attacks on journalists

‘Whoever protests, a sword dangles over their heads’: Voices from Bengaluru’s #IamGauri protest

Thousands made their way to Bengaluru’s Central College ground to protest the death of the reputed journalist, exactly one week ago.

Giriyappa, a retired lecturer, sat amid thousands of other protesters toting #IAmGauri signs and headbands at Bengaluru’s Central College Grounds on Tuesday, exactly a week after reputed journalist Gauri Lankesh was gunned down at her house. “I’ve been sitting here listening to all the speeches,” said Giriyappa. “And the one thing that’s running through my mind is that maybe I made a mistake by voting for Modi. He made so many promises and has not carried out a single one. Instead, such hate is spreading everywhere. So many of us thought he would live up to his promises.”

Lankesh died on September 5, after at least two unknown assailants shot four bullets at her as she was entering her house in Bengaluru’s Rajarajeswari Nagar. Known as a firebrand journalist who was strident about her opposition to right-wing politics, Lankesh’s death sparked protests around the country, with many connecting her killing to that of other renowned rationalists like MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar.

On Tuesday, Gauri Hatye Virodhi Vedike, a collective of civil society organisations in Bengaluru that came together to protest Lankesh’s death, organised a national rally that brought together a diverse set of speakers and supporters. On stage at the massive rally in the centre of Bengaluru were activists, writers, poets, journalists, musicians, religious leaders, politicians and even one film star.

“Gauri Lankesh represented the voice of dissent,” said Chetan, an actor in the Kannada film industry. “The voice against the culture of hatred being propagated in Karnataka. She did not bow down to the threats by the cowardly lot. She stood strong. They were scared of her bravery and hence, they killed her.”

Sitting in the massive tent assembled for the occasion was Ophelia Fernandes, a middle-aged woman, who knew Lankesh through her newspaper. “I used to read Gauri Lankesh Patrike and I felt that all that I used to think – whether it was about caste atrocities or communal violence – they were all so brilliantly voiced by Gauri in her publication,” Fernandes said. “Today, at this rally, I feel that something similar is happening. All that I felt after her death is gaining a voice here.”

Many of the speakers on the stage directed their anger in the aftermath of Lankesh’s death at the right wing, whether it was the Bharatiya Janata Party or the broader Hindu nationalist ecosystem, which could barely contain its glee after the journalist’s death. Slogans at the rally called out the Rashtiriya Swayamsevak Sangh for furthering what protesters called a “fascist agenda” and for celebrating her death.

But the stage was not simply filled with left-wing activists railing against Hindu nationalists. Right up front were four men clad in saffron robes, all of whom have been part of the agitation for Lingayats to be declared a religion, distinct from Hinduism. “Whoever walks down the path of protest, a sword always dangles over their head... It is not just the writers and activists who have been threatened,” said Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru. “I too have received threats. They have come after religious leaders too.”

Nijagunanda Swami, a Lingayat leader, also explained that Lankesh was familiar with their struggle. “The media reported that Gauri was connected to Hindu priests,” said Nijagunananda Swami. “Let it be known that our entire fight is about getting away from the folds of Hinduism.

Fernandes said she was pleasantly surprised by how “these priests clad in saffron were so progressive in their thoughts”, something she was not expecting to encounter at the protest.

“Such a diverse panel of speakers is the ideal answer we can give to those who like to communicate by using bullets,” said another man in the audience, who wanted to only be identified as Gauri. “It is abominable that a woman and a journalist was murdered like this. Come, argue, debate! Why kill? Such protests must intensify. This is the only reasonable answer to those committing acts of violence.”

Others too were impressed by the religious leaders’ comments.

“That speech by Nijagunananda swami particularly struck a chord with me,” said Jyothi, the state president of National Federation Women’s Institute. “He asked if Gauri will get justice in a land where Draupadi was stripped and I think that’s a very relevant question. It is that culture of misogyny and regressiveness that is gaining more ground today. I believe that all these murders are committed against the backdrop of such a culture. This is a culture that likes blood. We have to oppose this.”

Another Lingayat leader even brought up the question of whether Lankesh will get justice, especially since the Kalburgi case from 2015 is yet to be resolved. “The investigation of Gauri’s murder must not go the Kalburgi route,” said Nidumamunidi Swami. “There is no point in limiting the investigation to the contract killers alone. It should extend to those who have celebrated these deaths too.”

The organisers released a special edition of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, the newspaper that Lankesh ran, including anecdotes and photos of her as well as comments from people in the aftermath of her death. Speaking early on in the rally, Lankesh’s mother Indra was unable to contain her tears, but did manage to say to thank “all the Gauris gathered here.”

Reputed journalist P Sainath chose a sombre note for his address.

“The killings are not over. There will be more,” Sainath said. “There has rarely been a period of such constructed, deliberate terror and hatred. We are up against the largest machine of hate. There will be incredible provocation in coming days, but you should not fall for those traps of hatred.”

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