Gauri Lankesh, 55, raged like fire for causes that she believed were fair and just. Her left-leaning ideology was never about being diplomatic: it was about taking things heads on. Whether she was speaking out against communal politics or about the caste system, Gauri Lankesh never minced her words. She did not believe in building bridges to No Man’s Lands. She simply went about voicing her opinions knowing fully well that they could, someday, be the reason for her early end.
As the crusading journalist had expected, the end came on Tuesday night, in the premises of her home in Bangalore’s Rajarajeshwari Nagar. A group of men pumped several bullets into her frail body at around 8.10 pm. She lay there, breathless for a few minutes, till a neighbor noticed her and informed the police. Within hours, even as protestors took to the streets around Karnataka to express their grief and anger at the murder, WhatsApp messages were rejoicing the death of an “anti-Hindu” voice. Ironically, these messages would not have angered Lankesh. She had often referred to people with such hatred as her own “misled children” who would some day return home to truth and reality.
Lankesh’s long career began at The Times of India in Bangalore in the mid-1980s but, as she told an interviewer later, she was far from being “spectacular” till she worked outside Karnataka, specifically in Delhi.
But she returned to her home city in 2000 with the prolonged illness and subsequent death of her father, P Lankesh, editor of the feisty and massively popular Kannada tabloid Lankesh Patrike. The tabloid was potent with facts and had strong team of political reporters who grew under the tutelage of Lankesh himself. Uncompromising integrity was the hallmark of the tabloid and this was greatly appreciated by readers. The paper never published advertisements, running only on subscriptions. Lankesh’s death, after diabetes and other health complications in January 2000, left the future of the tabloid in a lurch.
Gauri Lankesh returned to Bangalore at the most difficult time both personally and professionally. She and her husband had parted ways. She felt she could not fill her father’s shoes. She and her family approached Mani, the publisher of the paper, and told him they wanted to shut it down. He urged them to reconsider their decision. Lankesh Patrike got a new lease of life, under Gauri Lankesh’s editorship.
But in 2005 a family feud ensued over the ownership of the publication and its ideological positions. Gauri Lankesh and her brother Indrajit, a film producer, locked horns over matters relating to running the paper. The paper was split into two. She named her version Gauri Lankesh Patrike, while Indrajit retained the original title.
The readers of Gauri Lankesh Patrike were spread all across the remotest villages of Karnataka. Initially, understanding the dynamics of the state from ground level was the journalist’s biggest challenge. Another challenge was to overcome her English media orientation and to write in Kannada. Lankesh struggled and conquered both tasks.
By the mid-2000s, she had grown into a significant voice in regional journalism. She travelled extensively to report on issues from the grassroots. Not surprisingly, she was met with criticism. Some people alleged that she was a supporter of the Maoist movement, even though she had actually called for a meaningful dialogue between the government and Naxalites. She also gained prominence for her opposition to Hindutva forces. She was a vocal critic of Hindutva groups that wanted to take over the syncretic Datta Peetha shrine in Chikmagalur. She also took up the case of sexual harassment filed against seer Raghaveshwara Bharathi of the Ramachadrapura Mutt in 2014, earning the wrath of many of his supporters.
In November 2016, Gauri Lankesh was convicted in a defamation case filed by Bharatiya Janata Party MPs Prahlad Joshi and Umesh Dhusi for a report she had published in Gauri Lankesh Patrike in 2008, alleging that they had criminal dealings. She was sentenced to six months in jail, but secured bail and was allowed to appeal in a higher court on the matter.
Gauri Lankesh never minced words. She was no fence sitter. Two years ago, when attacks on rationalists took a new turn with the murder of academic MM Kalburgi in his home in Dharwad, Lankesh had that sensed fundamentalist hatred was spreading rapidly. But she would not be cowed down. Alongside her opposition to religious fundamentalism was a strong commitment to ending caste discrimination. She described herself as a mother to Dalit campaigner Jignesh Mewani as well as to student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Shehla Rashid. She ensured that their voices were heard in the far corners of Karnataka.
Not everyone appreciated her lack of respect for traditions that were claimed to be “ancient and Hindu”. Her far left views did not seem to fit the dominant narrative. But that never deterred her from believing in them and being vocal about injustice. She reminded many people of her father, who showed similar spunk and determination to whatever he deemed fit.
On Tuesday, her body was pumped with bullets but her spirit lives on.
Preethi Nagaraj is a journalist who writes on politics, culture and theatre.