Monday, September 11, 2017

A mighty heart - The death and life of Gauri Lankesh // Virago, not martyr

Manini Chatterjee: A mighty heart  - The death and life of Gauri Lankesh
At the core of Gauri Lankesh's fearless journalism and spirited activism lay a profound humanity, a rare ability to nurture and to give. In the outpouring of grief and anger, in the millions of words written and spoken after she was gunned down at the entrance of her Bangalore home last Tuesday night, two narratives have emerged. One focuses on Gauri the activist, the relentless critic of the sangh parivar, the doughty crusader against the politics of hate and bigotry, the champion of the rights of the poor and the vulnerable - who used her pen and her voice to call out against all forms of injustice, who provided succour and support to many a cause that seemed lost to others. The second talks of Gauri the person - warm, generous, fun loving, witty with an infectious sense of humour and an insatiable zest for life. The most moving tribute to the person that was Gauri came from her ex-husband and lifelong friend, Chidanand (Chidu) Rajghatta. The tribute went viral and touched countless people with its portrait of a unique friendship and of a woman who was - in his matchless words - the "epitome of Amazing Grace."


For those of us who knew Gauri, Chidu's post brought back a flood of memories. Back in the Delhi of the late1980s, we were all part of a loose, shambolic circle of friends - our days spent chasing stories or subbing copy (Chidu was in The Telegraph bureau; Gauri at the Times of India desk), our evenings meeting deadlines in rooms clouded with cigarette smoke, deafened by the now forgotten clickety-clack of furious typewriters; and every now and then meeting at one home or the other for a round of beers and endless banter. Although Gauri was the daughter of the well-known Kannada writer and iconoclast, P. Lankesh, she wore her legacy lightly. She did not talk much politics in those days but she exuded a certain spunk - her small, slight frame brimming with energy; her hazel eyes always sparkling with intelligence, and sometimes mischief. But her stand-out qualities even as a 25-year-old was a generosity of spirit and a nurturing instinct. She had no children of her own, then or later, but had a maternal side to her that came alive whenever she visited a friend who had a baby: she could spend hours holding and playing with the baby, even changing his nappies, that his own mother was loath to do.

As for her generosity, she always had time for friends, and even friends of friends - the Lankesh-Rajghatta home turning quickly into a shelter and a refuge for a host of young journalists cutting their teeth in a profession that was still more a calling than a career back then. Those who never knew Gauri personally, and even many of those who knew her in her earlier avatar before she took over the editorship of her father's famous Kannada paper - Lankesh Patrike - after his death in early 2000, may find a contradiction between the two competing narratives about her, a disjunct between the happy-go-lucky journalist she once was and the crusading activist she was to become.

But the magic of Gauri Lankesh, the meaning of her remarkable life - no less significant than the chilling message of her horrific death - lies in the seamless fusion between the personal and the political; the inextricable entwining of a love of life with a deeply honed social conscience that was so atypical of our class, of our times. It was not always like this. The middle class in India - for all its vacillations and inconsistencies - was at the forefront of the freedom struggle... read more:

It's hard to know why some deaths affect us more than others. Most people appalled by Gauri Lankesh's assassination neither knew her, nor even knew of her till she died. She was the editor of a tiny and declining Kannada tabloid. Yet the news of her assassination went viral and inside a day or two there were memorial meetings protesting her death all over the country. There was one at the Press Club in Delhi, for example, that was massively attended.

In some quarters this led to complaints of partiality and special pleading. There was a newspaper report from Assam that pointed out that 32 journalists had been murdered in the state since 1987 and no notice had been taken of these killings by India's Delhi-centric news organizations. If the villain here was metropolitan snobbery, other critiques blamed discriminatory coverage on the tendency of anglophone Indians to reserve their sympathy for one of their own.

Before she became the editor of a bhasha tabloid, Gauri Lankesh had worked as a journalist in the English language press and she continued to write columns in English to subsidize her Kannada weekly. The English press might have shallow local roots but it has a pan-Indian presence and it's not unreasonable to point out that being connected with it creates a network of familiarity and recognition that might be missing when a tragedy occurs outside the boundaries of this print community. And since English in India is closely connected with class, this empathy might have something to do with the powerful sense of belonging that holds this all-India middle-class together.

But these criticisms weren't only intended as sociological insights; they were also political arguments. They were political arguments aimed at discrediting the outrage that Gauri Lankesh's murder had occasioned by characterizing it as selective and biased. There was more to this bias than class and language; after all, India's most successful and widely watched English television news channels like Times Now and the Republic were, at the time, often preoccupied by news other than Gauri Lankesh's death. The adjacent argument, implied and explicit, was that the outrage about Lankesh had more to do with her vehemently anti- Hindutva position in life than the tragedy of her death.

The anglophone New Right argued that Gauri Lankesh's death had been weaponized by liberals and the left. Instead of waiting for the criminal investigation to catch the murderer, Narendra Modi's enemies had jumped the gun by laying the blame for Lankesh's murder at the door of Hindu communal parties and organizations. It isn't hard to show that 'jumping the gun' is something of an Indian pastime, but that would be whataboutery and unworthy of a moment as tragic as this one. It might be more useful to examine the patterns of violence, callousness and impunity that make majoritarian organizations suspects in a murder of this sort.

The executions of rationalists and free thinkers politically hostile to majoritarian beliefs and practices in and Karnataka over the last four years has led to members of two mlitant Hindutva organizations, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and its parent body, the Sanatan Sanstha, being charged with or linked to these murders by the designated investigative agencies, variously the CBI, the CID and the SIT. No one has been convicted but given the politics of the victims and the identity of the suspects in every one of these cases, an extraterrestrial might be forgiven for believing that the majoritarian right has a hand in these killings. Given that Gauri Lankesh was executed in exactly this way, it isn't surprising that the needle of suspicion points in a specific direction.

Matters of guilt can only be settled by the courts but the callousness of the Hindutva right towards murders by vigilantes and others is more easily demonstrated.. read more: