On September 5, 2017, Gauri Lankesh, activist and editor of the Gauri Lankesh Patrike, was shot dead by two men on a motorbike, outside her home in Rajeshwar Nagar, Bengaluru. The brazenness of her murder sent a sharp stab into the collective consciousness of a society that is increasingly being gagged into passive muteness. Gauri Lankesh’s murder was a symbolic act, like an act of terrorism, whose primary objective was to establish a rudimentary ‘if (x) then (y)’ equation – if you criticise divisive Hindutva politics, if you write against the state, if you write in support of the marginalised, if you promote rationalist thought, if you disagree with the normative, then, you will be violently smothered too.
The silencing of independent thinkers, activists, writers, artists, filmmakers – indeed, those who leverage influence over society and are in a position to affect change and unsettle the status quo – has been a tradition that continues from Socrates’ time to our own. In the Phaedo, Plato describes Socrates’ trial by a jury, on charges of refusing to accept the gods recognised by the state and corrupting the youth. In The Death of Socrates (c. 1787), the French artist Jacques-Louis David, paints an old man in white robes (as we imagine Socrates may have looked) sitting upright on a bed, being handed a cup of poison hemlock by a younger man, whose regretful face, half-covered with his other hand, is turned away from us. A group of men in varying states of emotional distress surround Socrates, as he continues to speak truth to power, even as he accepts the poison that will kill him.
Political murders belong to the realm of the visual and the theatrical. For the perpetrators of the violence, the death-event as a sign is far more significant than the act of killing itself. For even as such murders are particular, they transcend the specificity of the person killed, to stand in for an attack on a broader thought system. The solidarities mobilised in retaliation to such violence are necessarily symbolic, and therefore, the aesthetics of any civil/political action are of great consequence.
We are increasingly witnessing in India, a number of civil resistance/solidarity episodes (none of which have gathered enough steam to transform into a ‘movement’), which situate the respondent within a symbolic performance of solidarity based on subjectivity and identification. Two most recent examples are the ‘Not in My Name’ demonstrations against mob lynching and other acts of unconstitutional and illegal violence, and the protests condemning the murder of Gauri Lankesh, expressing solidarity through the slogan ‘I Am Gauri’. Elsewhere in the world too we have seen an outpouring of mass solidarities, mainly via social media, in taglines like ‘I am Paris’ and so on, in selective responses to terrorist attacks.
This is a curiously new kind of political mobilisation, a public sphere created through a networked digital aesthetic, that on the surface at least, blurs the lines between the self and the other. In fact, an over identified self becomes a crucial part of the performativity of the public. This is a historical shift in modern politics. The disciples of Socrates could express their sympathy and regret without needing to become Socrates, even though many of them were deeply influenced by his ideas. In more recent history, the anti-colonial movement was built around slogans like ‘Swadeshi’ or ‘Quit India’, and when Gandhi was killed, there was collective sorrow and mourning, but the self-identification with his ideologies were demonstrated through every-day practice, not through overt statements. At its activist peak, the feminist movement in India never felt the need to use slogans like ‘I am Shah Bano’ or ‘I am Roop Kanwar’.
It could be that we are in a post-aura age, where the gap between the plebian and the heroic is diminished in both real and imaginary terms. It may indeed be, the possibility for a new imagination of polity, provided we remain wary of the fact that digital technology often reduces the gravitas of utterances like ‘I am Gauri’ into easy sentimentality, without any demand for real action. If we were to really take it upon ourselves to be Gauri Lankesh, we would be working with vulnerable and sidelined communities, writing against and fighting fascism, and putting our money where are mouths are. That being said, it is all too easy for the ‘guardians of nuances’ to find faults with the flattening, even erasure, of difference that such slogans sweep over. In all the symbolic social media posturing involved in changing one’s profile picture or adding a ‘in solidarity with’ tagline after every shocking episode, there are real, tangible, physical networks which organise and mobilise, despite (or sometimes through) a flattened digital space, and which will remain the effectual arenas of political activism.
Perhaps it is more appropriate to call Gauri Lankesh’s death an assassination, as would be the case too for Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and M.M. Kalburgi, each one shot dead in domestic or familiar spaces, in periodic succession since 2013. The word ‘assassination’ has conventionally been used for the targeted killing of high profile public personalities, ‘world leaders’ of a sort, but maybe, it begs measurement in terms of the weight of the work that invites disruption, instead of the social stature of individuals. In the history of India, ordinary people (in the sense of people who do not hold fancy designations or public posts) doing extraordinary work have always been seen as a threat by those in power, and this is evident especially in the large numbers of investigative journalists killed each year. A report published by the Paris-based NGO, Reporters Without Borders, states that in 2015, India was the third most dangerous country for journalists (nine killed in 2015 alone), superseded only by Iraq and Syria, both of which were in a state of war. Not all these political murders attain the visibility that Gauri Lankesh’s did, yet they are no less significant.
Nonetheless, Gauri Lankesh’s assassination is distinct in its aesthetics of terrorism. She was not killed for any one particular reason, but for being a fearless opponent of fascist regimes, irrespective of the subject or occasion, and a woman at that. She was murdered violently in a way that was meant to be a ‘visible’ warning, much like a ‘public execution’. It was perhaps because of this that on September 6, spontaneous protests took place in multiple locations across India: Bengaluru, Mysore, Udipi, Mandya, Gulbarga, Dharwad, Hubballi, Gadag, Annageri taluk, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, Trivandrum, Chandigarh, Lucknow, Gorakhpur and Islampur.
A week after Gauri’s death, the grounds of Central College in Bengaluru saw thousands turn up to express their anger and resilience. Bengaluru is known for its good weather and bad traffic, but not particularly for public demonstrations. When protest meetings are held, they usually take place at the Town Hall or in Freedom Park, where people gather but do not march. This demonstration was of a different visual aesthetic and scale. At 10:30 in the morning, people gathered near the city railway station, wearing black bands on their heads, with the words ‘I am Gauri’ printed on them. They came in hundreds and thousands, pouring in from all directions – a bunch of students from a journalism college who had prepared a play, a group of AAP supporters, some CPI(M) representatives, a group of burkha-clad women carrying placards condemning fundamentalist violence; a group carrying large papier-mâché puppets; Ambedkarite activists; a contingent of women from nearby towns and villages, members of the transgendered community, citizens, artists, writers, musicians, poets, singers, people, multitudes. People had travelled from northern Karnataka, Maharashtra, Delhi and Bombay. The voices heard that day were loud, strong, hopeful and resilient. There were no speeches of regret or lament. Instead, there were words of determination and commitment. The energy was quite palpable: this was not about justice for Gauri Lankesh alone; it was about the right (and indeed, obligation) each one of us should have to express our thoughts without fear or undue censorship; to establish a collective dialogue that is sensitive to diversity and difference.
The murder of Gauri Lankesh (and others) is political theatre in its most gruesome form, mediated to us in televisual format, via CCTV footage. The silence of the grainy, unclear, ‘poor’ CCTV images, bereft of the sound of the bullets that were fired at her, was filled in by the voices that rose in opposition to such tyranny. Jacques Rancière describes politics as a ‘form of experience’, whose stakes are determined by the ‘delimitation of spaces and times, the visible and invisible, speech and noise.’ An alternative word for the ‘form of experience’ is aesthetics, derived from Greek, meaning sentient or ‘to perceive, feel or sense’. In Indian philosophy, rasa is the experience generated through the flow of emotions. If the aesthetic of fascism and intolerance is to invoke fear and terror, the aesthetic of harmony, diversity and collectiveness must necessarily be an amalgamation of many emotions, sensory perceptions and expressions. The experiential form of politics – or its aesthetics – therefore, are crucial to establishing what’s at stake. This is why Socrates’ persistence of social critique even unto his death is an aesthetic gesture, because it evokes a sensory response that reconfigures our conception of the political.
Gauri Lankesh may not be the last one we will have to gather to remember; there are bound to be others, silenced in more brutal ways. Perhaps it is time to prepare ourselves by considering the aesthetics of our resistance more carefully. Much has been said about the large numbers that turned up for the Bengaluru demonstrations. However, more significant than the numbers was the fact that there was space for all people and for all forms of peaceful and creative expression. The September 12 demonstrations saw an amalgamation of songs, theatre, visual art, speeches, literature and hope. It is not often that the Gadaga Dalit Kalamandali, the Lalit Kala Academy, the Sakshya Chitra Pradarshana, Sufi songs by Baba Budangiri Fakira, rock music by Thermal and a Quarter, a Nagari performance, speeches by Teesta Setalvad, Medha Patkar, Siddharth Vardarajan, Swami Agnivesh, Justice Gopal Goude, B. Jayashree, Jignesh Mewani, Prashant Bhushan, Sagarika Ghosh, G.N. Devy, Anand Patwardhan and many others, book stalls selling Ambedkarite and Marxist texts next to each other, can all come together and coexist.
The collective aesthetics of this gathering may be best described through the Pratirodha Gudda/the Mount of Resistance ‘umbrella installation’ at Central College of Bangalore, which was put together by Suresh Kumar, a Bengaluru-based visual and performance artist, along with students from the Chitra Kala Parishath and Srishti. The umbrella has been a long-standing symbol of solidarity and mass dissent in both civil movements and popular culture: recall the crowd of black umbrellas in the trade union protest scenes in Deewar and Guru, or Hong Kong’s pro-democracy ‘umbrella revolution’ of 2014. At the Central College grounds, protestors were invited to bring a black umbrella to contribute to the mount, which already had a hundred umbrellas that art students had worked on with white paint. The umbrellas had text in Kannada and English. The question we must ask ourselves is: if our demonstrations are not restricted to the demand for justice for one or another particular person alone, but are about justice towards a larger idea of a secular and plural India, rid of caste and gender inequalities, how do we ensure an aesthetic integrity towards these demands? Perhaps the next time, the Mount of Resistance could be of many hues, with text in all Indian languages, not only in the dominant language of the state. After all, even resistance should be free of uniformity, as much as our polity must be reflective and respectful of our diversity.
Rashmi Sawhney heads the M.A. programme in Aesthetics and Visual Cultures at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru.