Who's afraid of Gauri Lankesh?

Garga Chatterjee on the legacy of an indomitable champion of progress, secularism and justice - whose life was brought to a violent end

Who's afraid of Gauri Lankesh?
The forces of Hindu nationalism in the Indian Union have claimed their latest victim. Gauri Lankesh, the famous Kannadiga journalist and freethinker, was killed in cold blood by assassins in front of her house. She had been on the case of Hindutva forces and had been receiving death threats from these quarters. She joins the illustrious and sad list of free-thinking martyrs like Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and M. M. Kalburgi who have fallen to these forces.  She was an indefatigable fighter against communal politics, especially those of the Hindi-Hindu majoritarian variety, who stand for Hindi imposition and anti-people superstition. What this shows is that somebody who was as famous and connected as her has no security whatsoever. This was a so-called ‘high tech’ metropolis of Bengaluru. This was a CCTV-guarded home. She was known to the Chief Minister of the state of Karnataka (whose capital is Bengaluru). The administration and the police are run by non-BJP forces. So the circumstances of her murder are proof that vigilantes can hit at will: whenever they want, wherever they want, whoever they want. This ought to be a moment of danger and foreboding for all, especially the more urbane and elite free-thinking citizens of the Indian Union.

Media sources have reported on the violent sentiments being expressed online by some

In a warmly worded remembrance, Gauri Lankesh’s former husband Chidanand Rajghatta described her in these words – “Right now, between writing this, I am scrambling to get on a plane again, my mind a cauldron of fragmented memories. One phrase keeps repeating and resonating in my mind: Amazing Grace. Forget all other labels: leftist, radical, anti-Hindutva, secular etc. For me, there is just this: My friend, my first love, she was the epitome of Amazing Grace.”

It is this kind person, her courageous journalism and her activism against the dark forces of Hindu-supremacism that her assassins wanted to silence. One might think that such assassinations only increase protest or increase the number of dissenters but that is not always the case, unfortunately. For instance, it was not true when the slogan was raised after Bhutto’s hanging that “Har Ghar Se Bhutto Niklega” (Bhutto will emerge from every house). They recoiled. They did not come out then. That takes time. That takes political organisation. That takes scheming and planning. That takes tactics and most importantly that takes an assessment of the power of the enemy. In the Indian Union except in some non-Hindi states where Hindutva forces are being opposed at a mass scale, in the Hindi-Hindu heartland itself there is hardly any such organised initiative – except perhaps in Bihar to some extent.

Hindu nationalists have been linked to instances of appalling violence against dissidents

She was not able to read Kannada very well even in college - but was the editor of a Kannada newspaper at the time of death. That transformation is important and is a testament to her commitment to changing herself for the cause of the people

She knew exactly what forces she was up against. She wrote against them. She fought against them. She gathered people against them. Unlike many Anglo-educated activists who are usually alienated from their own native culture, Gauri Lankesh knew the pitfalls of such alienation and knew how this was ultimately self-defeating for any principled person who loved her people. She was not able to read Kannada very well even in college – but was the editor of a Kannada newspaper at the time of death. That transformation is important and is a testament to her commitment to changing herself for the cause of the people: whilst many others want to change people to make them fall in line with their own private fantasy!

She was also a staunch opponent of Hindi imposition and she said this in her inimitable style when she pointed out that Hindi is only 300 years old, English has less than 400 years of history in her land while Kannada is far older, so anyone imposing Hindi is flying in the face of history in a most brutal way. In her inimitable style, she showed that she was from Karnataka, which is at this point one of the epicentres of the anti-Hindi-imposition movement in the Indian Union. Considering how she was a person of the people, that exciting turn in the possibilities for such politics must have also excited her. So, when one sees that in Kolkata – the capital of the Bengali people – radical-left  students took out a procession to commemorate her and chanted slogans and sang songs in Hindi, one imagines that she might not have been enthralled. I would argue that it flies in the face of all that she stood for. It was unthinkable 10 years ago and that is precisely what is so dangerous. When the Indian Union was formed in 1947 and Hindi was made its official language, a seed was planted. That seed got nourishment through the years and in 1992 during the Babri Masjid demolition episode, it got a huge boost. It is that process which culminated in the extension of the Hindi/Hindu sphere – and unfortunately that also affects people who would like to believe that they are among its opponents. When power also defines and determines the form and contour of dissent and corrupts it to the core so that dissent becomes an extension of the power structure, that is when one can know that the structure has to be dispensed with – lock, stock and barrel.

Her killing has drawn inevitable comparisons to previous cases where critics of Hindutva were silenced

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration has been accused of taking a sympathetic view of Hindutva extremism

She knew exactly what forces she was up against. She wrote against them. She fought against them. She gathered people against them

One fears that pursuing justice for Gauri Lankesh will be a difficult road, if at all possible. Note that in the cases of the other free-thinking martyrs mentioned earlier in this article, the killers have not been prosecuted in a single case. This is a huge boost to the ideology of the assassins. When investigation does not lead to the prosecution of the actual assassins, it will add to the long line of free-thinkers who will fall silent after such attacks on their friends and ideological fellow travellers.  This almost always leads to widespread self-censorship on their part.  Voices of love and understanding get weaker. Sometimes they even fall silent and people shut up in fear, then that is the most dangerous thing as Punjabi poet Avtar Singh Pash had written a long time ago.

“Jey desh di surakhya eho hondee hai

key be-zameeree zindagi lei shart ban javey

akh di putli vich han ton bina koi bhi shabd ashleel howe

tey man badkaar ghadiyan de samne

dandaut’t jhukiya rahe *

Tey saanu desh di surakhya ton khatra hai.”


(If a life without conscience is a pre-condition of the country’s security,

if anything other than saying ‘yes’ in agreement is obscene,

and the mind submits before the greedy times,

then the security of our country is a danger to all).

Garga Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a member of faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He blogs at hajarduari.wordpress.com

Gauri Lankesh (29 January 1962 - 5 September 2017): a life of courage and dissent

- Daughter of poet-journalist P. Lankesh, who established the Kannada-language weekly Lankesh Patrike

- Started her journalistic career with The Times of India

- Developed differences with her brother over the direction taken by Lankesh Patrike after their father passed away

- Became known for her vocal support for left-wing causes in India – her coverage of the Maoist Naxalbari movement was considered sympathetic by many, especially her critics

- Remained a staunch advocate of secularism

- Stood at the forefront of public opposition to Hindutva politics, communal strife, the caste system and the injustices she saw in Indian society

- Faced various forms of backlash for her work – ranging from defamation suits to open death threats

- Criticism from nationalist segments of the media was particularly severe – she was often accused of being ‘anti-national’

- Even though there were no children with her ex-husband Chidanand Rajghatta, she was known to have stated that JNU’s left-wing student leaders (including Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid) were her ‘adopted children’, and they were known to be hosted at her home when they visited

- On the 5th of September 2017, three unidentified men shot her outside her house in Bangalore. The men fired at least seven bullets at her while she was unlocking the main door of her house, after having returned from work.