Gauri Lankesh: A dissenter silenced

Gauri Lankesh’s killing, though one in a long line of similar killings of secular writers, activists and public intellectuals in recent months and years, represents in some sense a turning point, a new and significant moment in the growing environment of intolerance in the country.

Published : Sep 13, 2017 12:30 IST

Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore on March 21, 2011.

Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore on March 21, 2011.

It grieves me to write about Gauri Lankesh in the past tense. The television news flash on September 5 of her brutal murder on the steps of her house in Bengaluru was met with initial disbelief and incomprehension by her large constellation of friends, colleagues, acquaintances and admirers. Stunned, friends called each other for confirmation of the dreadful news and to assimilate its import: the similarities between the killing of the distinguished and outspoken academic M.M. Kalburgi in 2015 and Gauri’s murder; the knowledge that Gauri would also have been in the crosshairs of the same forces for her uncompromising stance against communalism; the enabling atmosphere in the country over the last few years for hate crimes of this sort to be committed. These connections provided tentative answers to the question on everyone’s mind: Why Gauri?

The response to news of her death in Bengaluru and other parts of the country assumed the proportions of a tidal wave of grief, anger and, perhaps, fear too. There is also the growing realisation that her killing, though one in a long line of similar killings of secular writers, activists and public intellectuals in recent months and years, represents in some sense a turning point, a new and significant moment in the growing environment of intolerance in the country. For Gauri is—was—a force in Kannada journalism, having carved out a niche in a special kind of adversarial journalism. She has been on the media scene from the 1980s—first with the English media, and since 2000 in Kannada journalism. Her tabloid, Gauri Lankesh Patrike , an offshoot of Lankesh Patrike which her father started and she took over after his death, is widely read precisely because it offers an alternative kind of journalism.

Gauri adopted her father’s anti-establishment, muckraking tone and style but steered the publication onto a fundamentally new path. She used it as a platform for waging a relentless battle-of-the-pen against the rising tide of Hindutva fundamentalism and its growing hold on India’s body politic. That is why she and her publication incurred the wrath of the Hindu Right. Gauri made no bones about her publication’s bias. She had declared herself an activist-journalist and used every public platform to speak out against communal politics, whether at the State or Central level. She campaigned on the ground and in her newspaper on some of the major flashpoints of communal tension in Karnataka–the Hubli flag-hoisting controversy, the attempt by the Sangh Parivar to convert the Sufi shrine of Bababudangiri into a Hindu temple, and the widespread phenomenon of moral policing by Hindu right-wing groups in coastal Karnataka. She was also active on issues of social justice and women’s rights, though it was unquestionably her anti-communal and secular credentials that she was known for.

It is not surprising that Hindu right-wing groups in Karnataka hate her, and the further down in the pecking order of the Sangh Parivar an organisation or group is, the more lethal its threats and abuse towards her. I recall covering the Bababudangiri crisis for Frontline in December 2003. (This was well before the era of social media, Twitter especially, which as we know has today become the platform of choice for anonymous purveyors of hate.) There had been a big mobilisation by the Bajrang Dal of young men who were to storm the shrine on the occasion of the annual Urs. My photographer colleague, V. Sreenivasa Murthy, and I had visited the shrine and were stationed in Chikmagalur on the day of the Urs. A large contingent of political activists from Left parties, along with prominent writers, artists and academics under the banner of the Karnataka Souharda Vedike, had also gone to Hassan to do what they could to foil the plans of the Bajrang Dal. Sensing a clash between the two groups, the district administration had imposed curfew in Chikmagalur. Gauri was a prominent member of the Vedike, and was present there both in her role as a journalist and as an activist. She and a group of around 500 members of the Vedike somehow smuggled themselves into Chikmagalur at night, and on the morning of the protest, held a public meeting in the town. They were all arrested and held in detention in the Chikmagalur jail grounds. We managed to get permission to speak to them but were told we could not take pictures. Sreenivas, however, let his camera hang at hip level as if unused and kept photographing Gauri while I engaged her in conversation through the bars of the iron gate behind which they were kept. (The photograph was carried prominently in the next day’s edition of The Hindu .)

That evening, the Bajrang Dal called a public meeting in Chikmagalur’s Azad Maidan, which was addressed by several pontiffs (heads of maths) along with many of the leaders of the Bajrang Dal and allied organisations. The then State convener of the Dal, K. Sunil Kumar, and its south India convener, Pramod Muthalik, addressed the gathering. The two special targets of their attack were Gauri and Girish Karnad, the noted Kannada playwright. I can never forget the stream of filthy and personal invective and threats that were directed at Gauri from the podium that night, with each abuse being met with roars of approval from the crowds.

Of interest to note is that the recent spate of attacks on journalists has been on those working in the vernacular media. There are reasons for this. Investigative stories in the vernacular have a potency and impact at the State level that the English media do not have.

Publications in the language people speak and read reach wider audiences and therefore play a substantial role in shaping public opinion amongst ordinary people. Bold and uncompromising journalists working for small vernacular publications are also vulnerable as they usually do not have the backing of powerful newspaper managements. Gauri’s political writing, especially on communalism, penetrated the interstices of the sociopolitical landscape, offering readers a close-up view of political processes at work. But she also strode two journalism worlds, the English and the vernacular, which gave her views an even wider reach and impact.

Opposed to Hindutva Gauri’s assassination has rightly been connected to the other prominent three unsolved killings—of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi—for several reasons, the most important being a common hatred for Hindutva bigotry. But it is also important to comprehend the differences among them, and the distinctly individual paths that led them to oppose Hindutva. They were no bandwagon followers of secular movements. Indeed, each of them opposed the Hindutva ideology for reasons that were initially integral to their subject specialisations. They raised the hackles of the bigots for similar as well as different reasons. Pansare was a communist, well known for a popular Marathi book on Shivaji. Dabholkar, a medical doctor, was a staunch rationalist who engaged in a lifelong fight against superstition. Years of dogged research took Kalburgi to a position that could only be construed as anti-mainstream orthodox religion (see article by Rajendra Chenni on page 17). His studies revealed the manner in which the original social reform and anti-caste principles of the Lingayat faith were hijacked and replaced by a formidable form of Hindu orthodoxy by the ruling Lingayat elite.

Gauri stood with the others on basic principles, but she too came to that place from a different background–that of journalism. She may have made common cause with them in her fight for secular values, but like them her fight was also unique. It is obvious that the Hindutva forces felt aggrieved by each of the four fallen heroes. Gauri’s murder is a powerful assertion of the logic of the right wing: that hate is broad spectrum in its reach but in essence boils down to a visceral aversion to reason.

Soon after Gauri’s murder, Prahlad Joshi, Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament from Dharwad and the person who successfully sued her for defamation last year, claimed her journalism was insignificant because of the poor circulation of the Patrike . In reality, the Patrike punched far above its weight, to a level much higher than what circulation numbers reflect. It was Gauri’s agenda and her public image that gave the publication she edited and wrote for the reach that the English language media could not muster.

We still do not know who or which group was responsible for Gauri’s murder, but reasonable conjecture would suggest that it is only those for whom her writing and activities posed a threat who would want to get rid of her.

Two logical assumptions can be made. The first is that this was not an impulsive act of vendetta by an individual but a carefully planned and executed plot, the knowledge of which must have extended into the higher organisational echelons of whichever group it was. After all, Gauri was a prominent individual with a large constituency of support. The plotters would have weighed the possible scenarios that would follow the killing before taking the decision to do so.

The second assumption that can be reasonably made is that the killers were confident that whatever the outcome of her murder, under the current dispensation it could be managed and contained. At this particular juncture in Indian politics, the state appears to have shrunk into itself, leaving the arena open and lawless for bigots and fundamentalists of various hues to function with alarming confidence. People can be lynched for belonging to a particular religion, the exercise of the right to free speech by an individual makes her “anti-national”, and journalists who stand up are browbeaten or very simply removed from the scene.

Gauri knew well of the threats to her life. Members of her family have been quoted as saying that she had noticed unusual movements of strangers around her house in the days before she was killed, and had even told her worried mother that she would report this to the police if they continued. She had spoken on many occasions about the steady stream of hate mail and threats she received, mostly laughing it off, and, as we now know, never seeing it as serious enough to report to the police or to arrange private or police security for herself. One can only conjecture why Gauri, or for that matter Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, did not act to protect themselves despite the threats they received. All of them valued their lives, all of them had so much more to do.

Perhaps it is a characteristic of the dedicated rationalist to assume, somewhat naively, that a kernel of reason exists somewhere in the recesses of the most bigoted of minds, a spot of morality or goodness that would activate at the appropriate moment to provide them protection, at least insofar as the most heinous of threats, death itself, were concerned.

And finally there is our Gauri: daughter, sister, colleague, friend; the person whose generosity of spirit and outreach was vast, the person who will be sorely missed. I have known her from the 1980s and recall now the petite, tousle-haired cub reporter with the impish grin that stayed in her eyes long after it had disappeared from her lips. She matured over the decades into the forceful journalist and activist she finally became. As for her legacy, knowing Gauri, she would have wanted her most cherished values of secularism, social equality, rationalism and humaneness to be passed on after her time. After all, they are what she gave her life for.

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