World

The Right-Wing Assault on the Truth in India Claims the Life of Another Journalist

The personal was always political for Gauri Lankesh.

Photo Credit: pushkar v / Flickr

“Unfortunately, today anybody talking in support of human rights and against fake encounters [extrajudicial killings] is branded a Maoist supporter. Along with that, my criticism of Hindutva [aggressive majoritarian ideology that stands for a Hindu Theocratic State] politics and the caste system, which is part and parcel of what is considered ‘Hindu dharma,’ makes my critics brand me as a ‘Hindu hater.’ But I consider it my constitutional duty to continue—in my own little way—the struggle of Basavanna and Dr. Ambedkar towards establishing an egalitarian society.” —Gauri Lankesh

These were the recent words of journalist, activist and writer Gauri Lankesh, gunned down on the night of Sept. 5, 2017. I received the news at just past 8:40pm, when my advocate friend from Delhi, Aparna Bhat, tentatively called to say she had heard the chilling news on television. It took hours to assimilate, though I was compelled to respond publicly within minutes in an interview on India Today Television.

As the Telegraph reported, “Editor of the well-known Kannada weekly Gauri Lankesh Patrike, Gauri, 55, was shot at the entrance of her home in Rajarajeshwari Nagar in the western suburbs of Bangalore around 8pm after she appeared to have got [out of]… her car.”

Almost exactly two years ago, Lankesh was sitting on the steps leading to the Town Hall in Bengalaru protesting the murder of rationalist thinker M.M. Kalburgi, who had been similarly shot dead at his residence in August 2015.

How does one sum up a relationship that goes back 18 years but feels like forever? Being born the same year, of the same profession, carrying the same commitment, shedding the same tears, Gauri was my constant comrade in arms. Born like me in 1962, she had the temerity to call me younger sister. She abandoned the safe and easy world of English journalism upon her father’s death and took over the journal he pioneered, Lankesh Patrike, from 2000 to 2005. She learned quickly, and gave the journal a more sharply political turn, reflecting her own spirit of journalism and activism. Hesitant at the start in her mother tongue, she began writing in English and got her work translated. She immersed herself into the world of Kannada, and within two years, she was thinking in the language and correcting grammatical errors of colleagues.

It was her entry into the world of Kannada writing, literature and politics that made her what she is, a household name in her home state. Each week as she wrote and published her editorials in first this weekly and then in Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a vast audience awaited her perspective. She was aware of the cult following that the journal had inspired, and she took the responsibility seriously, even while she wore that iconism lightly. The effort at keeping the journal alive is the biggest tribute to her grit and commitment: Speaking truth to power, in whatever shade it came from.

“Once an Indian woman begins to discard English, turns down marriage and motherhood and then voluntarily accesses and fraternizes with vernacular-speaking people not of her own class, she becomes anathema as well as an irritant,” said commentator and fellow journalist Mrinal Pande on Gauri’s killing. Gauri had recently penned an essay in favor of Lingayats getting a separate religion tag and insisted that followers of philosopher-saint Basavanna were not Hindus, her latest point of disagreement with the extreme and supremacist right wing.

Her father, Paalyada Lankesh, had modeled his weekly on Mahatma Gandhi’s Harijan, never accepting advertisement revenues, as the Telegraph noted, “surviving solely on subscription income, [and emerging]… as a platform for Dalits, farmers and marginalized sections”:

“The Patrike was known for breaking stories on political scandals, financial scams, crime stories and encouraging new literary talent… As editor, Gauri continued with the tradition. But after falling out with her brother Indrajit, she started her own weekly paper, Gauri Lankesh Patrike, in 2005. […]

Gauri Lankesh Patrikealso doesn’t take advertisements from either governments or corporations but is subscription-based and depends on revenues from other publications.

“Late last year, she was convicted in two cases of criminal defamation for a report she published in 2008. The defamation case was filed by BJP leader and Dharwad MP Pralhad Joshi and another BJP leader, Umesh Dushi.”

She had at least 15 other cases against her when she was killed.

As a member of the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (Karnataka Forum for Communal Harmony), and a free-thinking liberal, her loss is as much a personal one as a public one to the country and to Kannada media. As the Telegraph writes, “Gauri galvanized Kannada writers and like-minded editors in 2003 against the [supremacist right wing]… in Karnataka after it threatened to convert the [Baba]… Budan Dargah [a Sufi shrine] in the Baba Budan Giri range of Chickmagalur” into a point of conflict between Hindus and Muslims.

This is what she co-authored with fellow traveler VS Sreedhara, in Communalism Combat:

“The Dattatreya-Baba Boudhan movement in Karnataka has thrown up a number of issues—some familiar, some new—regarding the rise of communalism in India and the nature of secular resistance that needs to emerge to confront such communal forces. In fact, it has once again brought into sharp focus the merits and demerits of the oft debated issue of the secular v/s the communal. And in that process it has led us to reconsider a range of issues: from what it means to be ‘secular’ in the Indian context; the social and political dimension of peoples’ religious experience; the Brahmanical hegemony and the Shudra consent, and the role of the State and civil society in contesting communalism. Above all, it has drawn our attention to the horrid dimensions that communalism has acquired today and its deep nexus with the forces of globalization.”

She was sharp and unequivocal against all political persuasions. “The Congress government in Karnataka is so stupid that here Rahul Gandhi goes to JNU in support of AISF student Kanhaiya and in Tumkur, AISF students are distributing pamphlets about Kanhaiya and Rohit and ABVP goons attack them. I tell the Home minister to get the ABVP goons behind bars so that they will know they can't wag their tails in Karnataka. He says yes and the next minute I know the Karnataka police in a Congress government have put sedition cases against AISF students,” she wrote.

As the Indian Express reports:

“She held the Congress government responsible for lathi-charging thousands of women garment workers who had come out on the streets of Bengaluru agitating against changes in provident fund rules.

“She ended her remarks saying that ‘abnormality is becoming the new normal’ in Karnataka and that the state could face the prospect of a ‘communal, casteist and corrupt BJP government’ in elections next year.”

Among her recent articles, as the Indian Express notes:

“In her Kannada weekly, Gauri Lankesh carried at least eight stories critical of the central government and its leaders over the last three months. In her last weekly column, the journalist wrote on the Gorakhpur Hospital tragedy.

“Hours before she was shot dead, Lankesh posted a photograph of herself with her father, the late journalist P Lankesh. ‘An absentee father most times but a wonderful teacher of life — My Appa!! Happy teachers day,’ she wrote.”

Her Facebook page has a picture of Rohith Vemula (the Dalit scholar forced into suicide on Jan. 17, 2016) as the profile photo, while her Twitter page has JNU student Kanhaiya Kumar’s picture.

As the Telegraph reported on September 5:

“The last retweet from Gauri Lankesh, the journalist who was killed this evening in Bangalore, was: ‘Who doesn’t want people to read @jamewils rigorous fact-check of the #DeMonetisationDisaster?’

“She had retweeted a post by a Twitter user on an article by James Wilson on demonetisation. Wilson is a civil engineer from Kerala who has been using easy-to-access official data to bust the government’s claims on the demonetisation since November.

“Twitter was today accused of ‘shadow-banning’ the posts of Wilson. Shadow banning is a tactic used by social media companies to limit a user’s influence by restricting access to their posts while keeping them in the dark about it.”

Twitter and Facebook have both been accused of obliging powerful governments, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime certainly flexes its muscle.

The Editors Guild of India—squeamish of late in taking on the Indian political establishment—strongly condemned her murder. “Gauri Lankesh was a known critic of the Central government on key issues and had fearlessly expressed her views in the newspaper she edited as well as in other forums. Her killing is an ominous portent for dissent in democracy and a brutal assault on the freedom of the press,” a statement released by the Guild said.

Who Dunnit?

Her strong writings against Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in her tabloid, Gauri Lankesh Patrike, might have cost journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh her life, said Bharatiya Janata Party MLA and former minister Jeevaraj at a meeting in Koppa taluk of Chikkamagaluru within the week she was killed. The audio clip of the MLA addressing the party workers’ meet has gone viral and in the clip, Mr. Jeevaraj says that Gauri Lankesh had written a report headlined, “Chaddigala Marana Homa” (the slaughter of RSS). “If only she had refrained from such writings, she would probably have survived. Gauri Lankesh was like my sister and she might have written against us which is acceptable in a democracy,” he says.

Others have been threatened, even killed, by those suspected to be gun-trotting enthusiasts of extreme supremacist outfits. In none of the similar killings, however, have the investigations reached any conclusion. Courts are monitoring some of these cases but to no end, so far. Rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead on his morning walk in 2013 when a Congress government ruled the western Indian state of Maharashtra. All three chillingly similar killings thereafter have been after the right-wing take-over of Indian politics. Govind Pansare in February 2015, MM Kalburgi in August 2015 and Gauri Lankesh in September 2017. Both Kalburgi’s and Lankesh’s killings are in the southern state of Karnataka currently ruled by the Indian National Congress. The outfit being investigated by agencies is one called the Sanatan Sanstha. A cursory visit to their website explains their worldview and orientation, especially the exhortations of one of their ideologues, Athavale on the 'Hindu Nation.'

One of the sharpest cleavages currently simmering within India, a conflict that has a potential of impacting all of South Asia, is this fundamental battle of ideas, convictions and orientation: the politics of a modern, liberal, secular, socialist, democratic state and the violent push of several forces to turn India into a theocratic dispensation. Gauri Lankesh’s death cannot be de-linked from this, especially given her sharp, effective and brave response to preserve a rational and modern India. In June of 2013, then chief minister of Gujarat, the present prime minister of India, Narendra Modi had congratulated the extreme right wing’s convention 'aimed to convert India into a theocratic state.' 

A month and 13 days after her killing, the protests have not stopped. Far and wide, there is an overwhelming sense of loss matched by a determination to keep her, and what she stood for, alive. Her sister, Kavitha Lankesh, wrote this poem for us, when she was finally allowed to personally grieve:

My Sister, My Soul Mate: A Poem for Gauri by Kavitha Lankesh

She raved, she ranted,
Many times she burst out....
Uppercaste this... Brahmincal that...
At the inhumanity of it all...
At the injustice of it all..

Wait a minute..
Is it the same woman?
Who spoke soft words, and tenderly hugged
And embraced
Little kids,
The untouchables,
The Muslims,
The women,
The minorities...
The Maoists..

Few Rabids barked she is a bitch,
some even called her prostitute,
just because she was single
and lived her life the way she wanted to...

But hundreds called her sister, thousands called her mother
a million now are saying
“We are all Gauri...”

She blasted when someone threw a
cigarette butt from the car window
Lest it would hurt a two wheeler rider..

Her house is a garden
Where many a snake wandered
And she would wait patiently
For it slither by,
Not stopping, not harming, not killing it
Waiting patiently for it pass and continue to live...
But finally a snake came which didn’t slither away,
A human snake
on a two wheeler
to stop the fire out of Gauri ...
and silence  her..

Silence Gauri?
Ha ha!! What a joke!!
She burst like sunflower seed
scattered all over 
In India
And across the seas...
Now the silence is chanting ....echoing, ...
“We are all Gauri!!”

 

Teesta Setalvad is a writer, activist, and journalist living in India. She is also the secretary of Citizens for Justice & Peace and a writing fellow for the Independent Media Institute