In an essay published on the website Scroll earlier this year, Gauri Lankesh wrote of how her home town, Bengaluru, once known for its progressive and emancipatory ethos, was now increasingly captive to patriarchal and authoritarian tendencies. When she was young, wrote Lankesh, women in Bangalore were free to live their own lives, to follow their own instincts, to forge personal and professional paths in a manner unknown or at least uncommon in other cities. But now, she wrote sadly, women in Bengaluru could no longer move freely in ‘public spaces without fear of lecherous goons, fundamentalist fanatics and brainless men in power who point out to outfits that women wear instead of the muck that is filled between the ears of sick men as the root cause of molestation’.
Six months after Gauri Lankesh wrote these words, she was murdered, not for what she wore, but for what she wrote. Fundamentalist fanatics had long targeted her, for her fearless criticisms of the hateful and divisive politics that were threatening to tear her state and her country apart. That she spoke so clearly and so sincerely enraged them; as did the fact that she was a woman.
Gauri Lankesh was remarkable in many ways; for her intellectual and personal courage, and for being a genuinely bilingual writer. She first made her mark in the 1990s, writing in English for Sunday magazine. In later years, and especially after the death of her father, the legendary Kannada writer P Lankesh, she turned to writing more frequently in her mother tongue.
I knew Gauri Lankesh for many years. We ran into each other at rallies and meetings, and at that great Bengaluru institution, Koshy’s Parade Cafe. I admired her courage, without always agreeing with her views. We stood on the same side as regards religious fundamentalism; but otherwise I was a centrist liberal whilst she was decidedly on the left of the political spectrum. We had our arguments, these conducted with words, as they should be in any civilised, democratic, society.
Other Indians sought other methods to dispute with Gauri Lankesh. Indeed, the men who fired seven bullets at her were not the first to seek to silence her. For several years, Gauri wrote a most readable column in a leading English language daily. Pressure was brought on the newspaper’s management to have the column stopped; to their eternal shame, the management succumbed. Gauri Lankesh continued to write fearlessly in Kannada; whereupon right-wing politicians brought an array of cases against her in the lower courts. But that did not stop her from expressing her views either. So she had to be killed?
Gauri Lankesh’s murder has been compared to the killing of other brave, independent- minded writers such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and M M Kalburgi, who were likewise detested by right-wing Hindu fundamentalists. But that Gauri was a woman made her views even more difficult for the bigots to stomach. She had herself remarked on ‘the increasing attitude of fundamentalists of all colours who believe that women have to be shut behind closed doors for their own safety’. What if women refused to be shut behind closed doors? What if they chose instead to participate in public life, as citizens and writers? Then the fundamentalists must have them suppressed and silenced.
Gauri Lankesh’s death has been widely mourned by ordinary, decent, Indians. On the other hand, it has been ghoulishly celebrated by Hindutva right-wingers. The senior cabinet minister, Nitin Gadkari, has denied that the BJP or its affiliates had anything to do with Gauri Lankesh’s murder. How, so soon after the event, can he be so sure? Even if the BJP or the RSS is not directly involved in this and similar murders, there is little question that the ruling dispensation has enabled a climate of hate and suspicion that makes such targeted killings of writers and scholars possible. It may be freelancers who actually commit these acts; but they are emboldened by politicians, ideologues and television anchors who demonise all critics of the ruling regime as anti-national. The political climate is now more poisonous and rancorous than at any time since the Emergency.
Speaking to the website Newslaundry in November 2016, Gauri Lankesh observed that ‘in Karnataka today, we are living in such times that the Hindutva brigade welcomes the killings (as in the case of M M Kalburgi) and celebrate the deaths (as in the case of U R Ananthamurthy) of those who oppose their ideology, their political party. I was referring to such people because, let me assure you, they are keen to somehow shut me up too.’
More recently, in one of her last public talks, Gauri Lankesh noted that while Karnataka had a long tradition of dissenting writers, they had never faced such intimidation before. ‘We had UR Ananthamurthy, Kalburgi, my own father P Lankesh, Purna Chandra Tejaswi,’ she said: ‘They were all trenchant critics of Jawaharlal Nehru, of Indira Gandhi, of Rajiv Gandhi. But none of them were ever physically attacked, let alone [receiving] death threats.’
This is entirely true, and of the whole of India, not just Karnataka. In the past, independent- minded writers may have had their writings banned or censored, faced court cases, or had their jobs taken away from them. But now, with the rise of political Hindutva, they face the possibility of being physically wiped out. Gauri Lankesh’s murder was not the first such; and it may not be the last.