Gauri Lankesh, an Indian journalist who was gunned down outside her home in Bengaluru on the evening of September 5, denounced “Brahman hegemony” in her last major public speech.
Speaking in March 2017 at the National Convention of Human Rights Defenders, Lankesh praised 20th-century Kannadan writer, Kuvempu, for his role in pushing an “intellectual movement in Karnataka where he called people to come out of their caste and communities and become a universal person.” In contrast, she warned, “Karnataka’s trajectory from a progressive, secular state to a communal state has been a very interesting and crippling one.” The state is witnessing an increase of attacks “in the name of Hindutva,” she said, and faces the prospect of falling under a “communal, casteist, and corrupt BJP government.”
Speaking on September 6 about Lankesh’s assassination, her attorney said, “Let us say it loud and clear. Hindu terror units killed Gauri Lankesh.” Advocate B.T. Venkatesh continued, “She opposed the RSS, the BJP, and these Hindutva forces, and this killing is the silencing of that voice against hate politics.”
Lankesh’s murder is being compared to the August 30, 2015 assassination of Kannadan journalist M.M. Kalburgi, who was similarly gunned down at his home. In her March speech, Lankesh mentioned Kalburgi. She noted how Bhuvith Shetty, a leader of the Hindutva group Bajrang Dal, remarked after Kalburgi’s killing, “Mock Hinduism and die a dog’s death.”
“The savage murder of a free spirit who used her pen to promote peace is despicable, and her killers must be swiftly tracked down and dealt justice,” commented Bhajan Singh of Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI). “Kalburgi’s murder remains unsolved after two years. These attacks are growing at a shocking rate, and as we remember the September 1995 murder of human rights defender, Jaswant Singh Khalra, we are reminded that ‘my way or the bullet’ has become a pattern in India.”
As a journalist, Lankesh knew her outspoken nature earned her a share of enemies. “As a citizen of India, I oppose the BJP’s fascist and communal politics,” she explained in a 2016 interview with Narada News. “I oppose its misinterpretation of ‘Hindu Dharma’ ideals. I oppose the caste system of the ‘Hindu Dharma,’ which is unfair, unjust and gender-biased.” Referring directly to BJP-led massacres of Muslims and other minorities, she declared, “I oppose Advani’s Ram Mandir Yatra and Narendra Modi’s genocide of 2002.” In a 2016 interview with interview with Newslaundry, she expressed how her journalism exposed her to “the rabid hate the Hindutva brigade and Modi Bhakts have for its critics and naysayers.”
Born in 1962, Lankesh worked as a professional journalist since 1984. Her father, P. Lankesh, founded the weekly newspaper, Lankesh Patrike, in 1980. After his death in 2000, she took over as editor of the paper. Subsequently, she founded her own weekly, Gauri Lankesh Patrike. She had previously worked for Times of India, Sunday magazine, India Today, and Eenaadu TV.
Gauri is survived by her brother, Indrajit, and sister, Kavitha. Indrajit, who is the current publisher of Lankesh Patrike, severed ties with his sister in 2005 after conflicting with her journalistic approach to coverage of southern India’s communist insurgency. While he accused her of holding a “pro-Naxal stand,” she insisted, “Though I’m a part of Citizens’ Initiative for Peace, I am not promoting Naxalism.” For years, she worked as a mediator between the communist Naxalite movement and the State to encourage a cessation of hostilities.
A handful of news reports suggested that Naxalites may be involved in Lankesh’s assassination, but her family quickly rubbished the idea. Speaking at a September 7 press conference the day after Gauri’s funeral, Kavitha speculated about the reason for the assassination, stating, “I would like to say right-wing activism because her own ideology was dead against them.… They wanted to kill a thought, kill a movement. I don’t want to pinpoint right now. But from her writing, whoever is against her ideology has killed her.” Indrajit admitted, “It might be the right-wing extremists.”
“My criticism of Hindutva 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,’” said Lankesh in her Newslaundry interview. “In Karnataka today, we are living in such times that Modi Bhakts [believers] and the Hindutva brigade welcome the killings (as in the case of Dr M.M. Kalburgi)… of those who oppose their ideology, their political party and their supreme leader Narendra Modi…. Let me assure you, they are keen to somehow shut me up too.”
“Death threats have become a common factor in Karnataka,” she lamented in March. Before her own murder, some of her colleagues also suffered violence. For example, she mentioned the experience of writer Yogesh Master.
On March 12, Master was leaving an event organized by Lankesh when he was attacked by approximately 10 men. “I was drinking tea at a nearby stall when a group of people, who were buying some books, suddenly attacked me with black oil,” said Master. “The gang raised pro-Hindu and right-wing slogans, and threatened to kill me for writing against Hindu Gods. They used foul language and pulled my hair. It was a physical attack that left a deep mental impact.”
For years, Lankesh vigorously criticized politicized Hinduism. Speaking in Mengaluru in 2012 at a protest against violence by Hindutva group Hindu Jagarana Vedike, she called for a ban on “Hindu communal outfits.” Describing Hinduism as “a system of hierarchy in society,” she explained, “Women are treated as second class creatures.” According to news reports, she also “pointed out that RSS was behind all the unrest, like riots in Gujarat, bomb blast in Samjhauta Express, and rape of nuns in Odisha.” In her March speech, she labeled RSS members as “criminals” and condemned recent lynchings of Dalits in the name of cow protection.
The Lankesh family has, however, served as equal opportunity critics of both major political parties in India. According to Gauri, her father was among the “trenchant critics of Jawaharlal Nehru, of Indira Gandhi, of Rajiv Gandhi.” She was not reluctant to criticize Karnataka’s current Indian National Congress (INC) government, noting, “Karnataka police in a Congress government have put sedition cases against [All India Students Federation] AISF students.” Speaking bluntly, she said, “The Congress government in Karnataka is so stupid.”
In a September 6 statement, Amnesty International India said Lankesh’s killing “raises alarms about the state of freedom of expression in the country.” According to Amnesty official Asmita Basu, “Gauri Lankesh was never afraid of speaking truth to power.” Basu continued, “Critical journalists and activists have increasingly faced threats and attacks across India in recent years…. Investigations into these killings have been ineffective for too long.”
Amnesty further explained how the Committee to Protect Journalists reports “there have been no convictions in any of the 27 cases of journalists murdered for their work in India since 1992.”
Another international organization, Freedom House, rates the status of Indian press freedom as only “partly free.” As Freedom House reported, “Journalists reported heavy-handed government censorship during 2016…. Across the country, violence against journalists is encouraged by a prevailing climate of impunity.” Furthermore, they explained, “A number of laws… remain on the books can be used to restrict media freedom.” The laws they identify are carryovers from the British colonial period, especially the sedition law (IPC Section 124A).
In recent years, sedition charges were filed against author Arundhati Roy, People’s Union for Civil Liberties Vice-President Binayak Sen, and political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi. Last year, a number of people were arrested in Kerala for failing to stand at a cinema while the national anthem played before their film. Subsequently, Malayalam writer Kamal Chavara was arrested for a Facebook post about the anthem. Speaking in January 2017, he said, “To this day, intelligence officials frequent my house, harass my family. I continue to get calls at home and on my personal number threatening to kill me.”
“If India wants to be an independent nation, then it should soberly question why it has held on to these anti-liberty laws enacted under the colonial domination of a foreign power,” remarked Pieter Friedrich, an analyst of South Asian Affairs. “The British Raj passed these laws specifically to squash dissent and silence independence movements. Gandhi himself was charged under Section124A. So why has independent India preserved imperial acts designed to empower colonial rule?”
Facing the risk of being charged with sedition, Indian journalists are reportedly gagging themselves. In its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) ranked India as the 136th freest out of 180 countries. Warning about the growing “threat from Modi’s nationalism,” RWB stated, “With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media.”
Meanwhile, Lankesh alleged that the Karnataka government has repeatedly “tried to throttle the freedom of the press.” In a June 2017 article, she reported how two Kannadan journalists were both sentenced to one year in jail for breaching the “parliamentary privilege” of legislators. “Parliamentary privilege” is granted by Articles 105 and 194 of the Indian Constitution. The articles are modeled after similar ones in Britain. As explained by The Indian Express, this privilege is frequently used to charge journalists “over material deemed libel or offence against the dignity of legislators.”
“The issue here is the colonial legacy called ‘parliamentary privileges’ of elected representatives,” wrote Lankesh. “This archaic law which allows law makers to become judges and sentence journalists to imprisonment should not even exist in a democracy.” The laws, she explained, are used to muzzle critics. “The [House of Privileges’ Committee] seems to be of the firm opinion that referring to legislators in the singular, criticising their actions outside the House, exposing their abuse of power is beyond the purview of journalists merely because they are ‘elected representatives’ and hence more equal than others…. Legislators have no business to sit in judgements on journalists. It is high time they are stripped of their special privileges.”
“Press freedom, especially the right to publicly criticize the establishment, is the backbone of a democratic society,” stated Friedrich. “As India continues to proudly declare itself the world’s largest democracy, should not its citizens consequently expect it to also proudly host the most outspoken and least restricted press in the world? Gauri Lankesh was a shining example of the best journalism India has to offer, and we hope many more arise to follow in her footsteps.”
Lankesh, according to her friends, refused to be intimidated. “Her tabloid was vocal on secularism, the rights of Dalits, the downtrodden, and women,” wrote filmmaker K.M. Chaitanya, who knew her since childhood. The week before her death, he says, she told him, “I will do what I can and I will say what I should. These intolerant voices find strength in our silence. Let them learn to argue using words instead of threats.”
Those who knew Lankesh best describe her as full of love. “Wherever there was communal violence against Muslims, against Dalits, or hatred being spread, she would go there,” said her attorney, Venkatesh. “She was a very warm human being,” said her sister, Kavitha. “When somebody wrote a hate mail, she would say, ‘it is okay, my son, you are entitled to your opinion.’ She would say such sweet things…. Her life was upliftment of society.”
Perhaps the most touching tribute to Lankesh was penned by her ex-husband, Chidanand Rajghatta. As Rajghatta wrote, “She lived a beautiful life of purpose and fought the good fight…. She threw herself into the fight against right-wing bigots, zealots, and extremists.” Rajghatta stated, “There was no place in her world for violence.” While he praised her work, he suggested her true legacy is “the love and warmth she brought with her.” As he concluded, “Forget all other labels: leftist, radical, anti-Hindutva, secular, etc. For me, there is just this: She is the epitome of Amazing Grace.”