We live in treacherous times. The insidious stench of fear and violence threatens to permeate the very core of our being. We are browbeaten into silence, our citizenship redefined and constitutional rights blurred. Never has India faced such a threat to her democracy.
And yet, some continue to speak out. Gauri Lankesh, journalist and activist, was one who voiced her opinions boldly and vociferously, no holds barred. Gunned down on the doorstep as she returned home from work on the evening of September 5, she is the latest free voice to be silenced. In 2015, rationalist M.M. Kalburgi and CPI leader Govind Pansare were shot dead in similar fashion. And in 2013, anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar. All these cowardly killings were in non-BJP ruled states.
Lankesh opposed the communal totalitarian politics of the BJP and its twisted interpretation of Hinduism. She stood against the caste system, inequality, and gender discrimination. She was feisty, blunt and forthright and diplomacy was not on her agenda. She was sharp and critical of injustice and made as many friends as she made enemies.
Her father, P. Lankesh, poet, playwright and journalist, was known to be left leaning and had close ties with socialist thinkers U.R. Ananthamurthy, Gopal Gowda and S. Venkatram. His play Kranthi Banthu Kranthi (The Revolution is Coming), that forecast the state of Emergency and made strong arguments against the use of violence as a political tool, was made into a film by my parents, Pattabhirama Reddy and Snehalata Reddy (my mother died as a result of her incarceration in the regime of Mrs Gandhi). It is ironic that his daughter, a crusader for democracy, should die by the gun. After her father’s death in 2000, Gauri became the editor of Lankesh Patrike, a popular Kannada tabloid founded by her father, while her brother Indrajit became the paper’s proprietor, managing editor and publisher. However, in 2005, the siblings had a falling out due to ideological differences. Indrajit accused Gauri of leftist leanings and Gauri started her own publication, Gauri Lankesh Patrike.
Among her many crusades, Gauri called for a meaningful dialogue between the government and Naxalites, facilitating the surrender of Maoists who wanted to give up their weapons and join the mainstream. She endorsed the demand for a separate religious tag for the Lingayat community, the followers of Basavanna, who rejected the caste system and scorned temple and idol worship, fought against discrimination on the basis of gender and birth and abhorred superstitions. They used Kannada instead and essentially discarded everything discriminatory about the Hindu religion and rebelled against it. Her support earned her the wrath of the Veerashaivas.
In 2008, she alleged that BJP MPs, Prahlad Joshi and Umesh Dhusi, were involved in criminal dealings based on what she said was “inside” information. Though several other media had published the same allegations, in November 2016 she was convicted in a defamation case, and sentenced to six months in jail and a fine.
Karnataka has been subjected to turbulent politics for the past two decades. Be it the BJP or the Congress, the focus has been on the politics of language, religion and caste. For the BJP this is a political tool for destabilisation and creating fear and uncertainty. The Congress, not seeing the writing on the wall, plays the same game, but badly.
Kalburgi was murdered two years ago and the culprits have not been found. Bengaluru is increasingly becoming a very unsafe place for women. The youth of Udupi and Mangalore are subject to the RSS’s moral policing. And the Congress is more concerned about building steel flyovers and financing the next election, leaving citizens a choice between the frying pan and the fire.
A vocal critic of both the ruling Congress, and right-wing forces including the BJP, Gauri condemned both. Giving numerous examples of attacks against Muslims and Dalits, she said she was worried for the future of the state. “We have no dearth of Yogi Adityanaths in Karnataka,” she said.
Soon after Gauri was gunned down, protests erupted outside her residence in Bengaluru and accusations were hurled against the state government for failing to protect Kalburgi and Gauri. Her brother demanded a CBI probe and the home minister, Ramalinga Reddy, was heckled, shifting the focus from the communal and right-wing agenda of the BJP to the ham-fisted incompetent governance of the Congress. Almost immediately, right-wing social media was rife with venomous tweets.
Gauri is not the first to be silenced. She will not be the last if we do not take a firm stand to defend our Constitution and democratic rights. No political party today seems to have this on their agenda and some like the BJP, backed by the RSS, are manipulating our narrative by changing the vocabulary.
May Gauri’s death not be in vain.