Gauri Lankesh murder: A wake-up call for journalists

Last Updated: Thu, Sep 07, 2017 13:16 hrs
A woman shouts slogans during a protest condemning the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh in Mumbai

Gauri Lankesh; journalist and activist was murdered on Tuesday night at her home in Bengaluru. She was the editor of the Kannada tabloid “Gauri Lankesh Patrike” at the time of her death. Ms. Lankesh was found by her neighbors after they heard gunshots which they first thought were firecrackers.

Karnataka Home Minister Ramalinga Reddy said there wasn’t a clear motive yet and that an investigation has begun. The police as a precaution erected checkposts on main roads along with an increased police presence with the city on high alert. The murder sparked marches and vigils across the country to honor Ms Lankesh and call attention to the importance of a free press and dissenting opinions.

The Editors Guild of India said they were “deeply shocked and strongly condemns the murder of Gauri Lankesh. In an op-ed for The Hindustan Times, KS Dakshina Murthy, an independent journalist based in Bengaluru writes personally about Gauri Lankesh as someone with the courage to speak her mind openly –

“Memories of the times spent with Gauri discussing stories over coffee, talking politics and general gossip about this and that flit through the mind in a mad jumble spread across 35 years.”

“That (moving to Bangalore in the 90’s) was the turning point for her...she metamorphosed into a political activist-journalist. Gauri emerged in a different form from what one had known of her earlier. Post the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, she made it to the newspapers as a strong votary against communalism.”

“There was no doubt she had made a considerable number of enemies. There were times when she became the target of verbal attacks from her political opponents. She was roughed up a few times. But she never seemed to give up.”

“One thing one can say with certainty — in recent years there has been no other journalist in Karnataka with the courage to speak her mind openly, publicly without mincing words.”

Ms Lankesh was outspoken in her views against and critique of right-wing Hindutva politics. As one of the few women in Kannada journalism, she was also known for pro-poor and pro-dalit stance. She took over her father’s tabloid, Lankesh Patrike. Later, Ms Lankesh began publishing her own Kannada tabloid titled “Gauri Lankesh Patrike”.

As an outspoken activist for the Naxals, she had in past worked for the rehabilitation of Naxals. She was one among those who helped the founding of the Citizens Initiative for Peace (CiP). Her publication never took money from corporations for advertisements and became a haven for very left-leaning views.

She wasn’t afraid to take on the conservative and Hindutva fundamentalism head on. She wasn’t afraid to take sides and made sure others knew of it (her twitter profile is a photo of her next to JNU student Kanhaiya Kumar). No stranger to controversy and fighting battles waged on the field of right versus left ideology; in 2016, she was convicted in a defamation case filed by BJP lawmaker Pralhad Joshi and party member Umesh Doshi over a report published in 2008.

CPI(M) member and former Rajya Sabha member Brinda Karat in a column for NDTV writes on how the right wing, the RSS and the like create an environment where dissent is unacceptable –

“The cowardly, brutal killing of Gauri Lankesh has led to waves of spontaneous protests in different corners of India. Gauri was a voice of honesty and courage, she challenged the status quo in multiple ways as a single woman, as the editor of a weekly, as an anti-establishment voice, as the proud promoter and practitioner of Kannadiga language and cultures, as a vociferous opponent of Hindutva ideologies”

“Gauri was killed by the atmosphere of violence created by the politics of hatred and bigotry in which every communal or casteist fanatic finds legitimacy in the act of killing, of burning, of cruelty. This is how the communal right wing operates: create an environment of hatred and let the fanatics do the job. Her vibrant life and work will always be an inspiration and will live on as will the values and progressive politics she held so dear to her heart.”

The murder of Ms Lankesh is a disturbing trend for any country let alone a liberal democracy where dissenting voices are silenced by murder. Seema Chishti, Deputy Editor at The Indian Express, in a column called the murder, ‘the death of dissent’ and that this signals that dissent itself won’t be tolerated in the world’s largest democracy –

“The attack on articulators of rationalism, reason, dissent and the right to stand up to conservative brute power and the attempt to ‘fix’ India as an idea of sameness has been consistent and it takes no prisoners.”

“In India, political parties which benefit from forces that want to meet ideas with bullets and that privilege ‘mobs’ over the law, have to answer and speak on where they stand on accepting diversity.”

In June, Ms Lankesh wrote a column for The Wire highlighting how Karnataka has a long history of attacks on the freedom of the press. The Wire editorial called the murder a chilling message to dissenters –

“The dharma of a journalist is to ask difficult questions, hold the establishment to account and stand up for the dispossessed and the voiceless. Gauri Lankesh was acutely conscious of that. She was threatened, sued and finally, when she refused to be silenced, killed in cold blood.”

“A brazen killing such as this one seeks to send out a chilling message to not just journalists but to all independent thinkers and dissenters – that this could be their fate too. The only proper response should be to do the exact opposite of what the killers want – to continue standing up to those who are out to spread terror and silence all opposition.”

It’s a trend because last year journalist Rajdeo Ranjan was murdered at close range by assailants on a motorcycle, a day earlier Akhilesh Pratap, in Jharkhand’s Chatra district who was a journalist with a local Hindi news channel was murdered. That was two in 24 hours.

Tathagata Bhattacharya in a column for the National Herald India writes on how the murder is a wakeup call for journalists in India –

“Gauri Lankesh’s assassination puts India in a group of select nations where rationalists, journalists and activists are periodically killed for challenging reactionary and regressive right-wing politics and its socio-religious-economic moorings.”

“Gauri Lankesh’s murder has shaken up an entire professional community. Hopefully, journalists who have been fence-sitters till now will realise that this is the time to choose sides. One just hopes they choose that wisely.”

The Hindustan Times editorial called the death an assault on the freedom of the press –

“Many see this as an assault on the freedom of the press. Indeed, there is no denying that journalists have come under great pressure in recent times especially those reporting on injustices and corruption.”

“Like those before, the case of Lankesh, who fought so valiantly for the underdog, should not fall by the wayside once the attention has died down.”

The legacy of Gauri Lankesh will be one of someone who dared to speak out and made no qualms of her ideological positions. In one of her last public speeches, she said, “…my criticism of Hindutva politics and the caste system, which is part and parcel of what is considered ‘Hindu dharma’, makes my critics brand me as a ‘Hindu hater’. But I consider it my constitutional duty to continue – in my own little way – the struggle of Basavanna and Dr Ambedkar towards establishing an egalitarian society.”

More columns by Varun Sukumar