Gauri Lankesh’s murder was not the first: To make it the last, the time to turn fearless is now

With the murder of Gauri, the huge chasm between constitutional guarantees and right-wing politics has been laid bare, once again.


The murder of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh on the evening of 5 September 2017 has opened up a can of worms in Karnataka. It has turned the spotlight on the ineptitude of the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in the state and the destabilising strategies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Bengaluru Police see a similarity in the modus operandi of the murders of rationalist M M Kalburgi in 2015 in Dharwad and the journalist activist Gauri Lankesh on the evening of 5 September 2017. Both were outspoken critics of right-wing fundamentalists and they were both shot at home at close range by unidentified men on motorcycles.

Connections have also been made to two other murders; that of Govind Pansare shot in Kolhapur in 2015 and Narendra Dabholkar in Pune in 2013. Ballistic reports apparently confirm that one of the guns used to kill Pansare, a 7.65 mm pistol, was found to be the same one used on Kalburgi. This has subsequently been recovered by the police. Interestingly, the other gun used on Pansare was found to be "similar" to the one used to assassinate Dabholkar, Kalburgi and Gauri, thereby insidiously connecting all the four murders.

The same set of suspects belonging to the Sanatan Sanstha, a right-wing radical Hindu group that claims to be a registered non-governmental trust, were arrested, charged and interrogated in connection with the Dabholkar and Pansare cases, but were released due to lack of evidence to tie them to the crime. The same group also happens to be connected to the 2009 Goa bomb blasts. In the case of Kalburgi, the police have been tight-lipped and vague regarding the possible culprits. All they have revealed is that "they were not known to the witnesses" and were very "powerful". The family of Kalburgi who just observed his second death anniversary and have said that they have lost all hope of seeing justice done. Chetan Rajan, official spokesperson of the Sanatan Sanstha called Gauri an extortionist with Naxal links and said his organisation had nothing to do with her but condemned the killing. He added, however, that such public outrage was not seen when Hindu activists were murdered and there was no sympathy for the victims of Gauri’s extortion.

It is also interesting to note that these contract murders of progressive thinkers occur in non-BJP ruled states like Karnataka and Maharashtra. Is this part of the BJP's agenda to establish a Hindu Rashtra? This brew of fear and seduction plied by team BJP and its ally, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is potent. In non-BJP ruled states, the strategy is tailored to spread distrust in the ability of the party in power to administer the state. This nurtures a growing sense of insecurity and a loss of faith in the government.

On the morning of 5 September, the BJP and its Yuva Morcha began a bike rally, “Mangaluru Chalo" to protest the alleged killing of Hindu activists in the coastal districts of Karnataka. Although they were denied permission on the grounds of causing law and order problems, BJP and RSS workers arrived at Freedom Park in the state’s capital Bengaluru and clashed with the police after BJP party leaders arrived to inaugurate the rally. However, the police managed to scuttle the initiative.

That same evening, Gauri was mercilessly gunned down at 7:45 pm. Within minutes, protests erupted outside her home which is said to be in a secluded area of Rajarajeshwari Nagar. Initially, the slogan was “Kalburgi yesterday, today Gauri–tomorrow who?” but soon they turned into anti-government slogans: “We have waited for two years for Kalburgi’s culprits, we will not wait two years for Gauri.” All this has deftly shifted the onus of responsibility onto the Congress government and away from the possible perpetrators of the heinous crime.

State Home Minister Ramalinga Reddy arrived on the scene almost immediately after the police was heckled while Gauri’s brother, Indrajit, a film-maker and budding politician, demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) enquiry in his phone interview to a television channel, implicitly questioning the integrity of the state government’s capacity to do justice. He claimed that he had asked for police protection for Gauri, but it was not provided. He also hinted that the Naxalites could be responsible for his sister’s assassination. A self-proclaimed supported of the BJP and admirer of former BJP Chief Minister B S Yedurappa and Narendra Modi, Indrajit, claimed in a recent interview that it was their leadership that inspired him to join politics. His allegations were strongly refuted by Gauri’s sister, Kavita.

Social media erupted within hours of the murder with venomous tweets. Gauri was called a Naxalite, anti-establishment and anti-Hindu; that her murder was the repercussion of her deeds. A hit list, prepared by some people who are apparently also being followed by Prime Minister Modi on Twitter, ticked her off, saying that they could now proceed to the next on the list, the writer Arundhati Roy.

A flashback at this point is necessary. Gauri’s father, P Lankesh, winner of the Sahitya Academy award, was a playwright, poet and founder of the hard-hitting tabloid Lankesh Patrike.

This weekly was started in 1980 on the lines of M K Gandhi’s Harijan. Lankesh ran this paper without a single advertisement and survived on subscription from its readers alone. It was a platform for Dalits, women and marginalised groups. The articles were incisive, provocative and razor-sharp. It played a pivotal role in the Raitara Chaluvali (Farmers' agitation), the Dalit movement, and the Gokak movement (a linguistic movement against retaining Sanskrit as the first language in school education).

Lankesh was a close family friend. His left ideology brought him within our circle of socialist friends such as U R Ananthamurthy, Gopal Gowda, S Venkatram and eminent journalists like Y N Krishnamurthy and Kadri Shyamanna.

In his play Kranti Banni Kranti (Revolution is coming) written in the early 1970s, he made strong arguments for not using violence as a political tool. The play was a harbinger of the state of emergency to come. The theme appealed to my father, Pattabhirama Reddy, so much that he made the film Chanda Marutha. Ironically, the last day of shooting the film coincided with the announcement of the state of Emergency by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

My mother, Snehalatha Reddy, who was imprisoned during the Emergency and died thereafter, starred in the film along with M Bhaktavatsala, Ashok Mandanna, Huli Chandru and myself. Coincidentally, many of us involved with that film were also part of the movement against the Emergency.

Lankesh was a radical thinker and questioned everything, including his own actions.

My father, who was the proverbial devil’s advocate, egged him on. Their friendship was based on the "search for the ultimate truth"—elusive as it is—and a common set of basic values.

Lankesh was feisty and frank. He spoke his mind and diplomacy was not part of his charming personality. Gauri inherited this as well as her left orientation from him. After Lankesh passed away in 2000, Indrajit became the proprietor and Gauri the editor of Lankesh Patrike. In 2005 there was a fall out between them. Indrajit accused Gauri of "Naxalite leanings" and filed a police complaint against her for sealing office equipment. Gauri claimed that he threatened her with a revolver. This resulted in a parting of ways after which Gauri started Gauri Lankesh Patrike and carried on her father’s legacy.

Because of her outspokenness, Gauri made some friends, but more enemies. For instance, she invoked the anger of the Veerashaivites when she supported the Lingayats' demand for a separate religious tag.

The Lingayats are a large vote bank in Karnataka. All parties woo them and ensure adequate representation in the state cabinet and in legislative committees. For over eight decades, the Lingayats have asked to be listed as a separate religion, even during the drafting of the Constitution. Lingyat members of the Constituent Assembly, such as S Nijalingappa tried to insist that the Lingayats be listed separately. Recently, however, the issue was resurrected by Siddaramaiah, probably with an eye to split the vote bank thereby putting the BJP in a quandary as accepting this would mean questioning Hinduism as they propagate it.

Gauri, a fearless crusader of human rights and a severe critic of both the Congress and the BJP, denounced the politics of the right and tried to soften the stand of the Maoists.

When she tried to broker a deal of amnesty for a few Maoists who wanted to surrender, she was accused of being pro-Maoist by the right.

Gauri was incensed by the callous treatment of Dalits. When a series of deaths of manual scavengers were reported, she wrote: “Had any other community or profession lost so many of its people due to work related hazards there would have been an uproar. Since Safai Karmacharis are poor ‘untouchables’, no one cares. The attitude of our society towards them is most reprehensible”.

On the influence of Hinduism on politics she wrote:

“Our secular constitution strictly separates religion from politics. But, in practice, religion plays a central role in all acts political. What else explains looking at ‘auspicious time’ before starting a legislative session, observing blind directions while laying the foundation stone for a government building, launching ships by breaking coconuts, throwing ‘baagina’ into dams praying for good rains?”

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” declared Gauri, in a scathing critique of the Sangh Parivar’s imposition of a singular nationalism in India, tracing the history of the Hindutva showing that many Hindu nationalists were actually British sympathisers and did not participate in the movement to free India.

On 6 September, the day of Gauri’s funeral, thousands gathered at the Town Hall holding placards saying "I am Gauri". But some placards read, "Gauri Lankesh did not deserve to die this way, but you fascists do deserve it!" These are dangerous sentiments in such a fragile time.

The BJP strategy of provoking violence to counter their violence is paying off. We are witnessing unrest, breakdown of a sense of community, modification of definitions and values, cooption of civil society organisations and their transformation into instruments of civil repression.

The political formula of Karnataka unfortunately revolves around caste, religion and language—the Constitution be damned! Unfortunately, the Congress government in Karnataka is the main funder of the national party. As a result, it is forced to compromise its local politics for the party's national survival. What it fails to see is that its pursuit of power politics at the detriment of constitutional principles and good governance will be its own death knell in the state.

Gauri was cremated with full state honours on 6 September. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah laid a wreath and declared that Karnataka had lost a democratic voice and he had lost a friend. But the Congress needs to go beyond platitudes and symbolic gestures. It needs to go back to the grass-roots and establish democracy. It must pull out the roots of fascism that are overrunning India.

We, the people of India, felt we had won a hard fought battle with the historic ruling by the Supreme Court on the right to privacy. But with the murder of Gauri, the huge chasm between constitutional guarantees and right-wing politics has been laid bare, once again. Freedom of speech and action have been mocked in one quick swipe with the silencing of Gauri.

What are our choices? Putting up with an inept self-absorbed party in power in the state or being ruled by the iron fist? Tolerating an inefficient administration but retaining our constitutional right to exercise our citizenship and make the government we have elected accountable?

We need to explode the myth of dynastic entitlement. Shedding our fear and passivity, we must dare to act.

We have reached the end of the road. Gauri’s murder was not the first and if we wish it to be the last, the time to turn fearless activists, like Gauri, is now. Let her death be a catalyst for a peaceful revolution.

Kranti Banni Kranti! She gave her life to protect democracy. Let us do our bit to save India.


Featured Image Courtesy: Facebook/Gauri Lankesh

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