Journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh’s brutal murder in Bengaluru on September 5 has led to worldwide outrage and speculation. Can this also turn into an opportunity for a sincere public discourse on what grief can politically offer in these troubling times?
Ongoing media debates and social media outpourings effectively represent the polarized society of vicious binaries that we have become. The current political dispensation is not the cause but rather the effect of this polarization that has now seeped into every aspect of social and political life. Families and communities are divided, friends have parted ways, and gone are those times when even the worst detractors were treated with courtesy and respect. People across ideological differences came together to condole and mourn the deaths around them.
The brazen and planned murder of any professional journalist and above all, a woman in the public sphere in any part of India should be a matter of national shame and introspection. Instead, we are caught in a mindless exchange of insults, insinuations and whataboutery that seems to have also divided the community of journalists and activists. What should have been a sombre moment of reflection has turned into an unprecedented opportunity for political gimmickry. Gauri Lankesh’s death is now a whodunit with mud-slinging by all sides.
Gauri Lankesh is sadly not the first outspoken anti-establishment journalist, to be gunned down so brutally. Several others who have dared to speak truth to power in their contexts have had their lives cut short by the political or corporate mafia, or by acts of personal vendetta. No lessons have been learnt.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) conducts surveys every year which demonstrate that journalism, as a profession, is greatly affected by violence and that both physical intimidation and online trolling are common ways to harass journalists. The report from this year confirms that women journalists are particularly threatened in both public and private spaces. Hyper masculine and hyper-nationalist ire is reserved for women who dare to challenge orthodoxies.
This year the IFJ and the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) marked the World Press Freedom Day on May 3 by releasing a report on the Press Freedom in South Asia. Sri Lanka has the deepest chasm and embittered relationship between media practitioners and political authorities, but no country in the region fares better. Pakistan has been on the list of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists while Bangladesh has been in news for the violent hackings of writers and bloggers in full public glare. Only 1 in 10 killings are investigated, and the failure to end the impunity for these murders and attacks fuels a vicious cycle of violence.
It can only be a despicable act of insensitivity to politicize these murders and argue about which lives deserve more mourning than others. As philosopher Judith Butler cautions, ‘the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and which kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human: what counts as a livable life and a grievable death?’
Butler poignantly reminds further, ‘we can be injured, that others can be injured, that we are subject to death at the whim of another, are all reasons for both fear and grief…. If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief.’
The vulnerability and sense of loss that we feel at the death of someone like Gauri Lankesh, must not simply indulge our personal political preferences and ideologies. If anything, the murder of any journalist, media person, academic or public intellectual should make us unequivocally intolerant towards this outrageous assault on freedom of thought and democratic values that seems to be defining our national character these days.
It should warn us about the reprehensible law and order situation, that too, in a metropolitan city with all resources at its disposal, where a woman can be killed so audaciously in her own home and in the presence of CCTV cameras. Sadly, it is the 4th day since the murder and apart from recriminations and insinuations, the investigations have hardly revealed much. Like the previous murders, will it be another dead end in sight?
Sri Lankan journalist, Lasantha Wickremtunge, co-founder of Sunday Leader, in which he relentlessly exposed atrocities and violence against the Tamils and the corruption by the Sri Lankan State, was killed in 2009 by unidentified gunmen as he drove to work. His murder case is yet to be resolved, like many others. In his last editorial, written before his death and published afterwards he announced to the world that the government should be held accountable for his death, should it occur.
He wrote, ‘I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland.’ We can all own that inspiration and hope today.
Gauri Lankesh’s death should not be reduced to a ‘moment’ of protest and righteous anger. Instead it should inspire us towards a deeper introspection about our collective empathy and ethical outrage. It should allow us to see the different murders around us, in our country and in our region; the killings of all those who stand for some common good at great personal risks. It should enable us to step out of our narcissistic social media existence to spot the fast crumbling real world before our eyes and extend solidarities to those who are trying to make sense of this madness.
Ideologies have grey areas but life and death can only be black and white.