Gauri Lankesh’s brutal killing outside her home raises an uncomfortable question: why are people emboldened to kill in Karnataka?
The random and coldblooded nature of Gauri Lankesh’s murder, just two years after Prof. M.M. Kalburgi’s killing, is proof that anybody in Karnataka could be a potential target. Today Karnataka needs to introspect on how it has become a place where groups or individuals subscribing to violence feel emboldened to kill an activist-journalist.
For many years now, Kannada writers and intellectuals have felt the need to be watchful about what they said or wrote depending on where they lived. This self-censorship was to avoid being attacked at home or their workplaces.
A resident of Bengaluru or Mysuru felt relatively safe to speak freely compared to one from Shivamogga or Mangaluru, which in recent decades have become oppressively and suffocatingly intolerant cities. The sense of relative safety in a city depended on whether the city continued to nurture progressive social movements, and not on the efficiency of the police. This slow, insidious change in Karnataka’s civil society is what needs to be reversed.
Remember that Kalburgi’s murder remains unsolved. After two years of investigation by the CID, we know as much now as we did on the day of this heinous act. On the morning of 30 August 2015, two motorcycle-borne young men came to Kalburgi’s house, asked for him, shot him at point-blank range when he arrived and rode away.
The way the murder was carried out and the weapons used link his murderers to the killings of Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. Even though Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has said that the probe is in its final stages and the CID team is closing in on the killers, media reports quote police sources saying that the investigation has hit a dead end.
Since Tuesday night, the police and media have been openly commenting on the similarities between these murders and Gauri’s killing. It wouldn’t be surprising to read, maybe a year from now, about how police investigations into this killing has also reached a dead end.
But here is what has left the Kannadiga stunned and bewildered: despite the repeated death threats and relentless trolling on social media that Gauri experienced, this senseless act of violence is unexpected and terrifying.
Fifty-five-year-old Gauri had been a journalist for more than three decades. She began her career in Sunday Mid-Day, then worked for the Times of India and Sunday (the now defunct magazine run by the ABP group) and Eenadu Television. She then became the editor of Lankesh Patrike, a weekly tabloid, in 2000. More recently, she was writing a column for the Bangalore Mirror, which is said to have been stopped due to her strident political views.
The Patrike had been established in 1980 by her father and eminent Kannada writer, P. Lankesh (1935-2000). For two decades, it embodied progressive activism in Karnataka, fearlessly taking on the bureaucratic and political class.
Lankesh also invented a new language and style of journalism, which lampooned and mercilessly attacked everyone. Despite his aggressive writing, Lankesh was widely respected, even by those whom he criticised and he never felt threatened.
As the editor of Lankesh Patrike, Gauri combined activism with journalism, thus continuing her father’s legacy. In her journalism, she was aggressive, provocative and fearless.
As an activist, Gauri was specifically involved in two initiatives: Naxal struggles in the Western Ghats of Karnataka and opposing communal forces. Gauri’s reporting on the Naxals even led to differences with her brother, Indrajit Lankesh, who was the publisher of Lankesh Patrike.
In 2005, Gauri launched a new tabloid bearing her own name, Gauri Lankesh Patrike. Over the past three years, she was instrumental in bringing many Naxalites back into the mainstream, by negotiating on their behalf with the Siddaramaiah government.
Gauri also headed the Komu Sauharda Vedike (Communal Harmony Platform), which emerged as the most prominent voice of opposition against Sangh Parivar’s efforts to appropriate and Hindu-ise the Sufi Shrine at Bababudangiri in Chikkamagaluru district.
The activities of the Vedike, especially in Shivamogga, Chikkamagaluru, Mangaluru and Udupi districts, all strongholds of the Hindu Right-wing, made Gauri the enemy of many. Prahlad Joshi, the BJP MP from Dharwad, had filed a defamation suit against her and she was convicted in 2016. Gauri’s appeal was pending but the BJP IT Cell chief quickly sent out the news as a warning to the media.
In one of her last pieces, Gauri waded into the Lingayat-Virashaiva controversy. In a long essay, she argued that Virashaivas and Lingayats are not the same and further, that Lingayats are not Hindus. While this was consistent with her politics, her views hadn’t gained wide currency in the Kannada media.
But neither Gauri’s activism nor journalism warrants, justifies or even explains this fatal attack.
Karnataka wakes up on Wednesday morning, wondering what Gauri Lankesh’s legacy will be. Her family, friends and colleagues will surely remember her impish smile, shining eyes and that fearless spirit, all housed in a tiny frame. The body is gone. It remains to be seen whether in her death, Gauri Lankesh rekindles the debate on intolerance again, just as Kalburgi’s killing did.
Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi is a Mysore-based social historian and political commentator.