In December 2016, journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh fished out an old speech, one she had made in 2012 after the Bajrang Dal attacked a group of girls and boys celebrating a birthday at a rented home in coastal Mangalore. Posting her speech – from a time when social media was not the beast it is today – she said this on Twitter: “I am facing a case because of this speech. I stand by every word I said.”
If she had not been killed on September 5 by an unidentified gunman when she returned home from the office of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, the weekly tabloid she edited, Gauri would have appeared in court on September 15 to provide a written statement about her speech. Deepak Ravindra, a right-wing activist, had filed a police case against her for allegedly outraging the sentiments of Hindus.
In the speech — one of the most polemic one made by the journalist-activist — Gauri questioned the basis of Hinduism by calling it merely an arrangement of social structure and saying, “They (the Sangh Parivar) claim to be protecting this dharma but we do not want this dharma; the Constitution is our dharma.” Since her death last week, the 2012 speech that Gauri made at an event organised by the Komu Souharda Vedike (Forum for Communal Harmony), which she co-founded in 2002 to counter the rise of right-wing fundamentalism in Karnataka, has been doing the rounds of social media, with many suggesting that what cost Gauri her life were speeches such as these.
To unravel Gauri as a journalist and how her activism encroached on her journalism, one would have to look at the shadow the towering figure of her father P Lankesh cast on her. When Lankesh died in 2000, Gauri was an English journalist working outside Bengaluru, having done stints in India Today in Delhi and the Sunday magazine. The death of Lankesh brought her face to face with the question of whether she wanted to continue running the Patrike, which had become a cultural phenomenon in 18 years on the back of his intellectual prowess.
Gauri initially wanted to shut down the paper but some convincing by friends, who told her it would be unique to have a woman editing a tabloid, saw her take the decision to continue publishing the Patrike, which her father founded in 1982. “Until then, she had been a professional journalist working for money and career. When she returned, she realised her father’s brand of journalism was different. He was not doing it as a profession; he was trying to change Karnataka and its politics and culture through his paper. And so she decided to attempt to step into his shoes, though she maintained his shoes were too big for anyone to fill,” says filmmaker K M Chaitanya, who has known Gauri since he was a child.
When Gauri entered Kannada journalism, she did not have any great credentials as an English journalist and was at sea with Kannada. “Her heart would be in the right place but she would write a bad copy,” says senior journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju, who is a “big admirer” of Gauri’s father. “For me, Lankesh was a French modernist. He was a larger than life figure for at least two generations of people. He had a popularity that was more than that of five chief ministers of Karnataka put together,” he says.
It was probably while trying to live up to those expectations that she decided to remould herself, says Srinivasaraju. “Once she decided to keep the Patrike running, she knew she had big boots to fill. So she thought being an activist would help. The BJP was rising at the time. She decided to become aggressive and her idea of being aggressive was to become an activist”.
Besides, these were times very different from her father’s. “She tried to retain the fierceness and frankness of her father’s paper. When Lankesh was writing, the USSR was still intact and it was fashionable to be a Leftist. Not so in Gauri’s time, when you are called a presstitute and sickular for holding liberal views. To be a left-leaning editor at such a time took a very gutsy woman,” says Chaitanya.
Friends remember her as someone people naturally turned to in times of trouble. National award-winning filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli recollects a time when his shooting was disrupted by right-wing elements. “She was the first person to call and offer help to counter the protests but the matter was settled,” says Kasaravalli.
Her sister Kavitha Lankesh says, “Many times, people would turn up at her house with some problem or the other. She would go to attend the smallest of issues, say, a couple who could not get married because they were from different religions. And that was how she got deeper into activism.”
As she espoused various causes — from women’s rights to Dalit causes to rehabilitation of Naxalites — and wrote about those in her columns, her catchment of support grew. So did the criticism – and in some cases, anger – that came to be directed at her.
“Her transformation into an activist was a change I could not get used to. It became difficult for me to collaborate creatively with her on anything, or write for her,” says actor Prakash Belawadi, who was a friend of Gauri’s from their teenage days. “In all of the tributes that followed her death, very few cited her writings. Why is that? Doesn’t that strike you as odd? She was a polemicist and took one side,” says Belawadi.
In recent editions of her paper, Lankesh had published strident articles about Prabhakar Bhat Kalladka, a hawkish RSS leader from the Mangalore region. She had also raised the demand for a separate religion status for the Lingayat community – a view she espoused while being Lingayat herself. Following Gauri’s death on September 5, BJP MLA D N Jeevaraj said in a speech in Chikamagaluru district that she would have been still alive if she had not published an article against the RSS titled ‘Chaddigala Maranahoma (Last rites of the RSS)’. He later claimed he had been wrongly interpreted.
According to activist Nagari Babaiah, 76, with whom Gauri formed the Forum for Communal Harmony, “The Sangh Parivar was afraid of her because she shared a rapport with the people, which became evident in pro-Dalit events like Chalo Udupi and Chalo Tumkuru that she and other activists organised to protest cases of cow vigilantism.” Senior journalist Manini Chatterjee, who was a friend of Gauri’s during their days together in Delhi, says, “In many ways, the 1990s – the Babri Masjid demolition and the Mandal movement — were the time that politicised our generation, who are now in our 50s. It was perhaps so for Gauri too. The interesting thing was that she not only criticised Hindutva, but also Hinduism’s inequalities of caste. And that was very close to the bone.”
She also took great pride in the activities of JNU student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani, often expressing maternal concern over their well-being. “She was consumed by her causes,” says a friend.
But even those who believe she took her activism too far or that she lacked the ideological sophistication of her father to take on the right wing, are hard-pressed to find answers as to why Gauri had to be killed. After all, they say, her shrill and street-fighter kind of attitude to activism, which she carried into her journalism, was getting predictable.
“She made a lot of enemies. She was not sophisticated like her father P Lankesh, who could subtly criticise people. She ran into trouble in the courts for writing a series of stories on the seer Raghaveshwara Bharati, who was accused of sexually assaulting a devotee. People had, however, in recent times become familiar with her activism, journalism and anti-right wing stance so it is difficult to see why she was killed like this,” says a friend of Lankesh’s.
Soon after her death, among the theories that swirled around was one that said Naxals were behind the attack. While there is little to substantiate any of these theories, Gauri’s efforts towards bringing Naxals into the mainstream is well known. She was a key figure in the Citizen’s Initiative for Peace, a forum that believed that armed struggle by Maoists must end and that the government must intervene on their behalf.
Noor Sridhar alias Noor Zulfiqar is among nine former Naxals who were brought into the mainstream since 2013 by Citizen’s Initiative. “I owe my new political life to Gauri Lankesh,” says Sridhar, who parted ways with the CPI (Maoists) in 2013 on ideological grounds. “When we decided to come out, we could not do it during the BJP rule and we did it under the Congress rule. The Sangh is opposed to the policy of bringing people back into the mainstream and that is why a subtle campaign has begun to suggest that Gauri may have been killed by Naxals,” he says.
He says the Maoists have never criticized Gauri for bringing people into the mainstream. “In the Naxal movement, no action is taken without debate and issuance of a statement. There has been no debate or statements about Gauri,” says Sridhar, whom Gauri employed at the Patrike office after he came overground.
Gauri’s rapport with Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is widely believed to have resulted in the success of the policy to bring former left-wing extremists into the mainstream. So among those who turned up at her funeral on September 6 were, besides Sridhar, Sirimane Nagaraj, Nandakumar, Devendra and Hemakka – former Naxalites she had helped bring into the mainstream. For many of them, their early jobs on their return from the forests were at Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a newspaper that has been in deep debt since Lankesh died in 2000.
“Though the paper has a debt of over Rs 15 lakh, Gauri had high ideals. She was not willing to seek financial help from any politician because she said that if she started the practice, it would be difficult to stay independent. She never took a paisa from anyone despite the crisis,” says Sridhar, adding that her plan was to keep the tabloid going somehow till the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, after which she could change it into an online format or try something else.
For a special Diwali issue of the Patrike, Gauri had reluctantly decided to seek advertisements in the hope of financing the paper and paying her staff.
“She was in a very precarious position, financially. She said she had been running the paper in recent months with the life insurance payout she had received. We suggested many things like crowd funding and advertisements. In the end, after a lot of convincing, she agreed to seek advertisements for the Diwali issue,” says a former journalist who often advised Gauri.
She had even written a proposal seeking advertisements from the government for the special issue. “Maybe she was destined to never see the day the paper would get paid advertisements,” he says. The day she died, Gauri cooked the afternoon meal — some sambar and rice — at her office for her staff. “It was her way of helping the staff reduce the cost burden in their lives even as she struggled to keep the paper going,” says Sridhar.
Despite all the fierceness she portrayed in her activism-journalism, her friends and family remember her as someone with a soft heart. The family had a huge falling out when Gauri’s younger brother, Indrajith, split the family paper and started his own publication. Those close to her say she was antagonised to no end by her brother’s actions, including the sale of a family farm where their father was buried. “Despite being upset with Indrajith, it was Gauri who mobilised funds to get him released on bail when he got into legal trouble over a financial dispute with a film producer,” says a close friend of Gauri’s. One of the reasons Gauri was able to reconcile with her younger brother was her love for her nephews and nieces, say close friends. “To my daughter, she was not an aunt but a second mother. She loved children because she said she could also get away from them when she wanted to,” laughs Gauri’s sister Kavitha. “When we were children, we used to fight a lot. And when we grew up too, we fought when we had differences of opinion. But over the years, we came to have a beautiful relationship. She was there for me, and I was there for her,” she says.
Journalist Chidanand Rajghatta, who first met Gauri as a teenager and whom he later married before their divorce in 1990, says in an email, “She was avva (mother) to her sister’s daughter. And a fairy godmom to our (Mary and my) children Diya and Dhyan. More recently, she also mentored and took under her wing a lot of young writers and activists. Capacious heart. Boundless affection.” Her friends also talk about her wide variety of interests – “she had become hooked to The House of Cards and would keep her schedule free to watch that,” says Chandan Gowda, the academic and critic who was Gauri’s neighbour for a few years; journalist Manini Chatterjee remembers her as a “walking-talking Wodehouse encyclopaedia”.
And then, there are friends who have borne the brunt of her strident positions, but gone on to realise that there was more to her than her ideology. “In 2014, when I declared my support for Narendra Modi, she called me and screamed at me. ‘It is the wretched Brahmin in you that has risen,’ she said. I was so offended that I childishly unfriended her on Facebook. Eventually, I unblocked her but we stayed away from each other’s timelines. Six months later, we met again at a friend’s place and it was the old gang meeting up. Everything seemed the same. It was, as if, ideologies did not matter,” says actor Belawadi.
“She would be very belligerent and open her argument in a very aggressive way. But then, she would suddenly shift gears and become very emotional. Any conversation with Gauri would involve a range of emotions. The moment she would call I would say, ‘let us fight first and then talk about other things’. That is the kind of Gauri that I knew,” says the journalist Srinivasaraju.
But even her closest friends and family worry that she may have pushed the limits – in hindsight, somewhat dangerously. “I always tried telling her you cannot be a liberal reactionary. It is an oxymoron. She would shout at everything. I would tell her, shouting and not building an alternative narrative is walking into a trap,” says Srinivasaraju. In turn, Gauri would say there were already others taking nuanced positions and that she had to take the strident ones. “I said you can do it, but use a language that will not rile people. Talk a different language,” says Sugata. Gauri’s sister Kavitha says, “We tried to hold her back. Don’t go overboard, we told her. But we had seen our father, who was such a firebrand, who could make/break governments by what he wrote. He never faced any violence. He had his critics but no one could think of coming up to him and shooting him down. This is how intolerant we have become.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines