Podcasts: Opinion

Dance and despair for India in memory of murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh

A birthday letter to a colleague and comrade explores the hatreds poisoning India and the hope and joy that Gauri brought to counter them

27 January 2022, 3.28pm
In September 2017, Indian journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead in her garden
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Kavitha Lankesh. All rights reserved
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Dear Gauri,

Two days from today you turn 60. What would we have done to celebrate this key milestone? There would surely have been anger and tears with the joys and spirits of celebration. We would have argued and bickered about how to be together in the third surge of the pandemic: you, me, Kavitha, Esha and your mother too. But together we would have been. Together, though painfully separated, we are still.

On 5 September 2017, that bleak night, seven hate-filled bullets snatched you away from us, even as you walked through the lovely tree- and plant-laden garden of your home. The home where we sat and shared, always charting new paths of challenge to the hate that was poisonously eating away around us.

Our precious moments of such plotting and sharing happened both in your home and spread over the length and breadth of Karnataka, the state of southern India that your profound activism spanned, from Chikmagalur to Udupi, from Mangalore to Tumkur. We deliberated and also danced to the tunes and songs of protest and struggle. It is these moments that are barrenly absent now.

The past four and a half years, since your laughter, chuckle, smile and fiery resolve were snatched away, has seen the transformation of this hate that took your vibrant life into an insidious state project. If state power is today abused to allow hate offenders to not just spew poison but incite to snatch dignity and kill, the masses of collaborators of ‘brown shirts’, organised and oiled with funds, have found newer and sicker ways of hate dispensation. Unjust laws have been passed by parliament and state legislative assemblies that have further weaponised majoritarianism, making a mockery of the equality principles so fundamental to India, to us, to our constitution.

Though a birthday is time for rosy thoughts, I know that with you I would be speaking and ranting about the way in which our Muslim sisters have been brutalised and objectified on social media platforms. On Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook, on Github, on Clubhouse. Technology is now the arena of evil hatred. That bands of men and women can indulge in this manner of targeting women and girls, from teenagers to grandmothers, reveals a dehumanising, supremacist political project that has rendered large sections of the influential majority silent. This project is seeking to transform India into a theocratic state.

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You and I would have spoken and acted, as I am doing with our friends and comrades now, to break this silence. To become outspoken allies of minorities, to listen, to acknowledge, to grieve, to protest, to heal, to ensure voice and justice. To bring lust-filled perpetrators to justice. The fight must go on.

Gauri, you faced in life and your bloody death the hazards of independent journalism. Today, after 38 years as a journalist, I see that honest and independent colleagues are a threatened breed. India was among the five most dangerous countries in terms of journalists killed across the world in 2021, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders .

You were the outspoken editor of an independent liberal Kannada weekly, struggling to make it survive. Today, close to five years after your assassination, arrests and further assassinations, techniques mastered by the extreme Right, have made India one of the most dangerous places for journalists taking on the establishment. 

For the journalist who is also a Muslim and a Kashmiri, the targeting is manifold. On 15 January, the government that dismembered the state of Jammu and Kashmir through the abrogation of Article 370 of our constitution killed the Kashmir Press Club in its infancy.

Gauri, the tectonic events around this have barely drawn meaningful media debate here. But they have turned the spotlight, yet again, on to the dire state of media freedom in Kashmir. First, a group of journalists, reportedly close to the administration, barged into the premises of the press club accompanied by armed personnel (apparently assigned to protect some of these senior journalists) and literally took it over.

Then, following an outcry by other journalists, including the elected committee that managed the club, the administration decided that it had become a battleground between ‘warring’ groups and hence must be abolished altogether. On 17 January it cancelled the lease to the premises and reverted it to the government.

Most non-journalists have little idea what function a press club serves. They are hubs where journalists exchange information and views, and where they rest between hectic deadlines while they wait for the next interview, the next press briefing. They are places to get an affordable meal and a drink and to socialise with colleagues. They are invaluable.

Gauri and Kavitha stand either side of their father, with their arms around him
Gauri with her sister, Kavitha, and their father
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Kavitha Lankesh. All rights reserved

Now, in Kashmir, a state bitterly divided, the divisions have percolated down to journalists. They suffer arbitrary arrests anyway, as you knew and protested, Gauri: these detentions and interrogations continue unabated. On 5 January, Sajad Gul, a trainee journalist with The Kashmir Walla, was arrested for fomenting anti-government feelings. Last year, Salman Shah and Suhail Dar were arrested for ‘breach of peace’. Journalist Aasif Sultan has been in jail since 2018 and is still awaiting trial.

This level of government interference in the running of a journalists’ club bodes ill for the future. What has happened in ‘J & K’ and India’s north-east, regions at our country’s margins where human rights and dignity have been eroded over decades, is now happening in ‘mainland’ India, Gauri.

Gauri, what we are witnessing first-hand all over India – and your beloved home state, Karnataka, is no exception – is a sense of fear and dread among our most vulnerable as laws and wings of the state are weaponised against its own people. Only three days ago, we reported how 19-year-old Sameer was killed and 21-year-old Shamseer is in a critical condition after they were attacked in Gadag district, allegedly soon after a Bajrang Dal event where anti-Muslim hate was instigated.

This is only one of a series of incidents in your home state where Muslims and Christians have become brute targets, Gauri. Love between the young, intermingling, non-vegetarianism, different forms of dress, freedom of faith, the very diversity that is the joy and core of India is under attack.

Gauri, your life epitomised a wondrous intersectionality. Whether it was India’s Indigenous women (Adivasis), the homeless, Dalits, other minorities or survivors and victims of targeted violence, you, in espousing so effectively their cause, became the living embodiment of hope and resistance. No wonder then that a group of Adivasi bonded labourers wept in uncontrolled sorrow at the mass protest following your killing on 12 September 2017.

You are to them all and us both a hope and a connection. You among all of us realised the urgent need for this alliance-building among the most targeted to evolve a lasting political challenge. No wonder then, Gauri, that in a spontaneous outburst of outrage the slogan that arose was: “Those who killed Gandhi, killed Gauri.” It reflects a deep understanding of the forces who felled you: let’s never forget that your murder was celebrated on Twitter by several Hindu right-wing handles followed by the Indian prime minister.

Gandhi’s assassination – three bullets shot at close range from the front on 30 January 1948, seven and a half months after independence – was the first threat and warning from Hindutva supremacists that they did not accept India’s sagacious choice to remain a secular, pluralist, democratic republic, even after a bitter partition and violence. Of how far they would go. The fact that these assassins from the same ideology are so emboldened today is testimony not just to the pervasive impunity, but also a warning. Of how India is teetering on the brink.

Gauri (left), Kavitha and Esha
Gauri (left) with her sister, Kavitha, and her sister's daughter, Esha, who was Gauri's ‘shining star’
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Kavitha Lankesh. All rights reserved

Gauri, through much of the onset of this misery and pain, you continued to have fun with us, eat good food and drink, dress up, bicker, argue, apply a bright maroon or red lipstick and smile that gentle reaching-out smile that now encompasses us as tears brim over when we miss you. So much of the time. All the time. We know and feel you watching, smiling.

Gauri, the past five years have brought me Kavitha. She, your sister and soulmate, has faced your loss with grace, courage and fortitude. Through sleepless nights, shivers of loss and fear, nightmares, Kavitha’s feelings poured out in the poems she wrote to you in that first year. Every other morning, after a difficult night, I would find one of these poems in my mailbox. ‘The Last Ten Seconds’, ‘The Tiffin Box’, ‘My Soul Mate’, ‘Akka’. As a present and meaningful tribute, we gifted her a printed booklet with all of these that first year.

And Esha, your sister’s daughter, yours too, your bright shining star? Though so difficult and painful, she stands with us at protests and gatherings. She says: “I hope I too stand for peace and unity as my Awwa [mum] did.”

So much is embodied in your life and in your death, Gauri. Brute repression and boundless resistance.

Bye, my fearless tigress kitten of a sister, from your almost-to-be-60-too friend.

Teesta Setalvad

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