Gauri Lankesh, editor of the weekly Gauri Lankesh Patrike publication, was shot dead by five unidentified attackers who entered her house in Bangalore earlier this month. She was a fearless journalist who in some ways symbolised the best of the Indian media – outspoken and fearless. Her death sparked shock and outrage across the country, with journalists, politicians and activists sharply denouncing the murder. In the words of journalist Nilanjana Roy of the Financial Times, “If you judge the calibre of an editor by the quality of her enemies, Gauri Lankesh was one of India’s best.”
At the time of her death, she had been overseeing the weekly edition of the Gauri Lankesh Patrike, her Kannada-language tabloid, one of the very few Indian newspapers that proudly carried a female publisher’s name on its masthead.
Born in 1962 to a prominent Karnataka family, her father, a Kannada writer, P Lankesh, was adored for his poetry, short stories, plays and films. He received India’s highest literary prize, the Sahitya Akademi award, in 1993. Gauri, his oldest daughter, inherited his spirit, uncompromising anti-caste views and religious scepticism. Today, she is survived by her sister, Kavitha, a film director and lyricist, and her brother, Indrajit, a film producer and publisher.
It was not just her paper that rankled many. It was her ideas. The forum for communal harmony, the Komu Souharda Vedike, that she started in 2005, frequently clashed with Hindu rightwing groups. She enraged religious zealots with her rationalist views, influenced by the 12th century Hindu reformer Basavanna, and by the jurist and Dalit leader Dr B R Ambedkar.
There were some who expected her to tone down her criticism of extremists after she lost a defamation suit in 2016 filed by BJP leaders. But it only made her more bold, say former colleagues. Free on anticipatory bail, ready to appeal against the verdict, she said: “I oppose the BJP’s fascist and communal politics . . . I oppose the caste system of the ‘Hindu Dharma’, which is unfair, unjust and gender-biased.” To say such things so openly in present-day India is rare.
Needless to say, Gauri Lankesh was a strong critic of Modi’s government, but she spoke truth to all forms of power — religious, political, caste-driven and communal. She was unafraid of making enemies, and she made them with relish — a recent op-ed she wrote attacked “flag bearers of the Hindutva brigade”.
Her killing once again brings into the limelight the state of affairs in Modi’s India where the media is facing its greatest challenge yet through political intimidation, abuse, threats and accusations of being “anti-national” after the 2014 election. Many Indian publications we are told are now more comfortable in self-censorship and do not report issues and incidents where they feel they would get into trouble. It is a sad state of affairs given the grand legacy that the Indian media has created over the years of being independent and fearless.
What is more painful in the case of Gauri Lankesh is that there are those who actually celebrated her murder. Some senior members affiliated to the ruling party commented that her murder was justified and that she had it coming.
One of the tweets in question was sent by user Ashish Mishra, who wrote in response to a news story about Lankesh’s death: jaisi karni vaisi bharni (you reap what you sow).
Fake news also came into play. Certain publications close to the ruling party published incorrect information to prove that the murder was the work of others despite all evidence pointing to Hindu extremists.
The only silver lining is that Indian social media users have launched an online campaign against Prime Minister Narendra Modi after it emerged that he was following via his Twitter account users who appeared to celebrate and justify the Gauri murder.
#BlockNarendraModi was the top trend in the country last week with users demanding that Modi un-follow the handles and apologise.
Colleagues say that Lankesh was fearless, reckless, and driven by injustice. “We can’t fit into his shoes,” she had said in 2000, hesitating at the thought of taking over her father’s legacy. But she filled them well. One newspaper wrote that it would take three bullets, fired at close range in a murder that reminded many of the previous killings of rationalist thinkers, to finally silence her fluting, unrepentant, fearless voice. Let us pray the Indian media rises to this challenge and fights against the consistent attempts to silence its voice. We
Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2017.