.
Bhagwan and Kalburgi were friends and fellow travelers in a community of Indian writers and intellectuals known as rationalists. Their warnings against superstition and blind faith often have been perceived as being hostile to religious orthodoxy, particularly Hinduism, which is laden with ceremony and ritual.
Friends said that Kalburgi’s writings incurred the wrath of the Lingayat community, an influential Hindu sect that dominates life and politics in Karnataka, has produced many of the state’s chief executives and staunchly supports the national ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Kalburgi argued that Lingayat leadership posts should be rotated to keep individuals from accruing too much power.
“He never hesitated in questioning legends and religious icons, and was more than welcome to be critiqued by other researchers,” said Shivanand Kanavi, a neighbor. “After all, that is what research is all about.”
Karnataka boasts one of India’s highest literacy rates and includes the technology hub of Bangalore, but it is also home to deeply conservative Hindu groups. Last month in the coastal city of Mangalore, a group of Hindu men spotted a Muslim man speaking with a Hindu woman. They tied him to a pole, stripped him and beat him for nearly an hour, according to police.
“From the time of Socrates, Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, every society has tried to silence those they did not like,” Bhagwan said.
In many cases, police intervention comes too late, if at all. The Bajrang Dal activist who threatened Bhagwan on Twitter was produced in court the next day and released on bail.
Two other high-profile rationalists, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, were shot point-blank 18 months apart in the western state of Maharashtra.
Dabholkar, a 68-year-old activist who worked on behalf of villagers exploited by local gurus and so-called godmen, campaigned for the state government to pass an anti-superstition bill. It’s been two years since he was killed in the city of Pune, and no one has been charged.
Investigators at one point enlisted a self-described spirit medium to help crack the case. A journalist captured the effort in an undercover video, embarrassing police officials and renewing questions about the seriousness of the investigation.
“It was ironic to see the police attempting to solve his case through the exact means he opposed until the last breath,” said Hamid Dabholkar, the late activist’s son.
After the killing, Pansare received a letter saying, “You will meet Dabholkar’s fate.” He was killed in February, at age 81.
Pansare had written a book about Shivaji, a beloved 17th century Indian warrior-king, emphasizing his religious tolerance and acceptance of Muslims into his famed army. The depiction was at odds with the image of Shivaji embraced by many Hindu conservatives, as a defender of western India from Muslim invaders.
Maharashtra police this month arrested a member of a Hindu supremacist group, Sanathan Sanstha, in connection with Pansare’s slaying, and investigators are said to be looking into whether the group was involved in Kalburgi’s killing.
The backlash is not limited to Hindus. In 2012, a Mumbai church told followers of a “miraculous” phenomenon: Droplets of water were appearing at the base of a crucifix.
Rationalist leader Sanal Edamaruku revealed that the water was coming from a drainage pipe, prompting a protest from church leaders, who persuaded police to file charges that he had hurt religious sentiments.
Hounded by conservative Christian groups, Edamaruku fled to Finland, where he currently lives.
In January a prominent author and critic of the caste system, Perumal Murugan, said he was bowing to persistent threats against his life. He publicly recanted his writings and announced on Facebook that, as a writer, he was dead.
Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Assns., said secular activists would continue their work despite attacks.
“Fundamentalism in India is growing by the day across religions,” Nayak said. “They feel they can scare us into submission but are completely mistaken. The anti-superstition movement in Maharashtra grew stronger after Dabholkar’s assassination.
“As far as I am concerned, I would rather die speaking my mind instead of letting disgraceful things unfold in front of my eyes.”
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.