Even though attacks on journalists are common in India, the killing of feisty, tiny GauriLankesh caused shock and outrage, reports Devendra Mohan
While India battles with terror and terrorists on many a front, it also has to contend with an increasing tribe of another variety: an intolerant group of men and women who want to silence ‘unbending’ thinkers, intellectuals, artists, writers and journalists that do not conform to their idea of the ‘right’ ideology. Ever since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the powers that be seem helpless to rein them in.
The killing of GauriLankesh in September is a case in point. The 55-year-old, barely 5ft tall, who had spent almost 35 years as a writer, journalist and activist, fell to an unknown assassin’s bullets at her home in Bengaluru, India’s IT capital. Was it significant that her killer chose the concluding day of the 10-day Ganesh festival, celebrating the elephant god, to murder a woman named after the god’s mother? Many thought so.
In Hindu mythology Goddess Gauri herself is perceived as a feisty figure, angered by injustice and wrongdoing and yet an embodiment of deep thinking and intelligence. ‘So, was GauriLankesh’s murder akin to silencing of the Mother of Intellect?’ asked the film actor Pratap Raj, an old friend of the Lankesh family.
The killing, it would appear, was well planned for a quiet evening in the peaceful residential area of Rajrajeshwari, where Gauri lived alone. She was hit by three bullets – one straight into her heart. A day earlier she had told her mother and sister that she had noticed some suspicious people tailing her nearby, but did not care to report it. She was preoccupied with a number of things.
Gauri was planning a new initiative to grow Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada-language weekly tabloid she launched in 2005, whose sales she had nurtured to 80,000. It was an offshoot of Lankesh Patrike, set up by her illustrious father, P Lankesh, the poet, thinker and journalist who died in 2002. Like him, she had sought to publish her paper without advertising, but changing times and revenue dynamics had forced her to alter course. The day after her murder she had been due to meet prospective advertisers, including state government departments.
Lankesh’s sudden death prompted Gauri to return to the family enterprise after stints with Sunday magazine, edited by MJ Akbar – now a minister in Narendra Modi’s government – India Today and the Times of India in Bengaluru and New Delhi. Her approach was radically different from her father’s: though P Lankesh had socialist leanings, his writing style was always literary rather than political, while she was a hard-nosed journalist. Lankesh Patrike continues in the old style – it is now run by her younger sibling Indrajeet – but Gauri struck out on her own.
After her divorce from Chidanand Rajghatta, the Washington-based correspondent of the Times of India, Gauri had chosen to be an independent journalist-cum-activist. In Gauri Lankesh Patrike she covered contemporary social and political issues in an attacking, acerbic style. There was a strong element of activism, which according to some stemmed from her support for extreme leftists, including Maoists, and from continued mockery and severe criticism of Hindutva fanatics.
After the Babri Masjid demolition, Gauri gained prominence as a strong voice against communal polarisation, seeking justice for tribals and the downtrodden in rural and forest areas, and asking Naxalites to join mainstream politics. The August issue of her tabloid covered the outbreak of violence following the arrest and conviction of the flamboyant guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, in two rape cases in Panchkula in Haryana. Among her other targets were BS Yedyurappa, the former Karnataka chief minister and BJP leader, and Yogi Adityanath, the close ally of Modi and present chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
Gauri’s unsparing, combative approach resulted in frequent spats, and even roughing up by opponents. But her death brought widespread condemnation and protest rallies across India, including by the pro-Hindutva party, Shiv Sena. Even if it did not agree with the thoughts and ideology of Gauri Lankesh, said the party’s publication, Saamna, the country’s goons and underworld dons never killed a woman. Its editorial asked: ‘Are there forces working invisibly behind iron walls to permanently silence those who do not agree with their ideology? Prime Minister Narendra Modi has himself expressed concern on the aggression of gaurakshaks [cow saviours]. There is a major debate and violence over who should eat what in this country.’
But the editor’s murder was not universally condemned. Just three days later, the Kerala Hindu Aikyavedi leader KP Sasikala, notorious for her inflammatory speeches with pro-Hindutva tones, warned secular-minded writers to ‘mend’ their ways, or await the fate of GauriLankesh. Many public statements and tweets by cow vigilantes also rejoiced in the killing.
Gauri was the latest in a series of high-profile murders of writers, thinkers, intellectuals and artists in India which remain unresolved, including those of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar at Pune, leftist thinker Govind Pansare at Kolhapur and another rationalist, MM Kalburgi, at Dharwad in Karnataka. Investigations are stalled, even though a member of the secretive Goa-based Hindu group, Sanatan Sanstha, was arrested in connection with Dabholkar’s death. One person suspected of involvement in the killing of Pansare is out on bail, while two other suspects believed to be involved in the murders of Dabholkar and Pansare are on the run.
According to the Karnataka home minister, G Parameshwara, there was evidence to suggest that Kalburgi’s killing too was linked to the murders of Dabholkar and Pansare. Two Mumbai High Court judges had asked the investigating agencies to use modern methodology to track down the culprits. These were not acts committed by one or two people, the judges said: ‘The reports indicate that this is a completely organised set-up.’
Last year, GauriLankesh said in an interview: ‘Let me assure you, they [Hindutvaactvists] are keen to somehow shut me up too.’ Her death has highlighted some very uncomfortable truths about Indian journalism and Indian society in general. The country fares poorly in global press freedom rankings by Reporters Without Borders – 136th among 180 countries, which is one notch above Pakistan and below strife-torn Palestine. Seventy Indian journalists were killed between 1992 and 2017, according to the Committee for Protection of Journalists, the vast majority from non-English media or the regional press.
‘In small town India,’ observed the editor of a major Hindi daily, ‘journalists are the worst targets of the rising number of local politicians [connected to] businessmen and government officials. Add to this the rising phenomenon of religious intolerance, and the old wine of pro-Hindutva in new bottles is far more intoxicating. It is not only hitting the journalists but also the common man in this country.’
The two most recent killings of Dharmendra Singh, a Dainik Bhaskar reporter in Bihar, and Raj Deo Ranjan, bureau chief of the Daily Hindustan in Patna, underline this. Another study by the Reporters Without Borders named India among the three most dangerous countries for journalists in 2015. Five were killed in 2016, ranking India eighth on a list topped by Iraq.
The irony is that most journalists hope and think that the power of the press will protect them. Did GauriLankesh also think so? We will never know.