'Segmentary State and fragmented sovereignty: Guru’s informal court in contemporary Karnataka’

Tuesday, 10 December 2013 (All day) - Thursday, 12 December 2013 (All day)
University of Oslo, Norway

Aya Ikegame speaks on 'Segmentary State and fragmented sovereignty: Guru’s informal court in contemporary Karnataka’ at the workshop 'Why History? On the relevance of cultural history for the study of contemporary India' being held in Oslo on 10-12 December 2013.

Hindu religious institutions called mathas in south India have been a centre of local society for centuries. The head of the matha, the guru, not only offered religious and moral guidance, but he also settled local and family disputes, practised medical and spiritual healing, and provided a place for learning. Many gurus mobilised local peasants and led uprisings against local lords or sometime offered support to a new king expanding his territory. Kings could not ignore the power of gurus and mathas, and they were obliged to grant land and certain powers to them. In this sense, gurus were a localised locus of power and constituted a localised sovereign within a segmented political structure.

In contemporary Karnataka, the presence of gurus in politics has been much talked about, especially when the BJP-led state government conspicuously distributed state funding to influential mathas in the name of development. By the late 20th century, many mathas have grown into welfare enterprises providing education, health care and social justice for diverse local communities. The electoral success of the BJP was said to have derived from the strong support of these locally powerful gurus. Mathas seemed to have become almost a parallel state, with an efficient administrative body that often consists of volunteers drawn from the ranks of elite devotees.

This paper, while drawing attention to the continuing ‘segmentary state’ character of the matha, argues that the working of the guru as a localised sovereign is neither parallel to the state nor an extension of the state. By analysing disputes between villagers and local mining companies, which were brought to an informal court run by a Lingayat guru in central Karnataka, the paper discusses the complex and sometime contradictory relationship between the state and the guru.

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