A woman holds a placard with a photograph of journalist Gauri Lankesh at a protest demonstration against her killing in Bangalore. Image: AP Photo
The toxic combination of Left-Liberal hand-wringing and embedded misogyny threaten to snuff out the legacy of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh.
Gauri was hated by Hindutva forces for her secular ideology but the upholders of secularism also are now ironing her out into a poster girl for their flailing campaign in the present moment. The implications of the fact that she was an unconventional woman are also either reduced to zany cuteness or ignored altogether. Both the contradictions of her secular ideology and those of her difficult familial life must be retrieved and examined to build her true legacy.
Gauri Lankesh’s anti-Hindutva politics were the stock-in-trade of the Left-secular tradition, both in Karnataka and nationally. It comprised religious syncretism, belief in the Constitution, anti-violence and democratic pluralism. Her anti-casteism came from a Lingayat ideology based on Basavanna’s critique of the caste system (indeed she supported the Lingayat movement for a separate religion).
The politics she represented as a single woman with short hair who wore jeans and tucked-in shirts most of her life, smoked, drank, stood up to her father’s conservatism at home (despite the so-called sexual radicalism of his writing), was a divorcee, and stood up strongly to her brother (with whom she had a fall-out over her alleged Naxalism) is more radical yet also marked by contradiction.
The combination of these representational critiques are unpalatable, and not just to Hindutva forces in the country. Both critiques have limitations and possibilities. What are the unexamined assumptions in her Left-secular critique? What is it about strong, independent women that just cannot be stomached by masculinist forces in India (and indeed across the world)? These are the two questions that Gauri Lankesh’s brutal snuffing out must make us ask. These are the lynchpins of her legacy and they are interlinked.
The limitations of Left-secular critique are evident in the slew of obituaries and tributes to her that paper over the contradictions between her own privileged caste and class positions and her anti-communal and anti-caste politics and also over her differences with her brother which are deeply political. Family, caste and class all retain their sanctity in the production of a seamless secular-Left, radical heroine.
The facts are that Gauri Lankesh came from a deeply privileged position and that she was no radical. Neither of these are condemnatory statements. They are simply facts and complicated in themselves demanding examination.
No tribute has explored the contradiction between her father’s ‘feminist’ writings and films and his conservatism as a father. Her brother called her a Naxalite and pushed her out of the family publication. No tribute touches on that either.
Gauri Lankesh was no Naxalite. She, like most human rights activists, merely opposed the genocide of tribals (and the onward march of violent developmentalism and ecological destruction) in the name of anti-Naxalism and stood up to the silencing of any voice criticising that with the allegation of being called a Naxalite. Yet it was the basis on which she split very acrimoniously (she alleged that he threatened her with a revolver, while he accused her of stealing equipment – which shows that violence is not only Hindutva) from her brother and her father’s publication which she had taken over at her father’s death to start her own paper.
This is the problem with Left-secular politics. It brooks no contradiction. It has no self-reflexivity or exploratory examination on the question of privilege in the production of itself. It has no critique of the family and how it damages women.
Necessarily, then, it remains a politics of airy and lofty slogans and well-meaning, exteriorising clichés about freedom of speech, not being silenced and so on. The bigger enemy is always out there, never within. Indeed, one of Gauri Lankesh’s own final tweets was about the need to focus on the bigger enemy. But who is the bigger enemy? And is the bigger enemy only out there?
Feminist politics does not want to explore contradiction either. Gauri Lankesh herself did not explore the contradictions that formed her in her writing and speeches. She upheld the secular-democratic tradition of her father and several other men, of which she saw herself a part uncritically. Yet her own life was necessarily a battle against various men trying to police and silence her. The circle starts from the family through community to the nation. She proved more than equal to the challenge but never paused to reflect on the damage to her and how that damage is the best place from which to build a stronger politics.
An examination of contradictions is not an undermining of the Left-secular tradition. Indeed, it points to the limitations in the articulation of that tradition and its hidden assumptions that need to be dismantled. It is a strengthening of it.
Similarly, feminism is only strengthened when we examine the contradictions that form femininity, contradictions that begin in the family as an institution, which is somehow always left out of feminist critique, and continue in identifications only with male traditions and male figures.
Perhaps when the Left-Liberal empty cacophony has died down we might begin to explore these contradictions and build the true legacy of Gauri Lankesh.More columns by Ashley Tellis:
Pissing in the wind against the Notinmyname campaign
What Justice Karnan case reveals about the Judiciary
Shah Bano to Shayara Bano: Religious laws fail women
Should 'gruesome' images be shared? Yes.
The great infection: No reason to celebrate Kanhaiya's release
Why our culture did not allow Rohith to live
Juvenile Bill: We want punishment, but no solutions
Chennai and the politics of shit
Ashley Tellis is a freelance academic and writer