“If they say they are unable to write, let them first stop writing. We will then see.” So spoke Mahesh Sharma, Union minister of state for culture, in October 2015, mocking the ‘award wapsi’ movement that month. The targets of his ridicule included some of India’s finest writers and artists who had returned state and national awards in protest against the murders of M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, as well as in protest against a constructed culture of intolerance, threat and intimidation.
Most of them took no heed of Sharma’s admonition and didn’t stop writing. Many wrote more, in defiance. But there are clearly other, decisive ways of getting writers to stop. Gauri Lankesh was stopped two nights ago. Gunned down just outside her house by unidentified assassins in a manner creepily similar to the earlier killings.
The outspoken editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike was a defiant journalist, rationalist and writer. She’s gone.
Many have commented, rightly, on the ‘modus operandi’ being so similar to that seen in the earlier murders. But here’s the point: the murder is the message. The use of the same modus operandi is part of that message: ‘Yes, it’s us. We did it again. And will, yet again. Let this be a warning to all of you.’
So “we will then see” and hear – what?
In the midst of a genuine outpouring of grief and outrage, it is voices on anti-social media that are almost crowing. That she had it coming. That her deeds had come back to haunt her. That it was not politics that led to her murder, but the other way around. And quite a bit of this from people who are, in their own eyes at least, journalists. Whoever her killers were, they have ideological friends in the media. How many of us thought we’d see a time when you exult, even gloat over the murder of a colleague by armed assassins? And surely there will also be those who call it a ‘sad incident’ and recall that famous line from our prime minister on the violence in the Gujarat riots of 2002: “Even if a puppy comes under the wheel (of a car) will it be painful or not? Of course it is.”
What we’re seeing, however distressing, is at the same time instructive. The message also says: ‘We’re casting a wider net.’ Who the individuals responsible for Lankesh’s murder are, we do not know. But who’s responsible for the culture of violence and terror that induces such killings, for the branding of dissenters as ‘anti-national’ and ‘traitors,’ and for inciting violence against such critics – that we do know.
If we look at Lankesh’s death as the murder of a rationalist, that clearly fits with the pattern: Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi. And while her death is terribly shocking – it is not, for some, entirely surprising. But her main identity was that of a journalist.
If we look at it as the murder of a journalist, then it deviates a bit from the pattern of the slaying of working journalists in this country. It also indicates, though, that the assassins are broadening their sweep.
As I said in the Pansare memorial lecture in December 2015, the focus of the fundamentalists is on killing rationalists. They attack the secular spectrum as a whole, but save their worst for rationalist activists. Those, after all, are the people who attack superstition and strike at the core of fundamentalist mythologies. That enrages the crazies.
What about the pattern of murders of journalists? There have been over 40 of those since 1992, of which 27 (till 2015) can be clearly linked to their writing and work. Lankesh would be the 28th.
The murder of Lankesh saw a small but significant deviation from the type of killings of journalists that prevails in India. Yet, it still falls within that frame. I wrote an introduction to the Committee for Protection of Journalists Report (2016) on murders of mediapersons in India. As I said then:
In the three case studies the report focuses on – and in the CPJ’s list of 27 journalists murdered in India since 1992, it is hard to find a single English-language reporter from a big city. That is, one who was working for an English outlet of a large corporate media house. And covering something challenging the interests of the mighty. The list (of the murdered) is replete with rural, or small-town journalists of relatively humble, non-anglicised backgrounds. The majority wrote in Indian languages, with Indian-language publications (sometimes well-known ones). Often, functioning as stringers or freelancers, or as full-timers low down their outlet’s pecking order. Mostly, they worked in print – though there are exceptions. Like, for example, those slain while working for state broadcaster Doordarshan TV in Kashmir. Or like Akshay Singh, who worked on the popular channel Aaj Tak. He was part of its investigation team (which is headquartered in Delhi). But those are exceptions.
Lankesh, however, was a big-city journalist (though the anti-thesis of the obedient corporate hack). She did fit the larger murder pattern in one way though – she was mainly a print journalist, writing mostly in an Indian language, Kannada, not English.
Of course, journalists working for high-profile corporate media outfits remain relatively safer. Or at least they have till now. They have some insurance by virtue of class, caste, social power and the clout of their employers. That there are very few names of elite and high-profile journalists in the lists of the murdered doesn’t just tell us that we are privileged and have a kind of socio-political insurance. It also tells us that we’re less likely to be doing anything that challenges the powerful.
Lankesh’s assassins have just signalled a big hike in the premium on that insurance. They can kill anyway, whether the journalist does or does not enjoy a powerful corporate platform to speak from. Even if his or her platform curbs, censors or dilutes the expression of their views or even of facts. There is a lot we have yet to learn from and about Lankesh’s murder, including the identity of the actual killers, but this much is surely clear. Our protected species status has been denotified and withdrawn.
Think it can’t get worse than this? It will. Even if we end up surprised by the identity of those who killed her, the hate-list drawn up by the crazies is not exhausted. And what will a craven, crony media leadership do as things worsen? Those whose owners are amongst the biggest beneficiaries of each round of the government’s privatisation of public resources? They will at best write editorials (if that) calling for extremist ‘fringe elements’ to be ‘reined in’. Unwilling to ever admit this is no loony fringe, but the insane core, of right-wing fundamentalist politics. Wilfully blind to the fact that the prevailing moral depravity can only survive with silence, connivance, even incitement, at the top. Rewarding those ‘journalists’ among their employees who forge documents and doctor videos to frame and defame their ‘enemies’. Mocking and vilifying those writers who return their state awards. All the while knowing that rarely, if ever, has the lowest moral fibre been so firmly ensconced in the highest offices of this land. Such a culture of leadership draws out the worst in society, while actively stifling its best.
And the killings will continue. For the killers know that they are now the protected sub-species. A few amongst their lower orders might be sacrificed for the cause, but the crusade goes on. Clearly, these people have a list. And they’re going to act on it. They will act with impunity, because impunity has been conferred on them. They know that if anyone is caught, it will be the least important of their associates. And even the cases filed against those, as in the murder of Pansare, will be weakened and undermined, perhaps until they collapse.
Rewind to October 2015. Sharma, custodian of our culture, drew no rebuke from the prime minister for his attack on the award wapsi writers. His government rewarded him: with former President Abdul Kalam’s post-retirement residence in Lutyens’ Delhi, one of the best in the capital. (It was the appeal of the late president’s family that this residence be converted into a museum of science).
Only a week ago, Sharma bagged an additional ministerial slot – at the Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change. There’s no denying he has contributed to serious climate change in the country’s cultural, social and political sectors.
So what do we do in the present? Take Sharma’s advice and ‘first stop writing’? Accept the message from the Lankesh’s murderers? Or learn from her fearlessness and that of the writers, poets, artists and students of this country who have stood up and fought to keep our freedoms alive? Lankesh stood up for all of us. Let’s stand up for her. And stand up to the terror that took her life.
Silence is not an option.
P. Sainath is the founder-editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought.