5 September 2020 marked the third death anniversary of journalist-cum-activist Gauri Lankesh. A relentless voice against right-wing Hindu extremism, caste-based discrimination, and an ardent supporter of women’s rights, Gauri was shot to death by assailants outside her residence in Bangalore. Her death sparked widespread “I am Gauri” protests, but perhaps a more lasting tribute to her lifelong struggle would be to continue fighting against the issues undermining democracy today.
Rise of Right-wing Hindu Extremism
One of the assailants claimed that he killed Gauri to protect his religion. The religion was ‘Hindutva’ and Gauri Lankesh its ‘ideological enemy’. Gauri vociferously fought for the ban of communal groups and sectarian politics through her weekly journal Gauri Lankesh Patrike. She was a leading voice in the Baba Budangiri dispute. The shrine at Baba Budangiri hills, in Chikmagalur district of Karnataka, represented a syncretic faith revered by Hindus and Muslims, but the Sangh parivar declared it as an exclusively Hindu site, labelling the shrine ‘Ayodhya of South’ to seek political gains. Gauri opposed this communalisation of the site till death, through her active role in Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (Forum for Communal Harmony), which consists of over 200 organisations.
Since her murder in 2017, religious polarisation has increased nationwide through incidents of mob lynchings, renaming of cities representing Islamic culture, and the Supreme Court verdict of 2019, favouring the construction of the Ram mandir in Ayodhya. The politics of Hindutva reached its climax when the highly communal Citizenship (Amendment) Act came into force on 10 January 2020, despite widespread nationwide protests. Gauri Lankesh might not have lived to witness this monstrosity, but her memory exhorts us to oppose this religious extremism and uphold the secular fabric of the nation.
Curbing of Dissent
The Malayalam poet K. Satchidanandan called Gauri Lankesh’s death the ‘murder of democracy’. Her death was a part of the pattern that links the assassination of intellectuals like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi, all of whom had opposed the fundamentalist Hindutva ideology of the BJP. The buck doesn’t stop here. Since the Modi government won an overwhelming majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the state has heavily cracked down on activists and academicians. After the abrogation of Article 370, Kashmir valley witnessed an internet shutdown for more than 160 days (longest-ever shutdown in any republic) and thousands of political leaders have been detained since. While Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees Freedom of Speech, it has been curtailed time and again in the interest of ‘national security’ and not offending ‘religious sentiments’. During the anti-CAA outrage in the country, Dr Kafeel Khan was held in preventive detention by the UP government under the draconian National Security Act (NSA). It took Allahabad High Court more than six months to order his immediate release and to term his speech as non-provocative.
Clearly, ‘national security’ and ‘religious sentiments’ weren’t enough grounds for arrest when BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s ‘Goli Maaro’ slogan fueled religious riots in Delhi, killing nearly 20 people in Jafrabad. The UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) has been misused by the Central government to arrest over a dozen notable Dalit and Adivasi leaders and anti-caste activisits—including Dr Anand Telumbde, Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, and others—on flimsy evidence concerning the Bhima Koregaon case. This follows the selective incarceration policy of the government who have failed to arrest Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, both Hindutva activists, who had faced early FIRs for orchestrating the violence at Bhima Koregaon.
There is an urgent need to revise the NSA and UAPA laws to clearly define the term ‘unlawful activities’, provide sufficient legal basis for arrests, and a need for the judiciary to hear pleas against preventive detention on top priority.
A Subservient Media
“Journalism is about questioning the government and not becoming their pamphlet,” says Kavitha Lankesh while reminiscing the fearless journalism symbolised by her late sister. Gauri Lankesh ran no advertisements in her journal Gauri Lankesh Patrike, to protect it from outside pressure. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream media today acts as a mouthpiece for the government. Two major concerns need to be addressed.
First, there is the utter disregard for journalism ethics. Rather than presenting the news in an objective, factual and informed manner, there is an attempt to sensationalise the news and present value judgements based on little evidence. Secondly and more crucially, the media is distracting the public from core issues by setting the agenda to less important issues. This refers to the ‘non-decision making power’ which plays into the narrative of the BJP government. The excessive media reportage of the SSR saga has subsumed the discussions on real issues such as falling GDP, rising unemployment, Chinese aggression, and the scrapping of Question Hour in the coming session of Parliament.
Combating these issues requires more independent voices like Gauri Lankesh, who are not afraid to speak out against the system. We need to continue her struggle to safeguard democracy itself. And perhaps if someone labels you ‘anti-national’ for questioning the government, remember the words of Mark Twain: “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”
By Kush Bansal
Kush Bansal is a third year Political Science student at Hindu College and a member at The Symposium Society. Interested in political theory, he loves a conversation on ethics and moral philosophy. He is also a sports enthusiast and plays football and tennis.