“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
― S.G. Tallentyre
Living in my small bubble-of-a-world in Mumbai and working with a still-young digital publication, I have been afforded a certain kind of shelter, even invisibility. No matter how biting my words – it’s irrelevant whether they’re said in jest, criticism, or in outright offense against the ‘powers that be’ – I get away with a lot that I now see so many others don’t. Gauri Lankesh’s cold-blooded murder has opened my eyes to fates that seemed unthinkable till now.
A couple of months ago I wrote a small op-ed about a ridiculous advertisement billboard for the launch of Arnab Goswami’s Republic, which came under harsh criticism on one of our social media platforms. While it didn’t phase me, my family was far from amused. “Be careful what you say, or just take your name off. They can see the ‘Hussain’ in your name,” my mother immediately wrote to me. This fear has been palpable for quite some time now, and that solution (“take your name off”) tucked away in the deep recesses of every journalist’s mind.
Till date, we have rarely felt the need to hold our tongue on issues pertaining to politics, society or governance on our small editorial team. Though we are not a breaking news media house, nor large-scale reporters, we often cover topics, myself included, that are not addressed openly enough and regularly receive flak for doing it. Sexuality, menstruation, casteism, hyper-political art...few such topics are welcome in the mainstream and the flak comes in many forms – non-violent and violent threats. Trolls seem to have a preference for the latter, of course. Still, there is something to be said for the ones who argue with us on ideology with thoughtful, logic-based responses. We’ve learned from these and engaged with these, even published a counter-narrative or two. What is the eventual goal of voicing differences, after all, if not to convince another of ‘your truth’ or find some common ground to work with? After Ms Lankesh’s death, many journalists are coming out in solidarity, unanimous on their ‘refusal to be silenced’ for the most part. Yet, I can’t help that feeling there’s a larger, more important insight we need to both glean and act on from all of this, and it applies to all citizens as much as it does to journalists. In the aftermath of Lankesh’s killing, we must learn how to disagree.
Daughter of P Lankesh, a left-wing poet, writer and founder of the Kannada weekly Lankesh Patrike, Ms Lankesh followed in her father’s footsteps to become a senior journalist, secularist, activist providing a voice to the voiceless, and died fighting for these ideals. She took over Lankesh Patrike along with her brother after their father’s demise and followed on to starting her own weekly, Gauri Lankesh Patrike. She was extremely vocal and critical of caste politics, communalism and the government – she was viewed and tagged as anti-Hindutva, anti-right wing, anti-national even. In 2016, she was convicted in a case of defamation filed by BJP MP Prahlad Joshi and Umesh Dhusi, for a piece she published in 2008.
She publically voiced her support for fellow anti-nationals Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, and would regularly face backlash across social media platforms for her open criticism of Indian politics, governance and its follies. Most recently, it is reported that she was working to bring people involved in the Naxal movement back into mainstream society with support and cooperation from the Karnataka government and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. She wrote in English, appeared in the English media world, but also in Kannada that lead her voice to the eyes and ears of the entire region for which she wrote. Her voice was strong and far-reaching, which for some was a threat, while for others a celebration of being a journalist.
Ms Lankesh was a formidable woman; an opinionated and fearless journalist who was shot multiple times at point-blank range, murdered outside her house in Bangalore on Tuesday, September 5. Found in a pool of her own blood, she was left to die on the pavement after the assailants allegedly sped away on a motorcycle. Her assassination sent shock waves throughout the country, yet it is not an unfamiliar occurrence. We’ve heard this tale before. Many have drawn parallels between her shooting and the 2015 murder of rationalist and writer M M Kalburgi, which remains unsolved. As Chaitanya KM writes, “It was well thought and carefully planned, like the murders in Maharashtra and Karnataka of the rationalists and thinkers Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi that she had herself condemned and protested.”
I cannot play the blame-game here. I do not have the knowledge nor the expertise to draw parallels or analyse these ongoings, but as a young journalist, albeit not reporting from the field, this has truly shaken me to the core. We always take for granted that we are somehow protected. That these happenings are distant from us. But Ms. Lankesh is someone many can relate to. Someone who you would consider a part of the ‘elite’ group of journalists, a senior who has worked her way up an unstable and unpredictable ladder, championing for freedom of speech and press. It is because of people like her that I can say and write the things that I do at all. More so as a woman, let alone a Muslim woman.
There is never a clearer mirror held up to society than in times of tragedy. A lot comes out in the aftermath of these kinds of incidents, and for a fallen colleague of the same industry, the media stands divided. While on one hand there has been an outpour of love, support, sympathy and anger from Ms Lankesh’s friends, colleagues and admirers alike, on the other, there is hatred being spewed across various social media platforms. We see comments of media and journalism personalities and veterans such as Jagrati Shukla’s on one side – “So, Commy Gauri Lankesh has been murdered mercilessly. Your deeds always come back to haunt you, they say. Amen.” – with others such as Rajdeep Sardesai and Faye DSouza on the other. It baffles me how media people themselves can be so broken in their solidarity with fellow journalists. Would Ms Shukla’s reaction and opinion been the same if it was her as the journalist? How can someone from the same industry say that ‘this is allowed but that isn’t. I can speak about this and don’t deserve to be killed but you do.” This kind of selective thinking when it comes to freedom of speech and press raises serious questions about our integrity.
Public opinion is much the same. Simply scroll through the comment section of any post regarding her over the last two days and it glares at you. The media doesn’t stand together, and the deeply opposed nature of our political camps is evident, but this isn’t about that. Ms Lankesh was many things and many ‘labels’, and we may not completely agree with everything she did and said, but do we need more people like her? Yes. Do we need the allowance of all kinds of opinions voiced, debated and discussed? Yes. Realistically speaking, there is no real opposition to the BJP government – even Congress for that matter, regardless of which party would have been in power, but in the context of our current situation – and herein lies the importance of the role of the fourth estate, the media. This is how healthy democracies function; how a healthy society develops. Checks and balances, transparency and questioning, debating and discussing leads to improvements. We need voices of dissent in times of turmoil, and now, we have lost a very important one.
If Ms Lankesh has taught me, us, anything is that we need to learn to disagree. It doesn’t matter if we do so within a small editorial team or a facebook status’ comments section, but we must learn to use our words and agree to disagree. She faced constant backlash and trolling on social media, but she never complained. She allowed others to express their views, even if it clashed with hers because that’s what freedom of speech and press is – that’s what she fought for and stood by, regardless of who exercised it. Currently, any voicing of disagreement, especially that of a woman, for that matter even of Ms Shukla’s on Twitter, is instantly threatened with violence. The kind of attacks that happen on women activists and feminists around the country, the go-to statement being of ‘sending people to rape you’ or ‘throw acid in your face’ is despicable. This isn’t about being right wing or left wing. It is about letting the other exist and for each side to be able to peacefully disagree. Why are we, as Indians, so strident in our point of view that we cannot argue our ideological differences and opinions without threats of violence?
Violence, verbal and physical, is becoming second nature to us. Shootings of dissenters, secularists, critics, rationalists, journalists and activists of all kinds by masked individuals with complete impunity is the world every single one of us lives in now. As scary as it is though, we cannot let this incident die out. We can’t let our frustration and anger simmer after attending protests and vigils. It’s so rare that reporters are even given attention, more so those working regionally, whose threats and deaths go unnoticed, unsolved and forgotten. We can’t protect them, or stand up for them, if we fail to secure justice for Ms Lankesh.
“These intolerant voices find strength in our silence. Let them learn to argue using words instead of threats,” she said once. It is in these words that we can all find the tribute she would have wanted, and deserves. Whatever your truth is, do not be silent. Whatever somebody else’s view is, do not be violent to get them to change their stance. This doesn’t stop at just journalists and people involved in the media, if you have a point of view don’t be afraid to back it, and stand by it. But understand that others have every right to do the same.
Because that’s what Gauri Lankesh fought for. And that is what she died for.
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