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.
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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.
The Current Status of Investigation
In May 2018, the SIT detained a second man for his alleged involvement in the case. While his identity has not been revealed, according to the Times of India, this man is suspected of being involved in the murders of Kalburgi and Dabholkar.