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India: Gauri Lankesh, journalist and activist, 1962-2017 | Nilanjana Roy

12 September 2017

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Financial TImes

Indian newspaper publisher who spoke truth to power was murdered this month

September 8, 2017

by: Nilanjana Roy

If you judge the calibre of an editor by the quality of her enemies, Gauri Lankesh was one of India’s best. She was murdered on September 5 by three gunmen who attacked as she entered her Bangalore home. The killing shocked the Indian media.

She had been overseeing the weekly edition of the Gauri Lankesh Patrike, her Kannada-language tabloid, one of the very few Indian newspapers that proudly carried a female publisher’s name on its masthead.

Aside from the usual pressures, the media in India has faced greater political intimidation, vicious abuse, threats and accusations of being “anti-national” after the 2014 election, when Narendra Modi swept to power on a Hindu nationalist platform. Many self-censored. Even those who did not back down measured their words in public, but Lankesh spoke freely. Privately, Delhi’s editors shared tales of her impassioned phone calls: “Speak up, you must do more, why are all of you so timid!”

Lankesh, who was 55, was a strong critic of Modi’s government, but she spoke truth to all forms of power — religious, political, caste-driven and communal. She was unafraid of making enemies, and she made them with relish — a recent op-ed she wrote attacked “flag bearers of the Hindutva brigade” and questioned leaders from the powerful Lingayat religious community.

If critics expected that she would curb herself after she lost a defamation suit in 2016 filed by BJP leaders, they were mistaken

Gauri Lankesh was born in 1962 to a prominent Karnataka family. Her father, a Kannada writer, P Lankesh, was adored for his poetry, short stories, plays and films. He received India’s highest literary prize, the Sahitya Akademi award, in 1993. Gauri, his oldest daughter, inherited his jousting spirit, uncompromising anti-caste views and religious scepticism. She is survived by her sister, Kavitha, a film director and lyricist, and her brother, Indrajit, a film producer and publisher.

In 1980, P Lankesh started Karnataka’s first tabloid, Lankesh Patrike. The state had seen nothing like this — punchy, colourful journalism that gleefully blurred the line between gossip and fact. “It was very successful, and spawned many imitators,” says the journalist Manoj Mitta. Before the rise of television, Lankesh Patrike boasted a circulation of millions. P Lankesh shrugged off the defamation suits and death threats, an attitude that his daughter would later adopt.

Gauri Lankesh thought she might want to be a doctor, turning only later to English-language journalism. Her marriage to a fellow journalist, Chidanand Rajghatta, brought her to Delhi. “Even when we divorced 27 years ago, after five years of courtship and five years of marriage, we remained great friends,” her ex-husband wrote in a tribute.

Gauri was reluctant to take over Lankesh Patrike when her father died in 2000, but stepped up rather than let his legacy die. Her brother Indrajit became business editor, though their differing political views — Gauri was of the far left, Indrajit supports the BJP — caused clashes later. She had written chiefly in English and switched to Kannada, at first with trepidation, then with confidence as she wrote more, travelled frequently, reclaiming both terrain and language.

In 2005, she and her brother fell out over her report of the killing of a Maoist Naxalite leader in a police encounter. He pulled the piece. Gauri denied that she had been sympathetic to the Naxalites, alleging that Indrajit had threatened her with a gun. She started her own tabloid, the Gauri Lankesh Patrike. The Congress government in Karnataka praised her efforts on a 2014 state committee that persuaded Naxalites to surrender and return to the mainstream.

The forum for communal harmony, the Komu Souharda Vedike, that she started in 2005, frequently clashed with Hindu rightwing groups. She enraged religious zealots with her rationalist views, influenced by the 12th century Hindu reformer Basavanna, and by the jurist and Dalit leader Dr BR Ambedkar.

If critics expected that she would curb herself after she lost a defamation suit in 2016 filed by BJP leaders, they were mistaken. Free on anticipatory bail, ready to appeal against the verdict, she said: “I oppose the BJP’s fascist and communal politics . . . I oppose the caste system of the ‘Hindu Dharma’, which is unfair, unjust and gender-biased.”

Colleagues say that Lankesh was fearless, reckless, and driven by injustice. “We can’t fit into his shoes,” she’d said in 2000, hesitating at the thought of taking over her father’s legacy. But she filled them well. It would take three bullets, fired at close range in a murder that reminded many of the previous killings of rationalist thinkers, to finally silence her fluting, unrepentant, fearless voice.

Nilanjana Roy


The above article from Financial Times is reproduced here in public interest for educational and non commercial use