Gauri Lankesh, senior journalist and activist, was staunchly secular and vocal about it. Lankesh was known to be critical, and stridently so – about Hindutva, Right-Wing forces in the country and also about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This often got her into trouble and is what, many of her friends and associates suspect, got ker killed.
Gauri Lankesh was shot dead on Tuesday evening outside her home in Rajarajeshwari Nagar in Bengaluru. Police say that assailants on a motorcycle fired seven shots at her as she stood outside her house and rode away. Three bullets hit her in the head and chest, killing her instantly.
Gauri Lankesh made a name for herself as the editor of a Kannada tabloid called Gauri Lankesh Patrike. Her father P Lankesh was a poet, playwright and journalist who wrote in Kannada. He started a tabloid called Lankesh Patrike in 1980, which he ran until his death in 2000. The paper was known for its anti-establishment, anti-caste and secular stance. After his death and a skirmish within the family over running the paper, the Lankesh Patrike split into two – one run by Gauri Lankesh and the other by her brother, Indrajit Lankesh.
Many of Gauri Lankesh’s friends observed a marked change in her after she became editor of the Kannada tabloid.
“I always knew her as a fun-loving girl who was quite chilled out,” said Prakash Belawadi, theatre personality and activist in Bengaluru who knew Gauri Lankesh since they were children. Belawadi recalled the time when both he and Gauri Lankesh worked for different English news publications and they would often argue about who would break news stories first.
“When her father died and she took over the paper, she developed a certain political ideology that surprised some of us,” said Belawadi. “But maybe it did not surprise many people who knew that she was her father’s daughter. She became harder and harder and took a very strong stand against the Sangh Parivar and a very pro-Dalit stand. There was also a time when she took a pro-regional stand but she gave that up.”
Gauri Lankesh was physically a non-threatening figure, said Aakar Patel, a writer and columnist in Bengaluru. But she was always took a vocal secular stand. “She was a completely non-threatening bird-like figure,” said Patel. “The reason why she she might be hated and possible why she was murdered is that she was very open about the fact that she engaged, entertained and associated with people who the mainstream media in India hated.”
Lankesh was very close to Kanhaiya Kumar, former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, who was arrested and charged with sedition by the Delhi police for allegedly raising anti-India slogans in a student rally in February 2016.
She was also close to Jignesh Mevani, a social activist from Gujarat, who led a campaign to protest a spate of violence against Dalits in the name of cow protection.
“[Mevani and Kumar] were very close to her and they trusted her,” said Patel. “She was the kind of person that they would gravitate towards.”
In early August, Lankesh sent a message to friend and senior journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju, expressing anguish that “her son Kanhaiya” had been attacked in Indore but was safe. Lankesh went on to say that she was lucky that Kumar and Mevani had accepted her as their “Amma”. She worried for their safety because they travelled so much with people that they did not know. “But can’t restrict them. They are the hope and the future,” she said.
“She had adopted them, not legally, but emotionally,” Srinivasaraju said.
“She tried to give voice to progressive and secular elements in Karnataka,” said Srinivasaraju. “I also know as a friend that she financially supported people who were fighting these causes.”
Srinivasaraju said that Lankesh was very “in your face” in her brand of progressive activism against radical Hindutva.
“In my frequent interactions with her, I would tell her that her whole rhetoric should be more subtle,” Srinivasaraju said. “She was very naive and she was politically incorrect. She was very bold, but indulged in sloganeering of a certain kind which I said would not achieve anything. She needed to strategise.”
It is also possible that Lankesh got into more trouble than others because she expressed herself not only in English but also in Kannada. “She was bilingual and was able to express herself in the local language and that is generally what gets people into physical trouble in our part of the world,” said Patel.
Her fluency in both languages also helped bring mainstream attention to what was happening in Karnataka. “She used to write a column for Bangalore Mirror and there was so much to learn from that about things that were happening locally that were not reported in the English language press,” said Samar Halarnkar, editor of Indiaspend.com.
Regardless of whether it was her political views or her methods or something else that put her in harm’s way, Gauri Lankesh will be remembered for her bravery and consistent fight for secularism.
“She was very bold and outspoken in criticising the BJP and the Sangh Parivar,” said K Marulsiddapa, writer and theatre exponent in Bengaluru. “She was even more bold and forthright than her father P Lankesh. She had her own politics.”
Halarnkar observed: “She was uncompromisingly secular and brave and courageous. She was a Hindu but took majoritarian Hindutva politics head on.”
Krishna Prasad, former editor-in-chief of Outlook magazine, changed the profile and banner image of his Twitter account to black and his Twitter name to Gauri.