In a masters course on literary journalism at the Centre for Literary Art and Creative Writing, Ambedkar University, students were given an assignment to attend and write on the September 7 protest at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, on the murder of journalist and activist, Gauri Lankesh. Lankesh was murdered on September 5 at her home in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, Bengaluru. Two of the reports submitted are reproduced below.
Whispers amongst the listeners, by Sreoshi Bhaumik
At the stage set up near the Jantar Mantar metro station, a person gave a brief summary of Gauri Lankesh’s journalistic accomplishments. Amongst the audience, I could hear colleagues greeting each other, former students catching a glance of their old professors and greeting them. Two men just behind me were conversing in Bengali. One said he used to attend every JNU protest until he got too involved with his new job. The other was doing an MPhil on Hindutva from a university in Germany. One bemoaned that the protests in Delhi lacked the energy of those in Kolkata. Students had even made hand-drawn posters with slogans or Lankesh’s portrait. A cyclist approached our group, holding one of the #NotInMyName posters in front of his cycle. He said he had a poster and asked us to take his picture. Puzzled, we decided to humour him and one of us students did so with his phone camera. The thin, middle-aged man started listing Lankesh’s accomplishments in Hindi at a pace that suggested he had rehearsed his speech, but was nervous. When he paused for breath, I asked him where he had cycled from. He replied that he was a newspaper vendor and had cycled from Connaught Place to Dilli Haat, where he delivered newspapers during lunch time. Then he asked us which newspaper we were from. We realised that because of our notepads, he had mistaken us to be journalists. When we told him that we were students, he was visibly embarrassed. He was keen to convey the fact that it wasn’t just educated people, including students, who were shocked by Lankesh’s death, but also someone as ordinary as him. It was not just an attack on a woman journalist, but on democracy itself. “People are selfish and don’t have the time to attend these events,” he said. “But what they don’t understand is that they should be selfish about this too. What is the point of being selfish if you can’t be secure in your own country when you speak the truth?”
Listening to him, I wished one of the reporters would approach him. Unlike me, he had come here with a determination to speak about the problem and deserved a microphone. But the microphones were either on stage or with reporters who were approaching students alone. There were some people amongst the listeners who were content in whispering amongst themselves.
Amidst the crowd was a young man standing all by himself, facing the stage. He was holding three books, clutched to his chest for all to see: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. I went up to him and asked why he had particularly chosen those three books to display. He replied that he wanted to remind people that the dystopian futures described in these books weren’t such a farfetched idea anymore. It was something we were living in right now. He said even though he was just a student writing a blog, as a writer he felt it was time to take their discourses to regional languages. Writing in the mother tongue transformed a writer into an activist.
I was reminded of his sentiments when I read Rajdeep Sardesai’s September 14 piece in the Hindustan Times, ‘Silence is no longer an option for us’. Sardesai echoed what the student, who was silently holding up the three books, had already told me: “That Lankesh woman, writing in her own language, made her perhaps even more vulnerable. English language journalists are to some extent cocooned by the limited universe they operate in. A regional-language journalist speaks to a much wider audience, which is more rooted in ground realities. There is a media elitism, which has left journalists in regional dailies/channels more exposed to threat; attacks on them rarely making headline news.” I realised one only needed to be willing to start listening to those who had come to listen, apart from the speakers, to learn much more.
The stillness of a protest, by Sudheshna Mukherjee
Walking over the carpet laid out on the street at Jantar Mantar, I look for the crowd to hold me steady. The protest is still to begin. Noticing a chaiwallah, I walk to the old man sitting under a small, makeshift shop and ask him for some water. As I wait, I see a couple walking towards me. The woman speaks first, “Do you know when the speakers will begin?” I shake my head. No one around me speaks to them and it makes me wonder if I am imagining them. I notice them walking off into the distance as I finish my glass of water. Thanking the old man, I find myself behind the couple. I hear the woman asking the man, “Who was Gauri Lankesh?” Her question sets me thinking who they may be and what brought them here. I name them Sheila and Raman. I picture Sheila struggling with a pan of yellow dal. Adjusting the flame, she stuck the ladle into the bowl. Just as she was about to call Raman, he rushed into the kitchen, telling her someone murdered Lankesh.
Next morning, Raman informed Sheila he’ll be attending the protest at Jantar Mantar. Sheila decided to accompany him. Walking from the metro station to the main area, they noticed some people had already started filing up the space with a makeshift stage. Sheila sat down on the pavement, next to a frail old man, facing the barren stage. The road was soon overflowing with poets, activists, journalists, students, artists, homeless people, rickshaw pullers, hawkers. For about two hours starting 4 pm, there were speeches and poetry by people who were deeply affected by Lankesh’s murder. Raman was nowhere in Sheila’s sight and she let him be. The murmurs and silent chants vibrated through her as picturesque green trees stood within the walls of this street. It is in this aspect that a sense of challenge was being presented by an artist who was clicking numerous eccentric photographs on the right corner of the pavement next to a delicate tea stall.
What does he see through that lens of his? How many protests has he been a witness to? Does he still believe in the relevance of such protests in India? These questions reverberate through Sheila’s head as she listens to Monobina Gupta, a journalist from The Wire. Unlike the others, she raises a critical question about her own profession: “Will Gauri’s death bring any change in the newsrooms? Or will they keep dodging the Hindutva groups?”
A young man comes and gives Sheila a poster with the words ‘Your bullets do not scare us’. She tries to look him in the eye, but he has already passed on to the next person. Was he really not afraid of bullets? She could not disagree there was something about this quiet protest which did more than what protest marches do. When you are standing up against communal politics, you realise how hateful and unsafe India really is.
Sitting on the hot pavement beside hundreds of other people, she remembers how the filmmaker Mani Kaul once wrote, “ideas—sometimes even a progressive social idea—become like the legs of a slim or a fat heroine exposed for the consumption of the very class which the ideas themselves denounce.” The progressive idea of change can be seen differently by people coming from different spaces of privilege. It becomes quite important to place yourself within your context before you even begin to speak. Just as this protest has a sense of privilege in the air that these people, including the speakers, are attempting to break. A privilege that people in the Hindutva camp too believe they have. It becomes hard to look past, when one is so deeply rooted into it. Maybe this discussion will put certain cogs in the machinery to work. I suddenly become aware of people walking past me, the purple glow of the setting sun falling into the empty stage and posters left hanging in the air.
A few weeks later, both Sheila and Raman find themselves standing outside Wengers in Connaught Place. A few steps to the left, they find a vendor selling folk art and dream catchers along with other goods worthy of distraction. She touches the smooth surface of Buddhist sculptures which feel readable. But the dream catchers leave her with a heavy feeling, equally beautiful and disturbing. They lull her into a soft trance, when suddenly her mobile phone chimes. She reads the notification, ‘Journalist KJ Singh and His 92-Year-Old Mother Murdered in Their Mohali Home, SIT To Probe Case’. A peculiar pain erupts within her. But when Raman asks her about it, she shrugs her shoulders and walks out into the dark.