GAURI LANKESH married her craft of journalism to social and political activism in a manner few have done in recent memory, and paid the ultimate price. Journalism for her was a calling, not a mere job.
There were many sceptics when Gauri Lankesh took over Lankesh Patrike after her illustrious father, P. Lankesh’s death in 2000. They sniggered at her for her “lack of experience”, her “political naivete” and what they claimed was her “poor hold on Kannada”. Evidently, she was stepping into the big shoes of her father, a leading light of the Navya movement of literature in Kannada, film-maker, playwright and a journalist who shaped a generation through his writings in the 1980s and 1990s. And anyone less gutsy than Gauri Lankesh would have shrivelled under the intense heat of such expectations.
The distinct path Gauri Lankesh chartered from then on until her brutal killing on the night of September 5, 2017, was all her own as much in journalism as it was in political activism. In fact, the two roles melded into each other and lent her a trademark style. Her indefatigable confidence and hard work soon silenced the sniggers. Gauri Lankesh doggedly kept the magazine going during the most trying times. Money to run it was always hard to come by, and she brought it out almost single-handedly, right down to proofreading the pages, with little or virtually no help.
The transformation of the weekly tabloid’s masthead from Lankesh Patrike to Gauri Lankesh in 2005, though not by choice but because of a dispute with her brother, Indrajit Lankesh, who claimed proprietorship, could well be seen as symbolic of the shaping of her distinct identity.
Journalism from the trenches The magazine her father ran with unprecedented success in Kannada journalism’s history, with no advertisement support, was unique for the way it lent a literary flavour to the bold tabloidy analysis of contemporary politics. Gauri Lankesh, though arguably the most starry-eyed fan of her father (she kept the chair and table her father had used in the editor’s office, but never used it herself), soon successfully moved out of his shadow, freely admitting that she was indeed not the “litterateur” that her father was. The weekly she edited did not have the same flavour as the one her father ran, but there is little reason to argue that it should have been. While individual style is one matter, the spirit of the times after 2000, marked by the rise of Hindutva in Karnataka, most notably in its coastal belt, certainly played a major role in shaping Gauri Lankesh’s uniquely feisty personality.
Taking on the Sangh Parivar What made her voice distinct in the years that followed was the unapologetic plunge she took into activism and how she used the paper she ran as a forum to espouse those causes. Issues such as communal politics, women’s rights, Dalit liberation and farmers’ agitations constantly found place in her paper, and there was no ambiguity as to whose side she was on. There was no “balancing of views” as mainstream journalism would call it. Her critics sometimes said that her style lacked “nuance”, but she vociferously argued that this was often a ploy to play safe or to obfuscate ideas and political positions. She was never “careful” as an editor; nor was she a “careful” as a person.
Predictably, this resulted in obnoxious trolls, online and offline, and defamation cases became her constant companions. Around the time of her death, she had gone on appeal to the High Court on a prison sentence pronounced by a lower court in connection with a defamation case filed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Dharwad Member of Parliament Prahlad Joshi. She particularly “offended” the Sangh Parivar affiliates (whom she always referred to as “chaddis”, often in bold letters on the tabloid’s cover) in edition after edition. Scanning through the issues over the past few years, it is hard to come across even a single one that did not take on the Hindutva political actors in what some would describe as language that was shrill and strident.
However, as G. Rajashekhar, culture critic, political activist and regular contributor to both Lankesh Patrike and Gauri Lankesh points out, it was not unbridled iconoclasm. Gauri Lankesh held the Indian Constitution sacrosanct across contexts and never advocated violence to take on those whom she unsparingly attacked in her magazine every week. “You cannot find a single line in any of her editorials that advocates defiance of the Constitution or taking to violence,” he says. Gauri Lankesh had the courage to publish Rajashekhar’s strong critique of the seer of the Pejawar Mutt in Udupi that most mainstream magazines were afraid to touch, but there were always limits she would not cross.
Mainstreaming Naxalites Her unwavering faith in constitutional values was also reflected in the enormous effort she put in to bring those who were once in the forefront of the naxal movement back into the mainstream along with like-minded persons such as the freedom fighter H.S. Doreswamy.
Two important leaders, Sirimane Nagaraj and Noor Sridhar, who joined the mainstream thanks to her persistent efforts, became active in democratic struggles and even wrote occasionally for Gauri Lankesh . Interestingly, Gauri Lankesh’s fallout with her brother involved disagreements over publishing an interview with a naxalite leader, which Indrajit strongly opposed. While her touchstone was the Constitution, she believed that journalism should hear out every side of a story to reflect genuine plurality.
Lingayat issue In fact, her virulent opposition of the BJP and the Sangh Parviar could also be read as stemming from her abhorrence of those who did not believe in the constitutional values of secularism and moving towards a casteless society. Rather than shut out such forces, she constantly engaged with them, especially in social media platforms. Over the past few months, when the demand for a separate religious tag for Lingayats escalated in Karnataka (“Struggling for a new status”, Frontline , September 15), Gauri Lankesh wrote extensively on the issue both in Gauri Lankesh and in English publications.
In an article for the news website, “The Wire” , she wrote: “Lingayats are followers of Basavanna and the sharana s, whose philosophy is expressed in thousands of vachana s. In several vachana s, the sharana s have rejected the Vedas, shastra s, smriti s and the Upanishads. They also rejected the system of caste based on the varnasrama, rebuffed faith in karma based on caste, denied the concept of paap and punya which was based on karma, spurned the notion of heaven and hell as based on paap and punya . They scorned temple and idol worship. They rejected the phallic linga symbol of Siva and opted for ishtalinga, which represents inner conscience. They declared that work was worship and tried to break the barriers of caste by inter-caste dining. They fought against discrimination on the basis of gender and birth. They abhorred superstitions. They ignored Sanskrit— which was understood by very few—and addressed the people in Kannada. Essentially, Basavanna and all sharana s rejected everything about the Hindu religion and rebelled against it.”
She pointedly observed that the demand for a separate status for Lingayats was raised by many even during the drafting of the Constitution, especially by Lingayat members of the Constituent Assembly such as S. Nijalingappa. The scholar M.M. Kalburgi, killed two years ago in a manner strikingly similar to how Gauri Lankesh was killed, also held similar views. She may not have been a scholar, but her keen appreciation of why the issue rankled the Hindutva bigots who had no time, patience or inclination to understand culture in its multifaceted dimensions and nuances of which religion is only a small part ensured that she stayed her course come what may.
For those who felt that her magazine lacked nuance, the editorials Gauri Lankesh wrote every week under the title “Kanda Haage” (As Perceived) showed another face of her potential as a writer and journalist. They reflected the vastness and depth of her understanding of the world as a journalist that the screaming headline may have often masked. Her editorial on triple talaq (published in the September 5 issue), for instance, hailed the Supreme Court verdict but also questioned the earlier verdict on “love jehad”.
An abiding role model The last editorial Gauri Lankesh wrote (in the issue dated September 13) titled “Sullu Suddigala Yugadalli” (In the age of fake news) is a fine analysis of the Sangh Parivar’s untiring fake news manufacturing machinery. She confesses to falling prey to one such photoshopped image herself, and, after a detailed analysis of how fake news is created and spread, talks about the newly emerging young band of activists who are countering them online and offline. She was all praise for Youtuber Dhruv Rathi, who has the “looks of a college boy” as she put it, and expressed happiness over many youngsters like him raising their voice of dissent. In fact, anyone who closely interacted with Gauri Lankesh could not have missed her drive to nurture the young to be right-thinking and bold in their resistance to right-wing politics. She kept in close touch with young activists such as Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mewani and called them her “adopted sons”. Many young journalists, especially young women, looked up to her as a role model. She entered journalism in the 1980s. Gauri Lankesh concluded her last editorial with a note of optimism: “I offer my salaam to the lonely soldiers of truth who are exposing the fake news propagated by chaddi s. May their tribe increase…”
It is not clear what will happen to the magazine that carries the legacy of Gauri Lankesh and in some ways her father as well. The rights over the magazine, which has no strong financial backing or editorial structure, will now go back to the family. Her sister, Kavitha Lankesh, who is a film-maker, said she would not want to take it on but would be happy if some friends and colleagues of Gauri Lankesh wanted to keep it alive. For now, Gauri Lankesh’s friends and admirers are busy putting together an edition of Gauri Lankesh that will be a tribute to its slain editor and her indomitable spirit. Gauri Lankesh had put together a similar special edition as a tribute to her father when he passed away in 2000.