Let me confess, I did not know Gauri Lankesh until she was felled by her assailants at her doorstep in Bengaluru on the evening of September 5. The three who came on motorcycles pumped seven bullets into her chest and abdomen leaving little chance for her to survive.
The masked killers sped away as quickly as they came. Nathuram Vinayak Godse, who shot Mahatma Gandhi at close range at Tees January Marg, New Delhi, also ensured that he died instantly. Godse was ready to be caught, tried and hanged at the Ambala Jail.
It was an ideology that drove the assassin to New Delhi, hire a room in Minerva Hotel at Connaught Place, conduct a recess and kill the Father of the Nation. Unlike Godse, the killers of Lankesh were not ready to reveal themselves for they want to use the same weapon to silence another voice. Alas, there are now many voices to be extinguished!
In a country where the CCTV camera business has been thriving with the support of the ruling establishment, none of the cameras in public places caught the three in their act. Had it been a terror incident, the police would have immediately rounded up some unemployed Muslim youths in the area, declared them as “dreaded terrorists” and produced them before the court which would in due course release them for want of any evidence.
That is how the police in India function. Lankesh’s killing is similar to the killing of MM Kalburgi in Karnataka in 2015 and of Narendra Dhabolkar and Govind Pansare in Maharashtra earlier. Dabholkar was shot dead by two men on motorcycle on Vitthal Ramji Shinde Bridge in Pune on August 20, 2013.
Govind Pansare and his wife Uma were shot near their home in Kolhapur when they were coming back from their morning walk on February 16, 2015. Pansare succumbed to his injuries on February 20, 2015. All the three were dissenters and rationalists whose murderers are now enjoying the creature comforts of life.
The murders happened in Congress-ruled states, enabling even those who plotted their elimination to blame the ineptitude of the ruling party. This has happened in the case of Lankesh too. Goodness alone knows whether the real killers would ever be brought to book and punished for their act of cowardice.
There is nothing original about the style of Lankesh’s murderers. There have been many cases reported from Bangladesh and Pakistan where rationalists, bloggers, writers and independent thinkers were killed by motorcycle-borne masked men at their homes and offices.
There is, in fact, no Perfect Murder. When 9/11 happened in the US, there was no information about the pilot students who hijacked those four planes. Painstaking investigation was able to unravel the mystery and identify everyone who took part in the conspiracy.
When four members of the Herbert Clutter family in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas, in the USA were killed in 1959, the police had no clue at all but detectives worked overtime to nab the jailbirds who killed them in the hope of laying their hands on the riches they had “hoarded”. They got only peanuts. Truman Capote had captured all the details in his bestseller In Cold Blood.
Let me again confess that I have not read any of Gauri Lankesh’s writings. I understand that she was an English-language journalist before she started editing the Lankesh Patrika, her father had launched, and, later on, her own Gauri Lankesh Patrika. I might have read her pieces in English but I do not recall any of them.
One and a half decades ago when I was invited to deliver the first Kamala Saikia Memorial Lecture at Guwahati, I did not know the slain journalist. It is today an annual event that journalists in the state look forward to attending. This year the16th lecture was delivered by my friend and former colleague Pamela Philipose.
While condemning the Lankesh murder, the journalists of Assam asked why no one was arrested for the abduction and murder of as many as 32 journalists in the state. Small wonder that India has become a dangerous place for journalists. It “was ranked a lowly 136 among 180 countries in the latest world press freedom rankings released in April with the dismal performance blamed on “Modi’s nationalism” and growing “self-censorship” in the mainstream media.
“India slipped three places as compared to the year before. India was ranked just three places above Pakistan and was one notch below violence-torn Palestine. India’s neighbours Bhutan and Nepal were placed at 84th and 100th rank, respectively.” Journalists have become easy prey.
Now I have a fair idea of the kind of journalism Gauri Lankesh practiced and the kind of person she was. Malayalam writer Zachariah has written a moving piece on her recalling his association with her father P Lankesh, an iconoclast, free thinker, rationalist, poet, film-maker and firm believer in human rights. However, it was a piece written by my friend and former colleague Chidanand Rajghatta that threw light on her personality.
He was the Indian Express’ Washington correspondent, when I was with the same paper in New Delhi. There were occasions when I ran short of a main article for reasons like a regular columnist failing to deliver. I would send him a message and a few hours later, his piece would land on my table with little to edit. All I had to do was to look for some Americanism.
I did not know that Lankesh was his wife for five years and they had an ardent courtship for five years when they jointly listened to Western singers and read Western writers.
What struck me the most was this sentence: “We met at a school that was the birthplace of the Rationalist Movement of India – National College. Our principal, Dr H Narasimaiah, and the Sri Lankan rationalist, Dr Abraham Kovoor, were pioneers of the movement, and right from our teens we took to the thrill of questioning and debunking a variety of godmen/women, charlatans, frauds, superstitions etc that abound in India.”
Kovoor and Narasimaiah were my heroes at a time when I tried to rationalize the miracles of Jesus. For instance, during my childhood, all those who went to the Maramon Convention carried tiffin — rice, coconut chutney and one or two vegetables and a piece of fish. People in Kozhencherry and Maramon kept some extra food to feed unexpected visitors, usually relatives.
Those days restaurants were few and far between. Besides, people considered it infra dig to eat in a restaurant. In Jesus time, too, people carried food when they went out of their houses. So that day when Jesus asked those who assembled to hear him to take out the food they had, a boy gave him five pieces of bread and two pieces of fish he had. This encouraged all others to take out their food and it was sufficient to feed all.
We tried this in Chandigarh when on one Easter day the priest asked every family to bring food to the church. He also asked them to bring some extra food so that bachelors and others who could not bring could also eat. We found that there was a large surplus of food after everyone had eaten.
By the way, Kovoor’s father, the Reverend Kovoor Eipe Thomma Katthanar, was a contemporary of my grandfather, the Reverend Ambikulangara Phillip Kathanar, and they knew each other. It was Kovoor who challenged all god-men and god-women to tell the number of a currency note kept in a sealed envelope to win a prize of Rs 1 lakh, which is equivalent to at least Rs 2 crore now.
When Kovoor died in 1978 in Sri Lanka, where he had settled down, it was Dr Narasimaiah who bravely carried the torch of rationalism. It was, therefore, no surprise that Lankesh also became a rationalist like her father who showed enormous courage to start the Lankesh Patrika in a unique manner, even providing a liquor allowance to his reporters so that they were not influenced by liquor peddlers. He also did not accept advertisements.
Gauri Lankesh did not see journalism as a way to the rich and the powerful. She saw the journal she edited as an expression of her courage and conviction. It is easy to praise those in power, get into their good books and obtain positions of power. She saw herself as a crusader, fighting for causes dear to her.
I thought there would be universal condemnation for her killing. No, there was one BJP MLA in Karnataka who had the temerity to say that she would not have died a violent death but for the kind of journalism she practiced. He did not know that he was inadvertently pointing out the greatness of the lady.
Her former husband has written about how they had entered into a compact — “Don’t be hurtful. Even to each other”. Usually divorces end in acrimony, partly because the lawyers would advice the couple to accuse each other of illicit relations and every bad trait possible in a person. To be friends after divorce is not that common.
Once I attended a dinner hosted by Amartya Sen at Taj Bengal. It was attended by his former wife Nabneeta Dev Sen, a well-known writer, their children and their spouses. I was the only “outsider”. I lost the tag when Prof Sen declared me as one of the family. I could not believe that the couple had separated long back. It was a measure of the greatness of the two.
Chiddu, as we called Rajghatta, and Gauri were like the Sens. One story that I liked about her was that she sent a widow with two kids to Rajghatta’s family to take care of them and to be taken care of by them. The woman still lives with the family while her children are now well employed in a nationalized bank and an NGO. “Amazing grace” is how he characterizes her.
But in the social media she was abused left and right by those who want to make India a Hindu Pakistan where Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed because he criticized the blasphemy law. The lawyers showered rose petals on Mumtaz Qadri, his body guard who shot him, when he was produced before a court in Lahore. It is a different matter that Qadri was eventually tried and hanged to death.
She wrote strongly against those who popularize superstition in the name of culture, see the minorities as fifth columnists, describe every Muslim man marrying a Hindu woman as an instance of Love Jihad, expose those who shed crocodile tears over patriotism while engineering riots to consolidate their religious vote bank and praise note-banning which was aimed at winning a state election and helping the Adanis and the Ambanis.
Of course, she had to face defamation cases like the one Delhi Chief Minister faces while the one who made fun of Manmohan Singh, called him names and described him as the one who takes bath in the bathroom wearing a raincoat is hailed in the mainstream media as the one who will usher in a new India. Dissent is not something which those who control power from Nagpur can tolerate.
Democracy is not in their DNA. When their party failed in Goa, it still managed to come to power there. They are capable of buying power as in Arunachal Pradesh and Bihar. They are in the business of buying and grabbing power. Gauri Lankesh is alleged to have been dabbling with Naxalites.
She encouraged them to surrender arms. She tried to mediate between the government and the Naxalites. I remember reporting about Jayaprakash Narayan trying to wean away the dacoits from the Chambal ravines. When the first Naxalite attack occurred in Muzaffarpur in Bihar, JP visited the area, stayed put there for about a year to prevent people from falling into extremism.
And that is what Gauri Lankesh also tried to do while being a fearless journalist. However hard they try, the merchants of death will never be able to silence their critics. Democracy has one good quality. Those who tasted it once will never be able to tolerate dictatorship, whether religious or political.
She has already become an icon of dissent. There are many like me who consider her a martyr. There is uncertainty about the future of the Gauri Lankesh Patrika but there is no doubt that the tinpot and his supporters who have ruined the country by pulling down the GDP growth-rate by as much as 2.2 per cent since demonetisation will eventually find their Waterloo.
Democracy is not possible without dissent. Journalists fail in their duty if they become handmaidens of those in power. A good journalist is a useless journalist if he does not use his goodness to expose the wrong deeds of those in power or those who use wrong means to come to power. They owe it to the profession they chose.
Silence is not an option when the fight is between the right and the wrong, between the oppressor and the oppressed, between the haves and the have-nots, between the privileged and the under-privileged and between morality and immortality. That is what the life of Gauri Lankesh (55) teaches us.
The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org(Published on 11th September 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 37)