A little over two years after MM Kalburgi was shot dead by two unknown assassins at his home in Dharwad, Karnataka, well-known journalist Gauri Lankesh (1962-2017) was gunned down in a similar fashion on Tuesday evening at her home in a suburb of the state's capital, Bengaluru.
It's not just the uncanny resemblance between the method of these killings that connects the two murders. Both Kalburgi and Lankesh were outspoken critics of rightwing forces, speaking fearlessly against injustice. They were crusaders for reason and equality but, ultimately, for peace.
At a time, when these values are routinely undermined in India's public life, with the government barely taking any notice of grievous crimes against minorities and dissenters, thinkers like Kalburgi and Lankesh kept the flame of hope burning. In death, they have only hardened the resolve of millions of Indians to stand ever more firmly against the vicious cycle of hate that sweeps over the country.
A determined rationalist, 77-year-old Kalburgi condemned the pernicious hold of religion and superstition over public imagination. He went after godmen and spiritual gurus with the zeal of a reformer — and paid the price with his life.
Tragic as it is, Kalburgi's assassination does seem to be of a piece with a society where thousands recently took to the streets to defend a 'man of god' convicted of raping his disciples. Dozens laid down their lives for the sake of a criminal sadhu, nurtured by the wealth and complicity of political parties, while scores were left injured in clashes with the police.
Before Kalburgi, two others — 69-year-old Narendra Dabholkar and 81-year-old Govind Pansare — were killed in cold blood in Maharashtra, in 2013 and 2015 respectively, also for their distaste of organised religion as well as the challenge they posed to the caste system. Several luminaries of Indian literature returned their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest against the literary body's perceived indifference to the killing of these thinkers. In spite of such symbolic gestures of rebellion, the State remained a steadfastly mute spectator.
The deaths of these three men are long believed to be the handiwork of an organised gang but no one has been traced till date. This, in spite of the fact that the Karnataka government has conclusively linked the murders. The line that joins those three deaths has now closed upon a fourth, leaving shock, horror and a simmering rage in its wake.
"It is now becoming a method", GN Devy, the Dharwar-based linguistic scholar and activist, pointed out to The Wire. "The brazen way in which the killers came, it is just the same as what happened with Kalburgi and the others".
Daughter of celebrated poet-turned-journalist and writer P Lankesh, Gauri was the proverbial trouble-maker — in the best and the noblest sense of the term — for the State. Inspired by her father's secular, anti-caste and anti-Hindutva views, she was the Nemesis for those who sought to spread hatred and divisiveness.
After inheriting the Lankesh Patrike, a weekly Kannada tabloid featuring political, social and cultural writings begun by her father, Lankesh used it as a tool against the communally-charged politics of the sangh parivar. Her siblings, Kavita Lankesh and Indrajit Lankesh, are prominent figures in the world of Kannada cinema and television, but Gauri was known for her undaunted political journalism — which, unfortunately, also proved to be her undoing.
In November 2016, Lankesh was held guilty of defamation for an article she had run in 2008. Prahlad Joshi, a BJP MP from Dharwad, and Umesh Dushi, also from the BJP, had objected to the accusation of corruption against them in it.
She challenged her conviction and was subsequently released on bail. Not only was Lankesh willing to take her fight to the higher courts, but she continued to speak unhesitatingly against the saffron brigade — in public, on social media as well as in her columns and reports.
When I met for the first time, shortly after her brush with the law last year, Lankesh seemed unconcerned about the danger she was courting with her unabashedly anti-establishment views. She published several controversial books in translation, including Rana Ayyub's Gujarat Files and Kishalay Bhattacharjee's Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters, and adopted youth leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani as her own sons.
Until her murder on Tuesday, Lankesh remained vocal against the tyranny of organised religion and caste, especially against the rapidly saffronising character of her home state.
Unsparing equally of the Congress government in Karnataka, she strongly criticised a recent move by the Speaker of the state assembly who authorised a set of actions that ignited fears of press censorship among the local media. This case, which ignited outrage across the nation, was uncannily similar to the one that Lankesh herself was embroiled in. If you wanted proof of the Indian State's regression back to soft fascism to control the workings of the press, this should be enough.
On 21 June this year, Congress MLA Koliwad authorised a penalty of ₹10,000 each on Ravi Belagere, editor and owner of a weekly tabloid Hai Bangalore, and Anil Raj, editor of the local periodical Yelahanka Voice, along with a one-year jail term for each. Their offence: printing potentially libelous articles about him and another BJP MLA from the state.
The two journalists were framed by misusing the immunity enjoyed by legislators, under the Committee of Privileges, which the media went on to expose. In a scathing takedown of Koliwad's abuse of power in The Wire, Lankesh charted out Karnataka's long history of press censorship.
"Till 1980, journalism in Karnataka was a staid and somber affair. Even criticism of the ruling elite used to be couched in sanitised conservative words. But then along came Lankesh Patrike with its language of total irreverence and an attitude to call a spade a spade," she wrote about the magazine her father founded. "P. Lankesh, the editor, regaled readers by dubbing the then Chief Minister R Gundu Rao as 'Gum' and senior minister S. Bangarappa as 'Bum'," she added.
Feisty, gregarious and with an irrepressible sense of humour, Lankesh inherited her father's gift of truth-telling.
In the last year and a bit, at least 54 media personnel have been attacked, 25 journalists were intimidated, and seven killed by a combination of state and non-state actors, according to a survey by media watcher, The Hoot. In the World Press Freedom Index 2017, India occupies a lowly 136 position, three notches down from 2016, in a list of 180 countries. The ruling dispensation, desperate to be counted among the league of the superpowers, remains shamefully indifferent to this appalling distinction it enjoys.
A series of murders of public intellectuals over the last four years has failed to shake the Centre out of its wilful stupor. The culprits remain undetected and scot-free. Yet, the voices of dissent refuse to be remain silent — not even at the risk of life. Such is the spirit of real democracy.
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