Activist and journalist

Print edition : April 27, 2018
The book contains valuable material on the life and legacy of the fiery journalist Gauri Lankesh.

Gauri Lankesh always seemed like a woman in a hurry. She spoke quickly and walked briskly. As the editor of a popular Kannada weekly newspaper, Gauri Lankesh Patrike, she wrote and commissioned stories that took on a lot of important people.

It was difficult to meet her in the middle of the week because of the printing schedules but she always found time for her friends and allies on weekends. One could run into her at any event that espoused a progressive, secular and equitable view of the world. Gauri Lankesh’s presence at the meetings of the rather small civil society in Bengaluru ensured that there was a fervent debate on the topic under discussion.

On the first floor of her modest office in Basavangudi, where ideas for a myriad of human rights campaigns germinated, Gauri Lankesh occupied a corner room overlooking the street. Bookshelves surrounded her large table and her collection was eclectic, consisting of fiction and non-fiction in Kannada and English. Her father P. Lankesh’s books occupied a special place in one of the bookshelves. Books published by Lankesh Prakashana , the in-house publishing wing that introduced Kannada readers to important contemporary issues, were also visible.

Young journalists who were mentored by her and acquired their skills at Gauri Lankesh Patrike have authored some of these books.

Gauri Lankesh stood for certain fundamental values of the Indian nation and considered it her duty to challenge the insularity of the state towards certain notions propagated by Hindutva activists. She took her activist-journalist role seriously and was the favourite target of social media trolls. She would retort feistily and rarely blocked anyone who trolled her.

Two years before she was shot dead (on September 5, 2017), Gauri Lankesh wrote a heart-rending piece on the assassination of Professor M.M. Kalburgi, the veteran Kannada writer and former Vice Chancellor of Kannada University, Hampi. She wrote in Bangalore Mirror: “The reason for Kalburgi’s brutal killing is yet to be ascertained. However, the joy of the right-wing elements upon his demise shows how speaking against majoritarian beliefs is always dangerous” (August 31, 2015).

Re-reading the obituary in The Way I See It: A Gauri Lankesh Reader edited by Chandan Gowda ,is frustrating for two reasons. One, Gauri Lankesh, who had received many death threats because of her strident criticism of Hindutva activities, could have been more watchful. Two, in spite of the wide condemnation of its exultation over Kalburgi’s killing, the Hindu right-wing was euphoric over Gauri Lankesh’s murder.

Right-wing activists brazenly commented that the “anti-national”, “leftist”, “naxal sympathiser” and “jihadi” deserved a ruthless killing. A Twitter user, who describes himself as a “proud Hindu nationalist” wrote in Hindi: “A bitch died a dog’s death and now all the puppies are wailing in the same tune.” This user is active on Twitter and is followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi although his tweet has been reported and condemned.

Chandan Gowda, who teaches at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, has thoughtfully curated Gauri Lankesh’s articles. The last section of the Reader contains tributes, including a touching one by her mother.

Gauri Lankesh was born in 1962 in Bengaluru to P. Lankesh and Indira. Lankesh, editor-publisaher of Lankesh Patrike, was a luminary in the world of Kannada letters and cast a long shadow on Gauri Lankesh’s life. After her undergraduate education in Bengaluru, Gauri Lankesh did her post-graduate diploma in journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi. She returned to Bengaluru and took up her first job with The Times of India. She later joined the newly launched Sunday, a weekly magazine.

Her writings from her days with Sunday are markedly different from her later work when she began to identify herself as an activist-journalist. Her reporting for the magazine as its Karnataka correspondent shows a diligent journalist at work, covering a variety of themes, including politics and arts. Her chronicle of Nagaraja, the serial killer who came to be known as the “Bangalore strangler” and may have killed 50 women over the course of his murderous career in the early 1990s, is an excellent piece of criminal reporting.

She starts her report with this chilling account: “It was their saris he liked. Colourful, dull, bright, shiny, thin, thick, flimsy, stiff—any kind of sari would do. So long as the woman was wearing a sari, Nagaraja wanted her. First, he would tear off the sari. Later, when she least expected it, he would twist the fabric into a knot, lasso her neck and yank at the edges of the cloth. Finally, he would leave her dead, sprawled on the ground, her sari pulled high above her naked body, so that it was snaked around her throat. At nights, he would prowl the streets looking for sari-clad women.”

After Lankesh’s death in 2000, Gauri Lankesh turned her back on English journalism and became the editor of Lankesh Patrike, the weekly paper that her father brought out that had tremendous popularity in Karnataka. This was a role that Gauri Lankesh had not conceived for herself but the immense demand to keep Lankesh Patrike going made her assume it. The transition to Kannada journalism was not easy as Gauri Lankesh was not fluent in Kannada. But she gradually excelled in her new role.

New role

During her stint as the editor of Lankesh Patrike, Gauri Lankesh made the transition into an activist. Her involvement in the secular movement to retain the syncretic character of the Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah in Chikkamagaluru against the Hindutva demands to convert it into an exclusive temple served as her rite de passage into the world of activism. She was sensitive to naxalite concerns but she was clear that she believed in democracy and non-violence.

The Sangh Parivar constituents branded her a naxalite. Gauri Lankesh writes that it was at this point that her brother ousted her from the editorship “as he fell for the machinations of the police and the Sangh Parivar”.

She then launched her own paper, Gauri Lankesh Patrikeand continued to take on a whole range of powerful people. Her journalism was strident, and while rigorous, did not have the finesse of her early journalism. This made her the target of defamation cases.

As the editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, she wrote more than 850 editorial essays. Chandan Gowda writes that these editorials “...engage a rich array of subjects: responses to state and national political issues, local controversies, heroic social activism from different parts of the country and abroad, film reviews, book reviews, sport events, and on occasion, autobiographical and biographical sketches, or essays of condolence for public figures and long-time associates of her paper.”

Some of her essays have been translated and published in the book under review. These include the touching story of a Muslim saved in the 2002 Gujarat riots and raised as a Hindu, the horrendous story of the Dalits of Savanur who daubed themselves with excreta to draw the world’s attention to the injustice meted out to them and the problems caused by Modi’s demonetisation decision.

For a brief while, she wrote a column for Bangalore Mirror, which gave her the space to communicate her ideas to English readers, a large section of whom was insulated from the world of Kannada journalism and the fights for social equality. Sixteen of her column articles have been included in the Reader.

Her column dealt with difficulties faced by youths from the farming community in finding brides, the targeting of a Dalit poet by Hindutva groups, the busting of superstitions by a Karnataka Minister, and even commented on Modi as a leopard who cannot change his spots (as he is no different from the other rabble-rousers of the Sangh Parivar).

Her profiles of her parents and the Kannada writers U.R. Ananthamurthy and K.P. Purnachandra Tejasvi make for fascinating reading.

In Gauri Lankesh’s death, Karnataka lost a progressive, fearless and pugnacious journalist who saw her work as playing a transformative role. Civil society in Karnataka has lost her brave leadership but it must seek inspiration from her life.

The book provides valuable material for people who want to know more about Gauri Lankesh’s bold journalism.

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