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Print edition : September 28, 2018

At the inauguration of the Literary Meet for Tolerance, which had religious tolerance and gram swaraj as its two central themes, in the Senate Hall of Central College in Bengaluru on September 2. Girish Karnad, Ramachandra Guha, M.S. Sathyu, Geeta Hariharan and Ganesh N. Devy were among the writers, film-makers and artists present. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

With the murders of Gauri Lankesh and M.M. Kalburgi, many people feel that there is an oppressive climate in Karnataka that is stifling of freedom of expression.

This September 5 marked a year since the assassination of the journalist Gauri Lankesh. As the Bengaluru-based Special Investigation Team (SIT) gets ready to file its charge sheet against the accused, media reports make it clear that the suspects owe allegiance to a radical Hindu doctrine that advocates the killing of ideological opponents. Gauri Lankesh’s murder was preceded by those of Narendra Dabholkar (August 20, 2013, in Pune, Maharashtra), Govind Pansare (shot on February 16, 2015, in Kohlapur, Maharashtra, and died on February 20 in Mumbai) and M.M. Kalburgi (August 30, 2015, in Dharwad, Karnataka). The four victims had different vocations and significantly differed in their world views, but what was common to all of them was their consistent questioning of Hindu religious dogma. The murders of Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were celebrated by right-wing trolls on social media in Karnataka.

For social activists, writers and intellectuals in Karnataka, the dates August 30 and September 5 have come to signify a major change in the climate of freedom of expression in the State. Their apprehension has been heightened by the brazen statements from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in Karnataka. In July this year, Basanagouda Patil Yatnal, the BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly representing Vijayapura City, stated: “If I were the Home Minister of this country, I would have issued an order to shoot all these so-called intellectuals for talking badly about the country. They [intellectuals] enjoy facilities of our country, consume our air and water, but they shout slogans against our nation.”

Prof. Muzaffar Assadi, a political scientist who is currently Special Officer at Raichur University, stated that Kalburgi’s and Gauri Lankesh’s murders had two major implications for progressive people in Karnataka. “First, they have created an imagined and real collective of intellectuals, social activists, writers as they have come together and are thinking about the consequences of their work and the question of freedom of expression. Second, they have created a binary response within this community, making some very, very vocal in their responses, while others have become cautious and apprehensive about public statements and their writing. This is the consequence of the shrinking of liberal space,” he explained.

This imagined and real collective that Assadi mentioned came together in a jamboree on September 2 when many well-known writers, intellectuals and activists based in Karnataka participated in a day-long seminar to address these themes at Central College in Bengaluru. The event was organised by Dakshinayana and the Gram Seva Sangh and was part of a series of programmes taking place all over the State to mark the week between August 30 and September 5. The recent arrests of five activists by the Pune Police were on the minds of all the participants who spoke that day.

Starting the proceedings, the veteran film-maker M.S. Sathyu said: “Religious fanaticism is growing. We are living in a fascist country. Today, it [fascism] has taken deeper root because of a communal party. The arrests of intellectuals on false charges show what fascism is. Whatever work we are in, we have to use it as a weapon to destroy fascism.” The participation of Girish Karnad and Champa (Chandrashekhar Patil), who are doyens in the Kannada world of letters and are also on the hit list of Hindu right-wing activists, bolstered the spirit of the participants.

Similar to Emergency

Chapma stated that the atmosphere in the country and the State was similar to the situation during the Emergency even though no formal state of emergency had been declared. About the fact that writers were under threat now, he quipped in Kannada: “Badavarige Annabhagya, Barahagararige Gunbhagya” (The poor have Annabhagya (a popular scheme that provides free rice for the poor), whereas writers have been given guns (protection by policemen)). Shankar Halagatti, general secretary, Karnataka Vidyavardhaka Sangha, said that the situation in Karnataka was worsening as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh was targeting schoolchildren in villages and teaching them hatred. It was evident to the audience members that Parashuram Waghmore, the prime accused in the murder of Gauri Lankesh, was someone who had passed through this hate factory.

Other prominent writers and activists from Karnataka such as Ramachandra Guha, Vivek Shanbhag, D.S. Nagabhushan, Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy, Siddanagouda Patil, Meenakshi Bali, Dinesh Amin Mattu, Pratibha Nandakumar, Chandan Gowda, Prasanna and Rahamat Tarikere also spoke at the event. With a non-BJP coalition government of the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) in power in Karnataka, many participants stressed how important it was for secular ideologues and organisations to forget their differences and unite against the larger common enemy.

Role of the Kannada media

Another significant implication of the changing climate in Karnataka is the role of the Kannada media. A Bengaluru-based academic who did not want to be named said that while it was unclear whether writers and intellectuals had become more apprehensive after the deaths of Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, what was clear was that Kannada newspaper editorial policy had changed. “It is not that they [Kannada media] are reluctant to publish reportage and analysis critical of the Central government, [rather] they have become positively hostile to any such content. Kannada newspapers, except for a couple of publications, have become open cheerleaders of the government and are toeing the government’s line. The contract of a well-regarded cartoonist was not renewed by a prominent Kannada newspaper because he was critical of the BJP government,” he said.

In such a situation, even activists are feeling stifled. Ranganathan Manohar, a human rights activist working with Human Rights Defenders Alert-India, brought up the recent killing of Ajit Nayak, an environmental activist. He said: “The threat to and killings of human rights defenders across the country form a big blow to democracy, the rule of law and human rights. It is a serious challenge for rights activists to speak and work without fear after the killings of Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and Gauri [Lankesh]. Nayak was murdered in Dandeli. What is happening? One will seriously think before taking the rights mode of work in this situation where perpetrators have not been apprehended.”

Cynthia Stephen, an activist working on social transformation from a Dalit-Christian background, said that awareness among Dalits in the country had tremendously increased after the Una, Gujarat, incident (in which four young men were beaten up for skinning a dead cow) and the suicide of the University of Hyderabad PhD scholar Rohith Vemula. “Even though Dalit activists are being targeted, there has been an unprecedented organisation happening among Dalits, especially the youth,” she added.

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