Journalists disturbed by Gauri Lankesh’s killing must introspect on the nature and character of the news media today, and publicly and collectively condemn the rabble-rousers and instigators.
“As regards the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha… our reports do confirm that, as a result of the activities of these two bodies, particularly the former (RSS) an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible.”
– Sardar Vallabhai Patel, India’s first home minister, on the assassination of Gandhi,
in a letter dated July 18, 1948 to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee.
(Sardar Patel Correspondence, Volume 6, edited by Durga Das)
Who shot Gauri Lankesh dead?
We do not yet know the identity of the nameless, faceless assailants on a bike – and we may never know. We may never know at whose behest they fired those bullets.
But we do know who – before her assassination and since – is creating an atmosphere that rationalises and celebrates such assassinations. We do know who is branding intellectuals and activists critical of the BJP and RSS as equivalent to terrorists.
Before I go on to put down my thoughts, in detail, about the various forces that are weaving a web of terror and intimidation, I would like to share a memory.
The night I heard of Lankesh’s murder, the shock, anger and sleeplessness I felt had a touch of déjà vu to it. I had experienced it before – in 1997 – when my dear friend and comrade (former JNU students union president) Chandrashekhar was gunned down in Siwan, Bihar.
In the days that followed Chandu’s assassination, thousands of people marched on the streets demanding punishment for Shahabuddin, the RJD MP and mafia don who ruled Siwan. It was and is an open secret that Shahabuddin had Chandu killed – despite the fact that the CBI investigation failed to nail Shahabuddin.
In 1997 too, various alternate theories were brandished by Shahabuddin apologists as red herrings – ‘It was a property dispute in which Shyam Narain Yadav was the target/Chandu was not the intended target at all/it was a personal quarrel/perhaps some other CPI(ML) person did it/Shahabu was in jail and could not have had anyone killed’.
But those of us who demanded and continue to demand justice for Chandu, had no qualms about saying, loud and clear, that Shahabuddin was Chandu’s killer. And no one in the media then told us we were jumping the gun or that we should wait for an investigation to be complete before accusing Shahabuddin. Most responsible print and electronic media houses then covered the assassination and the agitation responsibly – they did not declare Shahabuddin guilty, but their coverage did establish facts about the climate of terror and impunity cultivated by Shahabuddin in Siwan, it did point out how difficult it is to secure justice – to get witnesses willing to implicate Shahabuddin – in that climate.
Likewise, although all Ranveer Sena men have been acquitted in the Bathani Tola massacre case, most commentators including those in the media attribute the massacre to the Ranveer Sena.
Should the coverage of Lankesh’s murder not follow the same guidelines? Why are activists and friends of Lankesh’s who support her lawyer in naming groups like the Sanatan Sanstha as the number one suspect in her assassination, being accused by some in the media of jumping the gun and blaming the Right wing for her murder, of turning the murder into a ‘Left vs Right’ thing?
We should ask ourselves: how would Gauri Lankesh Patrike and Lankesh herself have covered such an assassination? How did she cover the assassination of M.M. Kalburgi, for instance? Did she, in the name of objectivity, avoid connecting the dots between the slew of defamation cases and death threats from right wing groups – and the eventual assassination? Did she only speak of “justice for Kalburgi” in the abstract – pulling her punches when it came to naming the forces that wanted him dead? The answer to all those questions is, obviously, a resounding no. Her own example should be the standard we set for journalists covering her assassination – and for activists speaking about her assassination. For us to pull our punches and become mealy-mouthed now when it comes to Lankesh’s own assassination, to imply that the “Left” voices demanding justice for her should be just as discredited as the voices on the Right rationalising her murder, would be a great disservice and disrespect to her.
A menacing climate for dissent
“Had Gauri Lankesh not written about the RSS and BJP, she would be alive today” – that is not a statement by a Left activist. It is a public declaration by a BJP MLA Jeevaraj in Karnataka to BJP cadres.
Such a public statement is not an idle one – not just an ill-judged stray remark. It is a deliberate reminder to the BJP/RSS rank and file that the anodyne statements by Union ministers against celebrating murder are not meant to be heeded by them. It is also meant to be a warning to each of us who speak or write or organise against the BJP and RSS. Lankesh’s murder should not be read only as an attack on journalists or on press freedom. It is an attack on voices of political dissent – an attack that should be a call to wake up and smell the assertion of fascist forces in India.
Those of us who regularly receive death threats online and offline by BJP and RSS supporters know that these threats are unlikely to be carried out. Lankesh’s killing is meant as a message to each of us: “We haven’t got you yet. But be warned – we could, if we chose.” And the online haters (several of whom are followed by the prime minister) just make sure we get that message. Lankesh herself had received the message loud and clear – she spoke about death threats to intellectuals and activists becoming a regular thing in Karnataka. She – like so many others in Karnataka – refused to be terrorised or silenced by such a climate of threats and intimidation. Lankesh’s killing is meant as a warning to all the others that while each death threat might not be followed up with action, the threats are anything but idle.
One thing we can do, in the wake of Lankesh’s assassination, is to call out, expose, and delegitimise all those forces that are making individual activists and intellectuals vulnerable to violence by branding them ‘anti-national’ for their views.
Foremost among these, of course, is the troll army on social media. The prime Mminister has made it clear he is unwilling to sever his ties to this abusive Army. What needs to be said here is that the abuses and threats by the troll army are, in themselves, acts of violence, not ‘free speech’. When the swarm of trolls descends viciously on an activist or writer, it is an act of violence. It is not enough to say, as Union minister Smriti Irani once did, “If you can’t take the heat don’t come into the kitchen”. We aren’t about to leave the kitchen Ms Irani, but there’s a distinction between the legitimate heat of political debate and a campaign of hundreds of organised abuses and threats. No woman or man should have to be subjected to such sustained abuse, threats, and fake news just because they, like Lankesh, are critical of the Sangh parivar’s politics.
It is also important, in the wake of Lankesh’s murder, to take stock of what passes off for ‘journalism’ in India today. Can the kind of bigotry, hate-mongering, and instigation by channels like Times Now, Republic, Zee News and News X really be described as ‘journalism’? After all, an anchor on the Republic has a lot more power than a troll on Twitter – if he does what the Twitter troll does, it has a far greater potential for harm. These channels have, time and again, publicly aired ‘lists’ of ‘anti-nationals’ – lists including young students as well as writers like Arundhati Roy or activists like myself. It is my personal experience that each time I am named on these channels, there is a spike in threatening and abusive messages I receive on social media. After Arnab Goswami called me a ‘lawyer for the LeT’ on the Republic, I received, among all the hate messages, an abusive and menacing phone call from someone purporting to be from Bhopal. And this instigation does not only affect those who are named personally. When these channels profile intellectuals and activists who speak up for human rights or against communal politics as ‘Afzal Premi Gang’ or ‘Anti National Gang’, that profiling endangers someone like Lankesh as well, even if she was not named. Human rights activists, feminist activists, anti-communal activists work in hostile and unsafe circumstances as it is – these channels magnify their vulnerability to violence by applying these inflammatory labels to them.
Also read: General Narendra Modi and His Troll Army
It is high time that journalists who are disturbed by Lankesh’s killing introspect on the nature and character of these channels, and publicly and collectively, as a community of journalists, condemn these rabble-rousers and instigators. Poet Gauhar Raza filed a complaint against Zee News and secured a measure of vindication from the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, but it should not be left only to the victims of the instigation to pursue action against these channels. Instigation is not free speech, it is an assault on free speech.
Connect the dots
Now, I do not expect journalists to be judge and jury and pass judgement on ‘Who Killed Gauri’. Serious journalism must stick to facts – and must not allow the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, Kalburgi and Lankesh to fade from public memory.
There is also one more task for serious journalism. The organisation implicated in the murders of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi is the Sanatan Sanstha.
Whether Sanatan Sanstha members are found guilty or not, whether their involvement is indicated in Lankesh’s murder or not, remains to be seen. But surely “the nation” deserves to know more about these organisations that are suspected of organising assassinations and other terrorist actions? Should the task of shedding light on these organisations be done only by indefatigable individuals like Lankesh and Ram Puniyani (read Puniyani’s Deconstructing Terrorist Violence: Faith as a Mask)? Have big media houses with their resources done enough to make this their task?
The Sanatan Sanstha is a Goa-based organisation that shares headquarters with its sister organisation the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS). The Sanatan Sanstha has been linked with 2009 blast in Goa and is also said to have links with the Abhinav Bharat, implicated in the Malegaon blasts.
A serious probe into these organisations began when the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism squad chief Hemant Karkare began piecing together what he found to be an intricate terror network. We know the fate of those investigations now, with the National Investigation Agency (NIA) – presumably on behalf of its masters in the current Central government – pressurising prosecutors to go soft on the accused.
The Sanatan Sanstha and HJS holds a grand Hindu adhiveshan (convention) every year at their Goa headquarters, calling for the creation of a Hindu rashtra. This story in The Wire gives an account of the latest such adhiveshan and of the unease and fear these organisations evoke in local people.
YouTube videos uploaded by the HJS show a series of videos of speakers addressing these yearly conventions. Several of them call for forcible ‘rescue’ (read abduction) of Hindu women who are in love with Muslim men, i.e for violence against women in the name of ‘rescue from love jihad’.
In June 2013, the momentous BJP national executive meeting was held in Goa where the party’s choice of Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls became clear. The second All India Hindu Convention was hosted by the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS in the same month in Goa. Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, sent a message to the convention, which is worth reading closely.
His message said:
Every organisation that works, based on the inspiration of nationalism, patriotism and tradition of loyalty, is the identity of our people’s strength. Closeness to love, humanity and divinity, giving priority to non-violence, truth and sattvikata are the principles followed by Hindus in leading their life but to have to resist brutal, inhuman tendencies seems to be the destiny of Hindus. It has been our tradition to be alert every moment and raise voice against oppression.
Several questions need to be raised about this message. Why was someone holding the post of chief minister and soon-to-be India’s prime minister, sending a congratulatory message to a convention calling for India to be transformed from a secular state to a Hindu rashtra? Why was he, in his message, calling organisations whose members had been implicated in terrorist activity including blasts, organisations inspired by “nationalism, patriotism, loyalty”? (Remember, the blast accused were acquitted only in 2015, due to a “technical error” by the NIA.)
And what does Modi mean when says that Hindus uphold principles of non-violence but that resisting “brutal, inhuman tendencies seems to be the destiny of Hindus”? Does that sentence not implicitly endorse and valorise acts of violence by Hindus against non-Hindus?
Modi is given, when forced to break his silence on lynchings, to remind us that India is the country of Gandhi and Buddha, and that violence is therefore wrong. One wonders why, if at all he felt compelled to write to them, he did not remind the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS that India is the country of Gandhi and Buddha?
Surely Modi ought to be asked now to clarify his position on organisations like the Sanatan Sanstha, and asked why he sent a message to the conference hosted by an organisaton implicated in terror?
The report in The Wire noted that although RSS and BJP officially distance themselves from the Sanstha and its goals of Hindu rashtra, several RSS and BJP men do in fact attend the adhiveshans organised by the Sanstha. The report notes, however, that Adityanath is one BJP leader who openly endorses the adhiveshan’s call for the Hindu rashtra. The fact that Adityanath has been chosen by the BJP led by Modi and Amit Shah to be chief minister of UP, is a message that the carefully maintained distance between the RSS and BJP, and groups like the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS, is not as much as we are given to believe.
In the wake of Lankesh’s death, the prime minister must be held accountable for the abusive handles he follows – and also for the warm message he sent to organisations implicated in terror and working to undermine India’s secular constitution and replace it with a Hindu rashtra.
Kavita Krishnan is secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA).