Amid legal battles and rumours, steely silence at Murugharajendra mutt

Around 7.30 pm on September 1, a hush settles on the room on the first floor of the Sri Jagadguru Murugharajendra Mutt as “swamiji” Shivamurthy Sharanaru, in his flowing saffron robes and turban, walks in, accompanied by his personal staff and a select group of people. As he takes his seat, the few devotees in the room take turns to fall at his feet and seek his blessings. On regular days, say officials at the mutt, this room would have been throbbing with people from across Karnataka with whom Shivamurthy would have interacted for an hour. But today, he barely spends 20 minutes before leaving for his private room on the same floor.

Hours later, he is arrested.

These are unusual times for the mutt and its pontiff, Shivamurthy Sharanaru, who has been accused of sexually assaulting two minor girls. His arrest on September 1 comes a week after he was booked under POCSO charges and a day before a local court was scheduled to hear his anticipatory bail plea.

Spread across 82 acres, the Murugharajendra Mutt is located on the suburbs of Chitradurga, a central Karnataka district that’s the site of a 15th century fort built by local king Madakari Nayaka that still reverberates with the legend of Obavva, the wife of a guard at the fort, who is said to have fought off Hyder Ali in the 1700s.

The mutt, set up in the 17th century, preaches the ideology of Basavanna, a 12-century social reformer who critiqued orthodox Brahmanical practices. The mutt is known to have taken several progressive measures, with many of its activities centred around fighting social inequality and untouchability.

“People from all castes, creeds and religions are welcome here. Previously, women and girls were not allowed inside the temple in the mutt premises, but it was swamiji (Shivamurthy) who took a call to allow that. Even Muslims are allowed to enter the temple,” says Jayanna, a follower of the mutt.

The mutt is one of the richest Lingayat mutts in the state and often called the ‘Nava Koti Narayana mutt’ for the wealth it has accumulated over the years through donations and land transactions. The kitchen in the complex churns out mounds of food for devotees who come here — about 1,500 people visit the mutt on weekdays and about 5,000 on weekends. However, after the case broke out, the mutt has been largely deserted with staff, police personnel and media personnel milling around

With Lingayats being the most dominant community in the state, the mutt carries significant political heft. Even the election of the Chitradurga MLA comes with a nod from the mutt head. Shivamurthy also holds the reputation of being a ‘walking court’, resolving social disputes and those pertaining to land.

Politicians are known to visit the mutt for photo-ops, especially during elections. Recently, senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had come to the mutt and taken ‘Linga Deeksha’ from Shivamurthy.

Shivamurthy has also been a prominent advocate of OBC reservation for Lingayats and was among those who sought separate religion status for the community.

The power of the mutt is evident in how political leaders have either rallied around Shivamurthy or chosen to skirt the issue. While BJP leader B S Yedyiurappa, who is known to have shared good relations with the mutt, called the sexual abuse case a “conspiracy” against the pontiff, Home Minister Araga Jnanendra too supported the mutt. Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, also a Lingayat, distanced himself from the row, stating the law will take its own course while Congress’s state unit chief D K Shivakumar hasn’t commented so far. Party leader and former CM Siddaramaiah finally broke his silence with a tweet that said “let the law take its own course”.

Madhu Kumar J S, an RTI activist in Chitradurga, says, “Despite having a case registered against the seer, police did not arrest him for six days. That shows the power of the seer. It was not that he was absconding. He was there inside the mutt under police protection, addressing his followers. Political leaders like Yedyiurappa supported him openly, giving him clean chit. Police eventually arrested him as they were being cornered legally.”

Born into a poor family of farmers in Godabanahal village near Chitradurga, Shivamurthy, like other children his age from economically backward families in the area and beyond, was soon sent to the mutt, where he spent his childhood studying in the mutt school and staying in its hostel. In 1991, Shivamurthy, then 33 and a graduate from the University of Mysore, was chosen as the 20th pontiff of the mutt by his predecessor Mallikarjuna Murugharajendra Swami.

According to officials, when Shivamurthy took charge, the mutt was mired in several land-related litigation, which he successfully managed to win. Under him, the mutt began to wield significant financial and political clout. The mutt now runs 150 institutions across the country, including 80 educational institutions, of which around 15 are in Chitradurga town – among them, a medical college and hospital, a dental college, engineering, pharmacy, law and nursing colleges, besides several schools and polytechnic institutes. The mutt schools are also spread across Bengaluru, Davangere, Haveri and Athani in the state.

While the mutt grew rapidly under Shivamurthy, dark secrets soon emerged, including of factions fighting for control of the mutt, land disputes and now, the sexual allegations.

Days before the sexual assault case was filed against Shivamurthy, mutt administrator S K Basavarajan was sacked from his post. Later, a case of kidnapping the minors who accused the pontiff was registered against Basavarajan. While Basavarajan denied the allegations, he refused to speak any further on the matter.

“Best friends” while they were fellow students at the mutt, Basavarajan was appointed administrator when Shivamurthy became the pontiff. Later, after a public fallout, Basavarajan was sacked, only to be reappointed to the post 15 years later, in March this year.

Besides this long-standing tension between Basavarajan and Shivamurthy, several cases of land litigation filed by and against the mutt are pending before courts.

On Friday, a non-bailable warrant was issued against the pontiff for allegedly selling land worth Rs 7 crore for 49 lakh to a private person without informing the mutt’s committee.

Amidst the legal battles and the swirling rumours, outside the mutt is a steely silence, with no questions entertained about the mutt and its pontiff.

Rudresh, a tea seller in Chitradurga town, says, “We do not know anything about the case. We do not want to speak about it.”

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Until Friday, a few Dalit organisations had been carrying out protests in Chitradurga town, seeking the mutt chief’s arrest. After the arrest, the Dalit organisations had cleared out and mutt supporters hit the street in support of Shivamurthy.

A former follower of the mutt, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “We knew something was not right about the mutt for about three to four months. Even when the issue came out, we did not believe the allegations. But then Swamiji said he was ready for both — compromise or fight. Then questions began to be asked: what is there to compromise? Our trust in the seer snapped somewhat then.”

Jithendra N Hullikunte, a follower of the mutt, is, however, convinced that “it is nothing but a conspiracy” against the mutt and the pontiff.

“If there was an issue, the girls could have informed the governing council of the mutt, which has seers from other mutts as well. If they had found swamiji guilty, they could have asked him to step down. But approaching court was a conspiracy to malign the image of the mutt,” he says.

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