Backstory: Gauri Lankesh’s Murder and What It Means for Indian Journalism

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

People hold placards and candles during a vigil for Gauri Lankesh, a senior Indian journalist who according to police was shot dead outside her home on Tuesday by unidentified assailants in southern city of Bengaluru, in Ahmedabad, India, September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Amit Dave

It has been over ten days since Gauri Lankesh, the editor of a Kannada newspaper, was murdered under the garb of darkness. The shock and grief it caused has not receded, even as the enormous significance of this staged brutality grows ever larger. Rarely has the death of a journalist led to so much public outrage, introspection and mourning. There was marching on the streets, sharing of experiences, creation of art, the writing of poetry. Take these words from ‘Gauri. Bangalore. 2017‘ (September 9), “Knock knock/Who’s there/Bullet/Bullet, who?/A bullet and three more inside you”. How simple they are, how they haunt.

As I went through The Wire’s extensive coverage of Lankesh’s death, it struck me that this death could serve as a prism through which to view the state and future of Indian journalism. I would like to begin with the belief that the words and images unleashed by the murder spoke of an incipient creativity. It will, I believe, enhance the quality and depth of our journalism in the years ahead, just as the felling down of Safdar Hashmi in 1989 deepened the presence across India of the street theatre of resistance for the following two decades and more. Assassinations have this way of turning around and destroying the intent of the assassin. The case of young, Karachi-based Sabeen Mahmud who paid the price of her life for speaking about blasphemy in Pakistan but went on to capture the imagination of her generation is a case in point (‘In Life, and in Death, Gauri Lankesh and Sabeen Mahmud Battled Powers Fearful of Change’, September 10). So maybe, just maybe, Lankesh’s murder will create a fresh narrative to counter the very ideologies of hatred that took her life and help to build public support for courageous journalists everywhere whose role as eyewitnesses is irreplaceable.

But there is a long way to go before this happens. After all, only a society that values a journalism that critically engages with the issues of the day will perceive the need to protect its journalists. We, in India, have not yet reached that point. This takes me to the second marker: endemic public inertia which allows falsehoods to circulate as news, and nooses to be strung up every day during television chat shows. It is only when we are confronted by a lifeless body do we wake up to the realisation that we could have, should have, actually stopped the hand of the sniper.

In the wake of Lankesh’s murder, snaking through the expressions of public protest was an ugly, vituperative discourse that raged against her writing and celebrated her annihilation. Such polarising sentiments no longer surprise, but the sheer bestiality of the language adopted by these men and women certainly mark a new moral debasement of media and public discourse. This plying of lie upon lie, abuse upon abuse (‘From Lankesh to Ryan, the Irresistible Urge to Play Communal Politics With Murder’, September 10) has the approval, let us recognise, of a large number of people, many of whom, like Lankesh’s killers, prefer the cover of darkness by remaining pseudonymous. They may or may not have as yet received an invitation to tea at 7, Race Course Road, but some nevertheless wear the ultimate badge of endorsement by being followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi (‘Watch: Modi Must Unfollow Those Abusing Gauri Lankesh, Says Ravish Kumar’, September 6). These forces may not themselves pick up the gun, but they function as the “intellectual” counterparts of the vigilantes on the streets. Lankesh , in fact, had called them out in what was tragically to be her last piece of writing, and which The Wire did well to translate (‘Gauri Lankesh’s Final Editorial: In the Age of False News’, September 9). Strikingly, what disturbed her the most was public inertia: “What is most shocking and sad is that people accepted it as truth without thinking – with their eyes and ears closed and brains shut off,” she wrote.

The third marker concerns the woman journalist, that often isolated figure negotiating the tight rope of personal commitment to the profession and an often hostile public space. Imagine, for a moment, this single, 55-year-old passionate woman journalist driving home at night after work, week after week, catching perhaps a glimpse of a shadowy figure on a motorcycle trailing her in her rearview mirror. She knows full well that there were many out there who want her out of the way, but she does did not allow her suddenly racing heartbeat to stop her hand. She tempted the fates, continued with her chosen brand of journalism, week after week. In The Hoot article carried in The Wire, ‘Hindu Terror Units Killed Gauri Lankesh, Says Her Lawyer’ (September 7), her lawyer talked of that clear and ever-present danger: “They knew her routine – that she would put the paper to bed on Tuesday and on Wednesday, she would go to her farm. Yes, she did get threats but she has been getting threats since 2004, when she took up the Idgah Maidan case and opposed the withdrawal of Uma Bharti from the case (relating to violence in Hubli over the hoisting of the national flag in Idgah Maidan in 1994).”

How audacious that she could carry on over the years, how triumphant! But then, as she put it to a friend, “If we do not speak, who will?” (‘With Gauri Lankesh’s Killing, Another Voice of Truth Has Been Silenced’, September 6). The fact that she was a woman never stopped her from speaking out. Of course, there was the very real possibility of character assassination and in fact it still remains, as another friend observed, “Over the next few months, as they get into investigation … Character assassination is going to be part (of it)…” (‘For Some More Than Others, Being a Journalist in India Comes at a High Price’, September 8). Women journalists are subjected to special treatment of this kind, but I don’t believe it will dissuade even one from pursuing her profession. On the contrary, Lankesh will long inspire those of her gender to walk that tight rope she left behind. As The Wire editorial put it, “The only proper response should be to do the exact opposite of what the killers want …” (September 6).

From Lankesh’s journalism itself, one can draw a fourth marker. A rejection of remaining confined to the comfort zone of the English language media. Two pieces in The Wire discussed this in some detail and noted the unique threat to fundamentalist consolidation posed by the dissenter writing in the local tongue (‘There is Method in the Targeted Murders of Regional Free Thinkers’ and ‘In Gauri Lankesh’s Killing, the Murder Is the Message’, September 7). For Lankesh, Kannada was to be the pathway to not just the minds of her readers but to the cultural tropes that animated them.

She also understood that to address the minatory Hindutva project in Karnataka it was important to ‘make sense of the Lingayat vs Veerashaiva debate’, as an important piece she wrote in August, carried in The Wire, clearly emphasised: “Though many people believed for a long time that Lingayats and Veerashaivas were one and the same, and that the words were interchangeable, they are very different. Lingayats are followers of Basavanna, the 12th-century social reformer who rebelled against Hindu society and established a new dharma. Veerashaivism, as the name suggests, is an order of Shaiva faith, which in turn is one of the two major Vedic faiths – the other one being the Vaishnava faith. Both Shaiva and Vaishnava followers constitute the sanatana dharma. The essential difference between the Lingayata dharma and the Veerashaiva is that the latter accepts the Vedic texts and practices like caste and gender discrimination, while Basavanna not only protested these, he offered an alternative that is an anti-thesis of sanatana dharma.”

These were arguments that could only be framed in Kannada if they were to influence people, and the fact that she was able to influence minds was what made her an implacable enemy of those for whom the sanatana dharma was an article of faith. One perceptive reader wrote in, “The acceptance of Lingayatism as a separate religion, by the masses, could lead to the slow unravelling of the entire Hindutva consolidation project — being attempted by the RSS. It was indeed a very high-stakes business & it perhaps the strongest option reason behind her murder.”

But what we also need to note here is that Lankesh never gave up the option of using the English language media. One of the reasons why her death touched so many people across the country was her ability to straddle the universes of both the English and Kannada language media. Can we then say that the twinning of various language media, the bringing together the insights and genius of multifarious media traditions, can help us actually to amplify our arguments of resistance and dissent in a way that has pan-Indian impacts? Going by Lankesh’s case, I think we can.

Finally, this death underlines the significance of the Award Wapsi moment of 2015 and the struggle to conquer fear. The response of the Modi government and its supporters to the eminent litterateurs who returned their state awards was nothing short of vicious and foretold future barbarities. But what was also distinctive about that most nonviolent resistance was the prescience with which it pointed to the future. It anticipated the destruction of the culture of tolerance in the country would, as certain as night follows day also lead to the coarsening of public discourse, the creation of falsehoods dressed up as facts, the shrinking of spaces for public discussion, the intimidation of intellectuals through prohibitive law suits, and brutalities heaped on those who dissent. Today the fear in the air has thickened and the fate suffered by Narendra Dabolkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi – and now Lankesh – is being held up as a suspended threat. The Wire piece, ‘Those Who Breed Hate Are Now Doing So With Impunity’ (September 6), written by an investigative journalist-turned-politician, tells us what has changed over these three-and-a-half years. Earlier, one did not excessively fear for one’s life because there was “the innate confidence that the law was ultimately on the side of those who are right”; today the “past was truly a different country. Today I fear for my life and the lives of my family members.”

It is the courage of individual writers and journalists that keeps the hope of reversing such a reality alive. Lankesh, her death and its aftermath, serves as a talisman for journalism in India.


Anzar, a 20-year-old college student from Bhopal and a reader of The Wire, would like to share an experience he had: “Recently we were told to prepare some questions for a mock parliament for youth. I prepared a question basically asking why the government is silent and no proper investigation is done when it comes to incidents similar to Dadri, or whenever there is an incident involving the minorities. My teachers praised my questions and their relevance but expressed their inability to allow the questions to be debated openly. They said they had my welfare in mind, and I understood their situation and their anxiety to avoid unnecessary controversy. At the same time I wondered whether, if the voices of the youth, were not in sync with that of government, whether they must remain mute? Should we not ask questions out of fear?” He ends by asking The Wire’s popular feature, ‘Jan Gan Man ki Baat’ to encourage young people to raise their voices without fear.


Writes Naresh Arya, another reader: “It was sheer serendipity that I recently stumbled upon your independent online news portal The Wire and I really am glad that I did. I have now become an avid fan. I regularly soak in the articles, the editorials and the various India centric news and current affairs videos that are being uploaded on a regular basis. I congratulate the entire journalistic fraternity working tirelessly at The Wire for their excellent substantive empirical research and display of collective effort. The calibre and sheer journalistic integrity of present day living icons like The Wire’s editors should serve as role models to be emulated by the younger generation of Indians wanting to take up journalism as a career. In my book to be a journalist, one has to be a die-hard seeker of the truth. I am also of the opinion there are enough conscience driven individuals the world over who recognize the yeoman service provided in the shape of fact and truth based reporting by members of the fourth estate. By the way, your avatars across the seven seas are people like Chris Hedges, Prof. Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald and Joe Sacco who I follow very closely and get solace from them that all is not lost. Another portal I highly recommend reading and watching is The following quotes come to my mind: The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. – Thomas Charlton/ The only real security for social well-being is the free exercise of men’s minds.” – Harold J. Laski.”

Arya also suggests that The Wire should quickly get itself an app that could accelerate its popularity in “high octane mode”!


On the editing front, Kavita Krishnan complimented The Wire for being the only media outfit to have got the headline of a story, on a senior government scientist in Pune complaining about her cook lying to her about her caste, right. The headline carried read: ‘Police Files Case Against Victim of Caste Discrimination’ (September 8).

Another reader spotted a error: ‘barbwire’ appeared instead of ‘barbed wire’ in the piece, ‘Gauri Lankesh’s Argument Has Not Been Laid to Rest’ (September 7).

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  • Anjan Basu

    Beautifully written!

    • kujur bachchan

      Yes. I agree.

  • subhasis ghosh

    22 journalists, including Lankesh, have been murdered since 2013. Why there is so much media outrage in this particular case? Is it because she also wrote in English, is other words she was like us, English educated elite? Has the media, particularly the English language media, let down the other unfortunate 21? If their cases had been taken up as strongly as Lankesh’s case rightly has been, maybe we would not have seen so many murders. Is the English language media capable of this introspection?