Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake. Socrates was made to drink from the poisoned chalice. Sir Thomas More was beheaded. For their beliefs. In recent times, five murders have shaken the conscience of the people of India. The media is focusing on who was the killer in each case. The police in the states concerned are searching for the killer(s). Some arrests have been made but the cases are nowhere near being solved. Both the media and the police are right in focusing on the killers. I have a slightly different take.
I think it is important that the people should ask the question who was killed. We know the name, life and work of each of the five persons who was killed but the killings will make sense only if we put all the information into a frame.
Narendra Dabholkar (1945-2013)
Narendra Dabholkar was a medical doctor. A little known fact is that he was a member of the Indian kabbaddi team that played Bangladesh. What irked his detractors was he was Maharashtra’s most prominent rationalist and anti-superstition activist. Dabholkar had penned more than a dozen books, edited a weekly for 16 years, founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti and trained more than 10,000 teachers on how to fight superstition and inculcate a scientific temper in students. Many years ago, he had drafted the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Bill. The irony is an ordinance based on the draft was promulgated by the state government four days after Dabholkar was killed on August 20, 2013.
Govind Pansare (1933-2015)
Govind Pansare was a life-long communist. He was born in a poor family, held low-paid jobs like newspaper vendor and municipal peon, became a lawyer practising labour law, and was a well-known writer who authored the Marathi language book Who was Shivaji?. He was the state secretary of the CPI and promoted the Shramik Nagari Sahakari Patsanstha (a cooperative bank). He ran a centre for couples who had entered into inter-caste or inter-faith marriages and that earned him bitter criticism.
M M Kalburgi (1938-2015)
M M Kalburgi was a renowned professor, a former vice-chancellor of Kannada University at Hampi, a prolific writer and winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2006. He wrote and spoke against superstition and idol worship in Hinduism and incurred the wrath of right-wing groups. A case was filed against him and U R Ananthamurthy in 2015 for ‘offending religious sentiments’ in a book that was published 18 years ago!
Gauri Lankesh (1962-2017)
Gauri Lankesh was a self-confessed Leftist and a fierce activist in support of Left causes, including pro-Naxalite causes. She helped in rehabilitating Naxalite cadres who desired to return to the mainstream. Gauri edited and published a tabloid that was anti-establishment, pro-poor and pro-Dalit, and was highly critical of right-wing and Hindutva policies. In the months prior to her murder, she campaigned against fake news. She refused to be cowed down by threats and remained fearless until her last day.
Shantanu Bhowmick (1989-2017)
Shantanu Bowmick was a young reporter for a TV channel telecast from Agartala, Tripura, earning about Rs 6,000 per month. He is remembered as a courageous journalist who would always be the first to rush to the scene of an incident, determined to be the first to get a scoop and record live-from-ground-zero reports. Shantanu also ran a small nursery school called ‘Manobik’ (Bengali word, meaning humane) from his home. His last assignment was covering an agitation by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura.
None of the above was a rich person (‘rich’ in the sense that is usually associated with exploiting the poor). None wielded political power or even sought political power. None held an important office at the time of the murder. None believed in violence. Three were old men, one was middle-aged and one was young.
Each one of the five was an educated person and apparently comfortable in the world of ideas and debate. Ideas should ordinarily threaten no one, but apparently they do. There are people who fear ideas and a rational debate over their ideas and rival ideas. I wonder who could resent, to the point of causing death, ideas such as anti-superstition, anti-idolatry and scientific temper? Who could be enraged by the few inter-caste and inter-faith marriages that take place in society? Who could be provoked by an avowed Leftist when there are thousands of declared communists? Who could be inimical to a young, intrepid journalist who was covering an agitation by a tribal group?
It is not difficult to construct a picture of the person or persons who probably committed these despicable murders. Almost certainly, they belong to right-wing groups. They are deeply conservative to the point of being reactionary. They resent ideas that challenge their own ideas. They question free speech and India’s diversity. They are intolerant. They spread hate. They are emboldened when they are among like-minded people and take to violence — even murder — when they are in a group.
With that profile of the killer(s), ‘who was killed’ should have led the investigative agencies, by now, to ‘who were the killers’. Names of some key suspects are common in four cases and some have been declared absconders. Meanwhile, hate and fear spread and we hang our heads in grief and shame.