Her murder is an attempt to kill an idea
What killed Gauri Lankesh? This is not the same question as “who killed Gauri Lankesh?” This is deeper and a more rewarding question. In any case, this is the only question we can meaningfully answer in the public domain.
A murder involves four categories of culpability: those who carry out assassination, those who conspire, those who encourage or benefit from it, and those who are involved in its acquiescence. We must leave the first two for the police to determine. Instead of rushing to conclusions about the assassins and conspirators, let us focus on the larger context that encouraged and acquiesced to, indeed celebrated, her murder.
This is particularly relevant in the case of Gauri. She was not just a person. She represented an idea. It is reasonable to assume that her assassination is an attempt to shut down that idea. It is also meant to convey a signal to everyone else to shut up, or else. Since these signals are in the public domain, we can and must decode these in order to understand the context that led to her assassination.
A word about the ‘whodunnit’. So far, we know only a few relevant facts. Gauri Lankesh was a journalist, a fearless editor of an extraordinary paper calledGauri Lankesh Patrike. She had been carrying out a crusade against the Hindutva politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies through the paper she edited, and organisations like Komu Souharda Vedike. Last year she lost a defamation suit by a BJP leader; her appeal against it was pending. She had received several threats from Sangh Parivar affiliates. As far as we know, there was no personal enmity angle to this murder.
This information is good to draw a reasonable inference: she was killed because of her ideas and her determination to speak her mind. But this information is not adequate to reach a definite conclusion about the identity of the killers and the conspirators. It is only fair that the criminal investigation must not be carried out in TV studios. This is not to say that we must trust the police. Indeed, police investigations in similar cases, whether under the Congress or the BJP regime, have been perfunctory. Still we cannot pre-empt the investigation, even if we scrutinise it later.
While we do not have evidence of who planned her murder, we have lots of evidence concerning those who celebrated and justified her murder. Social media was abuzz with comments that mocked, abused and blamed a woman who had been killed a few hours ago. Most of them were well-established BJP trolls. Some of them were followed by none other than the Prime Minister. In this context, it was vital for the ruling party to dissociate itself from this campaign. But except Ravi Shankar Prasad, no senior BJP leader spoke unequivocally against such comments. The PM is yet to ‘unfollow’ any of these trolls.
We also know the eerie pattern that was replicated in three murders prior to hers. The murder of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar in 2013, that of Govind Pansare, another campaigner against superstition, in 2015, and academic M.M. Kalburgi in 2015 followed identical patterns. In each of these cases, unidentified killers shot down intellectual crusaders inimical to the ideology of the Sangh Parivar. These were not murders to avenge any other act of violence. Nor were these attempts to eliminate a political rival. These were aimed at silencing an idea. Let us not forget that these three ‘rationalists’ were not promoting some idiosyncratic idea: cultivation of ‘scientific temper’ is very much our constitutional ideal. They were killed by an ideology inimical to our Constitution. Prima facie, Gauri’s killing fits into this pattern.
Her ideas were, of course, not the same as the other three. Everyone, supporter as well as detractor, has assumed that she was a ‘leftist’. There has been some loose talk of her being Naxalite. This is not true. Gauri represented an illustrious intellectual tradition of Karnataka that does not fit into any of these categories. As the editor ofGauri Lankesh Patrike, she carried forward the legacy of her father P. Lankesh, the founder ofLankesh Patrikeand one of the three iconic writers of the ‘Navya’ school of Kannada literature. Inspired by Ram Manohar Lohia, these writers from Shimoga — P. Lankesh, Poornachandra Tejaswi and U.R. Ananthamurthy — combined a strident anti-caste stance with the socialist brand of egalitarian politics and culturally rooted secularism. They mentored the next generation of Kannada intellectuals like Devanur Mahadeva, Siddalingaiah and D.R. Nagaraj whose writings have inspired ‘progressive’ activists in Karnataka.
This socialist tradition is ‘left’ in the sense of being pro-people and egalitarian, but very different from the communist ‘left’ in terms of its cultural orientation. This tradition is rooted in Kannada egalitarian thought that goes back to Basavanna. Although on some issues Gauri was closer to the orthodox left than her father, her secularism was a continuity of this tradition. Like her father, she chose to write in Kannada and in a popular idiom. This form of culturally rooted secularism is in line with the secularism of our freedom struggle. The Sangh Parivar fears this most, as this form of secularism cannot be brushed aside as deracinated, westernised intellectualism.
Her very name carried a challenge to what is now being presented as Hindutva. This is the time of the year to welcome the arrival of ‘Gauri’ — also known as Durga, Parvathi, Bhavani or Shakti — in many regions of the country. ‘Lankesh’ is, of course, Ravana, the ultimate devotee of Lord Shiva. Her name invokes the tradition of Ravana worship among Shaivites, a practice that upsets the project of homogenous Hindutva.
Gauri lived a life of ideas. It is unsurprising that she was killed by an ideology — one that stands in opposition to our Constitution, denies the values of our freedom struggle, fears our intellectual traditions and is threatened by the multiple strands of Hinduism. She was killed by the ruling ideology of our times.