Who killed Gauri Lankesh?

Rarnan Swamy adds

She was not afraid of anyone. But somebody was very afraid of her—afraid enough to kill her.

These words are perhaps the most evocative epitaph for Gauri Lankesh, journalist and activist, who was shot dead in Bangalore on September 5, 2017.

Why did they want her dead? What were they so afraid of? How could a frail, middle-aged woman be considered a threat to anyone? Who are these shadowy people, so insecure and vulnerable and with so much hatred and fear in their hearts yet wealthy enough to take out a supari and hire professional murderers?

It is basic journalism to ask—Who? What? Why? Where? When? How?

In Gauri Lankesh's case, only the When and the Where are known—the answers to the other question are still cloaked in conjecture and surmise.

To put it plainly, the most plausibly theory currently doing the rounds is that she was done to death by right-wing fanatics who were becoming increasingly perturbed by her relentless and strident anti-Hindutva campaign to expose their design to take over the country by stilling all dissent.

Even a cursory glance at her recent articles in the Kannada language weekly tabloid that she was editing and her other writings in English in various online publications provides circumstantial evidence to lend credence to this hypothesis.

In all her writings, she minced no words while criticising right-wing politics and saffron politicians. Her journal, Gauri Lankesh Patrike, was vocal on subjects like secularism, persecution of minorities, the rights of Dalits, and the plight of the downtrodden and women.

Even her social media posts in Facebook and Twitter consistently reflected her views—predictably evoking infuriated reactions and angry epithets, like 'anti-national' and 'anti-Hindu'.

She had a host of ideological enemies in the saffron fold. Last November she was held guilty of defamation by a judicial magistrate in Hubli in a defamation case over two pieces published in 2008 about Prahlad Joshi, BJP MP from Dharwad and Umesh Dushi, also of the BJP. Lankesh was given a six-month sentence and fined by the court, but was granted bail the same day.

Her response was typical of her—"I didn't realize that the IT cell of the BJP would use this episode as a tool to threaten other journalists", she said.

She said she was more concerned about what her situation says about the state of freedom of expression in the country. The fact that people who contradict the right-wing's hard-line ideology are being targeted and made an example of is especially worrying, she felt.

She wrote and spoke of the "patterns that have after which a Bajrang Dal activist, Bhuvith Shetty had tweeted justifying Kalburgi's murder, saying "Mock Hinduism and die a dog's death". Shetty was held for the murder of one Harish Poojary last year, apparently because he mistook Poojary to be a Muslim.

She also referred to B V Seetharam, who was arrested for defamation. Seetharam had told the Hindu that he feared for his life and "If I am moved to Mungalore jail, I may be harmed by Bajrang Dal elements within the Jail".

With regard to the case against her, Lankesh said that in her understanding, the person filing the case has to prove that he has been defamed and that "the court has no right to sit in judgment of the article."

Prahlad Joshi's objection to the article, she believed, was unfounded because it was about a jeweler who had come to Joshi asking for justice because he had been swindled by party members. In the event that Joshi could not deliver, the jeweler had threatened to go to the police.

Essentially, the story alleged that Joshi had covered up for his party workers. But in no way did the story harm Joshi, she said. The incident was, in fact, well reported by several publications, but it was her weekly that was targeted. "How have l defamed him?" Lankesh asked, "He won the elections after that".

As for Dushi, Lankesh says that there are several cases pending against him and so her publication, specifically, could have done very little to besmirch his reputation, given that the damage is already done.

Overall, she sensed that free speech was being stifled in India and other constitutional freedoms were being systematically curbed. She prophesied that dark days lay ahead. The word 'sedition' has been thrown around too often for comfort in the past two years—she pointed to the misuse of law by supporters of the ruling dispensation to silence voices of dissent or even disagreement.

Indications are that Gauri Lankesh was probably working on a series of new exposures about certain influential individuals, including industrialists and politicians in Karnataka and elsewhere. During a recent trip to Delhi to attend a seminar, she is said to have hinted to friends that her journalistic investigations were almost ready to be published.

She was, however, conscious of the dangers and was wary of whom to trust. In a Twitter post on September 4, Gauri expressed her growing sense of uneasiness—"Why do I feel that some of 'us' are fighting between ourselves? We all know our 'biggest enemy'."

The Bangalore Police are said to be viewing this as a clue to the state of her mind. Just a few days before she was gunned down, a local television channel had claimed that Gauri was being watched and stalked by unknown persons. There was even a report that an abortive attempt may have been made on her life on September 2.

A close friend had tried to advise her to tread warily—"Be careful about what you write. Be less impulsive when you post on social media. We live in dangerous times".

Gauri Lankesh brushed aside his worries by saying: "I am not made of wood. It is human to react to what is going on. What we feel instinctively; is usually our most honest response. I am not afraid of expressing what I feel."

She was not afraid of anyone. But somebody somewhere was clearly very afraid of her—afraid enough to hire contract killers to silence her forever.

Vol. 50, No.16, Oct 22 - 28, 2017