Speaking Truth to Power, Gauri Lankeshunda and her Undaunted Story

  • September 7, 2017
  • 11:52 pm
  • Priyanshi Chandrawat

Assassination of Gauri Lankesh , a senior journalist and activist who ran a weekly Kannada paper in which she often wrote in support of the rehabilitation of Naxals and against divisive politics is a matter of discussion and debate. 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. 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. Gauri, who was the editor of the Kannada tabloid ‘Gauri Lankesh Patrike’, and had been instrumental in rehabilitating surrendered Naxalites, had faced repeated threats to her life. Her death brings back chilling memories of the killings of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and MM Kalburgi.

Seventy years ago when emergency was imposed by Congress PM Indira Gandhi, India came out of the worst lows of its democracy. One of the activities functioned was imposing censorship over press, for instance PM ordered to print good things done by Congress, electricity of press was cut and this consequently led the journalists and media to print and circulate blank newspapers in protest. This is how our fourth most important estate was turned overnight into an instrument of state control. Journalists were muzzled, harassed, attacked and put behind the bars for carrying out their duties to the public.

In a dark reenactment of that history, the Speaker of the Karnataka assembly recently authorized a set of actions that has ignited fresh fears of censorship at a time pledges are being made to uphold press freedom.

A wise philosopher once famously said that history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. The recent churns in India’s political life seem to have been following such a script down to the last detail.

Narendra Modi tweeted, “World Press Freedom Day is a day to reiterate our unwavering support towards a free and vibrant press, which is vital in a democracy.”

As a survey revealed, in the last year and a bit, at least 54 media personnel have been attacked , 25 journalists were intimated, and 7 killed by a combination of state and non  state actor. In the World Press Freedom Index 2017, India occupies a lowly 136 position, three notches down from 2016, in a list of 180 countries. For a rising “regional superpower”, with ambitions to sit at the global high table of developed nations, it couldn’t have been a worse portent.

Congress MLA KB Koliwad’s crackdown on two journalists in Karnataka fits seamlessly into the recent series of atrocities perpetrated on members of the media. But what has left journalists, as well as many members of the judiciary, truly aghast is his blatant misuse of the powers ascribed to the Committee on Privileges of the state’s assembly to justify his misdeeds.

On 21 June, Koliwad authorised a penalty of ₹10,000 each on Ravi Belagere, editor and owner of a weekly tabloid called Hai Bangalore, and Anil Raj, editor of a local periodical called 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 chairman of the privileges committee, a Congress MLA called Kimmane Ratnakar, had approved of such punishment only for Raj, based on a complaint by the BJP MLA from Yelahanka constituency of Bengaluru, SR Vishwanath. But Koliwad felt he could have his way since he had already found Belagere guilty while he was the chairman of the committee in 2015-16, before he became the Speaker.

Both the Congress and BJP MLAs accuse the two editors of writing defamatory articles about them to justify their call for severe punitive actions. Whether there is any truth in their claim is a matter of investigation, to be conducted in a court of law, rather than being dispensed by the members of the legislature in such a ham-handed manner, which reeks of personal vendetta.

Speaking to The Hindu, several jurists clarified the sheer audaciousness of the move against the journalists. The immunity enjoyed by legislators, under the Committee of Privileges, is comparable to provision of the contempt of court and derives from the procedures of the House of Commons of the Parliament of the UK. However, the Supreme Court specifies that only those procedures, adopted under Articles 105 and 294 of the Indian Constitution, can be adopted as part of legislative privileges.

Simply put, the privileges enjoyed by the legislators apply only within the precincts of the legislature and their conduct therein, especially to actions that have the potential to curtail, undermine and impede their freedom within the ambit of the legislature. However, the articles that incited the ire of these politicians pertain to the latter’s role in public life and have nothing to do with their activities within the legislature.

Asking the assembly to withdraw its resolution, The Editors’ Guild of India said, “journalists must have the freedom to write critical articles against all such elected representatives of the country and hold them accountable without fear or favour”. The suitable reaction to allegations of misrepresentation should be filing of a case of libel in a court of law instead of a “gross misuse of the powers and privileges of a state legislature”.

India Is one of the countries where democracy is worshipped but murders of Kalburgi,  Ananthamoorthi and the recent case of August 5 2017, assassination of Gauri Lankesh clearly depicts that India is not a “free” and “democratic” country in a true sense but has only existed on a paper as here no freedom of press exists, that is why those who want to bring forward any crucial and serious matter of some great personality is either shot dead or abducted.

A little over two years after Kalburgi was shot dead by two assassins, Gauri was gunned down in a similar fashion 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”.

Hours after prominent Kannada journalist Gauri Lankesh, known for her strong views against Hindutva politics, was shot dead in cold blood by unidentified men right outside her residence, men and women from the media plan to start a wave of protests across Indian cities against her murder, and creeping extremism in creative spaces.

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.