Death of a Rationalist: Gauri Lankesh Fearless journalist silenced for defying right wing extremists

13, May 2018 | Deborah Grey

Gauri Lankesh was a fearless journalist and a rationalist, who never minced words while calling out the bigotry and misogyny of right wing extremists. She was shot dead by a man with alleged links to a radical Hindutva organisation in September 2017. As the Saffron brigade busies itself in a nationwide do or die battle for political relevance, one wonders if Gauri Lankesh, even in death, remains their most formidable adversary.

In a society where the ‘new normal’ ranges from blatant hate speech to wanton vandalism to orchestrated communal clashes, Gauri Lankesh never minced words while taking on religious extremists. Therefore, even though her cold blooded murder sent shock-waves across civil society groups and India’s journalist community, one wonders if it was entirely unexpected. Before Gauri Lankesh, other rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi were silenced for promoting logic over blind faith. The modus operandi was chillingly similar. All four were gunned down by bike borne assassins.

Gauri Lankesh holds a very special place in our hearts. CJP’s commitment to human rights based journalism is our tribute to one of India’s bravest women. To support CJP’s quest to deliver hard-hitting stories about people’s struggles and resilience in face of oppression and divisive politics, Donate Now.

The Murder of Gauri Lankesh

Gauri Lankesh was shot dead by a bike borne assailant on September 5, 2017 outside her home in Bangalore. She was shot four times. In March 2018, the Special Investigation Team, (SIT) probing the case arrested KT Naveen Kumar, the 37 year old founder of Hindu Yuva Sene in connection with the case. Naveen Kumar had originally been arrested in February in connection with an illegal arms case.

The SIT took him into custody on March 2, suspecting his involvement in the killing as his looks matched with that of a person caught on the CCTV at Gauri’s residence on the night of the murder. Naveen Kumar allegedly made a full confession. According to the police he was procuring arms to kill another rationalist KS Bhagwan in Mysuru when he was arrested in February. He was caught with five illegally obtained bullets. Turns out the the hit on Bhagwan was placed and assigned to Naveen Kumar because the conspirators behind Gauri’s killing were impressed with him.

Why was Gauri such a threat to Saffron groups

Gauri Lankesh who had previously worked for The Times of India, the Sunday magazine and Enadu TV, gained prominence when she took over as editor of Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada publication that was originally started by her father P. Lankesh. But after a falling out with her brother Indrajit who had taken over as proprietor and publisher, Gauri went on to bring out her own weekly Gauri Lankesh Patrike.

Here she routinely raised her voice against caste and gender based discrimination. Gauri Lankesh’s brand of journalism was the very picture of defiance in a country where several large media houses often act as glorified lap dogs of political parties. Here are some of the key issues raised by Gauri Lankesh that made her unpopular with right wing groups.

Baba Boudhangiri’s Dargah: Gauri Lankesh took her first steps as an activist with her campaign to preserve the dignity of the dargah of Sufi saint Baba Boudhangiri. In a special piece for an edition of Communalism Combat, Gauri wrote,

In the state of Karnataka – which the Bharatiya Janata Party has for long claimed as its ‘gateway’ to power in the South – the Baba Boudhangiri Dargah issue provided an opportunity to whip up communal hatred. Though for centuries the Dargah has been the centre of communal harmony with both Muslim and Hindu followers offering prayers, the sangh parivar launched a vicious campaign of hate and lies saying it would ‘liberate’ the shrine. They claimed it was a Hindu shrine that had been appropriated by Muslims, they declared they would install Dattatreya’s idol inside the cave shrine, they insisted that a Hindu (read Brahmin) priest should be appointed in place of the Muslim Mujawar. Their campaign had hit such shrill tones that Praveen Togadia, grinning widely, declared to television cameras three years ago: “We will make this the Ayodhya of the South!”

Her entire piece may be read here. In fact, Gauri’s commitment to communal harmony led her to join hands with fellow activists such as Nagari Babaiah, UR Ananthamurthy, K Ramadas, Hassan Mansur, HL Keshavamurthy and poet Laxman to found the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum.

Rehabilitation of Naxals: Gauri Lankesh was a key figure in the Citizen’s Initiative for Peace, a forum that believed that armed struggle by Maoists must end and that the government must intervene on their behalf. She also played a significant role in the rehabilitation of Naxals who had surrendered. It is believed she was able to accomplish this on account of the rapport she shared with Karnataka CM Siddharamaiyah, another thorn in the side of the Sangh Parivar. Because of Gauri Lankesh’s efforts, Naxal leader Sirimane Nagaraj surrendered to the state in December 2015 along with Rizwana Begum, Parashuram, Padmanabha, Chennamma, Shivu, Bharathi and Kanyakumari. They all surrendered before the Chikmagalur district administration. In fact, shortly after her death Sanatan Sanstha spokesperson Chetan Rajhans accused Gauri Lankesh of being an “extortionist” who had “links with Naxals”, showcasing how much the right wing group feared her influence.

Lingayat to be recognised as a separate religion: Gauri had raised the demand for separate religion status for the Lingayat community, a demand that was finally accepted in 2018. Here is what she wrote on the subject in a piece for The Wire on August 8, 2017, less than a month before her murder.

Though many people believed for a long time that Lingayats and Veerashaivas were one and the same, and that the words were interchangeable, they are very different. Lingayats are followers of Basavanna, the 12th-century social reformer who rebelled against Hindu society and established a new dharma. Veerashaivism, as the name suggests, is an order of Shaiva faith, which in turn is one of the two major Vedic faiths – the other one being the Vaishnava faith. Both Shaiva and Vaishnava followers constitute the sanatana dharma.

The essential difference between the Lingayata dharma and the Veerashaiva is that the latter accepts the Vedic texts and practices like caste and gender discrimination, while Basavanna not only protested these, he offered an alternative that is an anti-thesis of sanatana dharma. This debate assumes a larger significance these days, when Hinduism is being equated exclusively with sanatana dharma, in contradiction to the origin of the word `Hindu’, which included Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs. Shaivites, like Vaishnavites, are a part of the Hindu system of faith. And therein lies the difference.

Support for Student Leaders: Gauri Lankesh was also a vocal supporter of the burgeoning student movement in India and openly supported student leaders like Jignesh Mevani, Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid and Umar Khalid.  This endorsement of the group that has often been labeled the “Tukde-Tukde Gang” by rabid right wing goons and their political stooges, was a thorn in the side of the Saffron brigade.

Progress of the Investigation

On March 2, 2018, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) investigating Lankesh’s assassination made its first arrest, apprehending right-wing activist K. T. Naveen Kumar, 37, of Maddur, who in 2015 founded the Hindu Yuva Sene. Kumar who reportedly confessed to Lankesh’s murder had previously been arrested in February 2018 in relation to a case involving illegal arms. The SIT also named one Praveen as the second accused in the case.

In late May 2018, the SIT arrested four more people with ties to right-wing group Sanatan Sanstha for a January 2018 conspiracy to kill K. S. Bhagwan. The four individuals also had ties to Sanatan Sanstha’s sister outfit, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), and were also connected to Kumar, in 2017 had attending multiple HJS meetings. The four individuals are named Amol Kale alias Bhaisab, 39, an HJS activist from Maharashtra, Amit Degwekar alias Pradeep, 39, a Sanatan Sanstha activist from Goa, Manohar Edave, 28, of Karnataka, and Sujeet Kumar alias Praveen, 37, an activist with Sanatan Sanstha and the HJS from Mangalore. The SIT reportedly also broadened its investigation to look into whether Praveen and his accomplices had any ties with the past murders of Kannada scholar and rationalist MM Kalburgi, as well as those of rationalists Govind Pansare, author and socialist leader, and Narendra Dabholkar, medical doctor and author.

On May 30, 2018, the SIT filed a 650-page chargesheet in the Lankesh murder case. It alleges that Naveen Kumar obtained the bullets that were used to kill Lankesh, and that he allegedly supplied logistical support to her killers and directed them to her residence and office in Bengaluru. It alleges that the bullets were from an ammunition store called Bangalore Armoury, and that Kumar purchased them around eight years ago. Syed Shabeer, who works at City Gun House in Kalasipalya, claimed to the SIT that he sold Kumar 18 bullets for Rs. 3,000 about eight years ago.

The SIT, in the chargesheet, stated, “The accused were angry with her for speaking against Hindu dharma, Gods of Hindu dharma and insulting Hindu dharma”. Kumar’s wife, Roopa C. N., gave the SIT a statement, which indicated that Kumar was associated with the Sanatan Dharma Sanstha, largely in 2017.

On Monday, June 11, 2018 the sixth accused in the case, Parashuram Waghmare, 26, was arrested. On Thursday, June 14, police reportedly interrogated Waghmare and the previously arrested Amol Kale. Waghmare had allegedly claimed that Kale instructed him to carry out the killing, and gave him a country-made pistol.

In August 2018, the Karnataka Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the Gauri Lankesh murder case made major headway in investigations. And in an interesting development, it also contacted the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) with information that helped the ATS unearth a huge terrorist plot by people closely affiliated with extreme Right Wing Hindutva supremacist groups.

Armed with the information provided by the Karnataka SIT, the ATS ended up arresting three men on August 10, 2018; Vaibhav Raut (40), Sudhanwa Gondhalekar (39) and Sharad Kalaskar (25). Raut is the convener of the Hindu Govansh Raksha Samiti. 20 crude bombs and two gelatin sheets were recovered from his Nallasopara home. Meanwhile, Gondhalekar is a member of Shiv Shivapratishthan Hindustan, an organisation run by none other than Shambhaji Bhide, one of the two key accused in the Bhima Koregaon violence.

Two Terror Modules

There are two modules of the terror group that coexisted but operated separately. The first module comprised men arrested in connection with the Gauri Lankesh case who are also being investigated for their alleged involvement in a series of assassinations of rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi. The second module that the ATS discovered during their investigations after a tip off from the Karnataka SIT, were planning to strike Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra including Pune, Satara and Solapur. Recovering such a huge cache of arms around Independence Day, Bakr Eid and in the run up to the Ganpati festival is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine!

The Common Thread

But, it was Kalaskar who was a common member of two modules. The ATS claims that Kalaskar was one of the two gunmen who shot and killed Narendra Dabholkar in August 2013. According to the ATS, the weapon used to kill Gauri Lankesh and other rationalists was also procured and manufactured by Sharad Kalaskar. He was also arrested from Raut’s home where the ATS discovered a huge cache of explosives and a note on how to make bombs was recovered from Kalaskar.

Year-long conspiracy to kill Gauri Lankesh

According to the Karnataka SIT, the plot to kill Lankesh was hatched a year before the assassination. Amol Kale, a former Hindu Janjagruti Samiti convener, allegedly hired killer Parshuram Waghmare. Waghamare was allegedly a member of the Sri Ram Sene. Kale took him to an isolated spot in Khanapur, Belgaum to practice using an air pistol. Waghmare allegedly did a recce of Lankesh’s house in July 2017. On September 5, he and another back-up gunman Ganesh Miskin arrived outside Lankesh’s house on a black motorcycle. Waghmare fired four times as Lankesh and the duo fled the scene.

Connection with the Narendra Dabholkar Murder

Three of the accused in the Gauri Lankesh murder case are also linked to the plot to kill anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar. Dabholkar was shot dead on August 20, 2013. The same weapon was used in both crimes according to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Sachin Andure, one of the alleged shooters of Dabholkar, was arrested by the CBI and remanded to judicial custody.

Meanwhile, his co-accused Rajesh Bangera and Amit Digvekar have also been remanded to judicial custody. Bangera had allegedly provided weapons training to Andure and Sharad Kalaskar, the two men who allegedly shot Narendra Dabholkar. Meanwhile Digvekar had helped recon Dabholkar’s house and keep tabs on his movement and routine. Digvekar was also a ‘saadhak’ in the Sanatan Sanstha. Sharad Kalaskar who was in the custody of the Maharashtra ATS in connection with the explosives seizure case, has now also been remanded to judicial custody.

Connection with MM Kalburgi murder case

In July 2019, Uma Devi, wife of slain rationalist MM Kalburgi identified the gunman who shot her husband. Earlier the SIT had arrested Praveen Chatur, a 27 year old Belgavi resident who had allegedly ferried this gunman in the Kalburgi murder. While police had initially suspected Amit Baddi, a friend of Ganesh Myskin, of being the biker, sketches prepared by police artists did not match eye witness descriptions. When the SIT probed the matter again, interrogation of Amol Kale pointed them towards Chatur. Chatur was also wanted in a petrol bomb attack on a theater screening Padmavat in Belgavi in January. He has now turned state’s witness in the Gauri Lankesh case. In his statement he has reportedly admitted to attending training camps in Jalna and Mangaluru.

Right Wing Affiliations

While the Sanatan Sanstha was quick to deny any direct linkage to Vaibhav Raut, it didn’t exactly throw him under the bus either. A statement released by the group said, “Reports of the arrested devout Hindu, Vaibhav Raut being a member of Sanatan are being falsely propagated by the media. Mr Vaibhav Raut is not a member of Sanatan; however he had been actively involved in numerous rallies and processions organised by devout Hindu organisations. Although Raut is not a seeker of Sanatan, we believe that any Hindu working for the cause of Hindutva and for Dharma, belongs to us.”

The Supplementary Chargesheet

On November 23, 2018, the Karnataka SIT investigating the case has filed a chargesheet running into over 9000 pages! They claim that the intrepid journalist’s murder was painstakingly planned to the last detail over a period of five long years! This chargesheet was also significant because it categorically named Sanatan Sanstha as the chief perpetrator in the case.

18 people were named in the chargesheet. These include shooter Parashuram Waghmare, masterminds Amol Kale, Sujith Kumar alias Praveen and Amit Digwekar.

In a press release the SIT said, “The investigation so far has revealed that all the 18 accused are active members of an organised crime syndicate. This syndicate was formed in 2010-11, under the leadership of Virendra Tawade alias Bade Bhaisaab. One former editor of ‘Sanatan Prabhat’ provided financial support to this syndicate. The members of this organisation targeted people who they identified to be inimical to their belief and ideology. The members strictly followed the guidelines and principles mentioned in ‘Kshatra Dharma Sadhana’, a book published by Sanatan Sanstha.” The statement further added, “In August 2016, in a meeting of the syndicate, the main members identified Ms. Lankesh as a “durjan” as told in the ‘Kshatra Dharma Sadhana’, based on her speeches and writings. They jointly hatched a conspiracy to murder her.”

All accused have been booked under the Karnataka Control of Organised Crime Act, Arms Act and Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.

The chargesheet also mentions 26 other people who were on a hit list of sorts. These are eminent journalists, educationists and intellectuals who are perceived to be anti-Hindu by the Sanatan Sanstha. These include Siddharth Varadrajan (Editor, The Wire), journalist Antara Dev Sen, JNU professor Chaman Lal, Punjabi playwright Atamjit Singh among others.

Key Accused and their Alleged Affiliations

The press release by the SIT listed important members of this syndicate as, “Amit Degvekar, Vikas Patil and Rishikesh Deodikar. Vikas Patil had recruited Sujith Kumar alias Praveen and Manohar Edave in order to carry out the recruitment of members in Karnataka. Sujith Kumar eventually recruited Parshuram Waghmare, the shooter, K.T. Naveen Kumar and several others. Manohar Edave recruited Ganesh Miskin and Amit Baddi.”

Amol Kale, a former Hindu Janjagruti Samiti convener, allegedly hired killer Parshuram Waghmare. Waghamare was allegedly a member of the Sri Ram Sene. Kale took him to an isolated spot in Khanapur, Belgaum to practice using an air pistol. Waghmare allegedly did a recce of Lankesh’s house in July 2017. On September 5, he and another back-up gunman Ganesh Miskin arrived outside Lankesh’s house on a black motorcycle. Waghmare fired four times as Lankesh and the duo fled the scene.

Gauri Lankesh memorialised

On October 8, 2018 Gauri Lankesh was honoured at a memorial commemorating reporters killed on duty at the Bayeux-Calvados Awards held in France. The Bayeux-Calvados Awards for war correspondents (Prix Bayeux-Calvados des correspondants de guerre) is an annual prize awarded since 1994, by the city of Bayeux and the General Council of Calvados. Its goal is to pay tribute to journalists who work in dangerous conditions to allow the public access to information about war. Gauri Lankesh’s name was carved on a pillar along with those of other journalists killed in the line of duty. Gauri’s sister Kavitha Lankesh and niece Esha were present at the ceremony.

(*This piece was originally published on May 13, 2018 and has since then been regularly updated.)

Related:

Death of a Rationalist: Govind Pansare

Our Gauri: A Tribute to Gauri Lankesh

Gauri Lankesh Murder Case: Chargesheet names Sanatan Sanstha

Gauri Lankesh laid to rest, but The Truth could not be buried

Gauri Lankesh’s murder: Will justice prevail?

Gauri Lankesh memorialised as Journalist killed in Line of Duty

Dissent and Democracy in India

My Sister, My Soulmate

 

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