It was a little past 8.30am on a Sunday morning on August 30, 2015, when a young man knocked on the door of the Kalburgi residence in Kalyan Nagar in Dharwad, a sleepy town in north Karnataka. Professor Kalburgi’s wife Uma Devi opened the door. As was her habit, she readily welcomed in the man when he introduced himself as her husband’s student, although it was a weekend morning and they weren’t expecting visitors. Dharwad, after all, derived its name from "dwara" meaning "(open) door" and "wada" meaning "settlement". Renowned for its hospitality and gracious manners, it is a town that for centuries served as the gateway to southern India.
Kalburgi, a spry 77 at the time, emerged to greet the "student", and Uma Devi bustled into the kitchen to get some coffee for him. A few muffled words later, Uma Devi and her New Delhi-based daughter Roopadarshi, who was visiting her parents, heard what they first thought were firecrackers. They rushed into the drawing room.
The elderly Kalburgi lay bleeding on the floor. He had been shot twice, one bullet catching him on the forehead and another his chest. The shooter had fled to jump on the pillion of a getaway two-wheeler that an accomplice had kept running outside. The family rushed Kalburgi to a hospital, but it was too late. He was dead on arrival.
Still, it would require extraordinary pusillanimity to kill a diminutive, unarmed woman in cold blood. Photo: Screengrab
A few hours later, a young man named Bhuvith Shetty, a Bajrang Dal activist, tweeted the following message under the handle @ garudapurana: "Then it was UR Anantamoorty and now it is MM Kalburgi. Mock Hinduism and die a dogs death. And dear KS Bhagwan you are next." (sic)1
A few days later, police in Mangalore, officially known as Mangaluru, arrested Prasad Attavar, chief of the local unit of the extremist Sri Rama Sene (Sri Rama’s Army) after he wrote a provocative post thanking the culprit who had gunned down Kalburgi. Police later told the media that Attavar had warned "those who express hatred towards Hindu gods and traditions will be taught a lesson".2
Neither was culpable for Kalburgi’s murder. But they were celebrating his death, or at least brazenly justifying his assassination.
Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason; Chidanand Rajghatta; Westland Context
Coming on the heels of similar killings of the rationalist-activist Narendra Dabholkar in Pune in August 2013, and the leftist, anticaste campaigner Govind Pansare in Kolhapur in February 2015, the Kalburgi assassination indicated that there might be a pre-meditated design to the murders, somewhat like the patterns that serial killers provide. All three men were elderly, scholarly, and had a wellestablished record of questioning dogma, orthodoxy, superstition and blind faith. All three were iconoclasts who had antagonised fringe Hindu extremist groups.
Such groups regarded them as not merely sceptics, but as apostates, or at the very least, heretics.
As it turned out, the target of the fourth killing in the sequence — two years later — was not KS Bhagawan, a prominent atheist-rationalist from Mysore, now called Mysuru (although he was the earlier target as subsequent investigations revealed3). It was a frail, petite woman, a 55-year-old journalist named Gauri Lankesh. If Kalburgi’s killing had revealed a pattern, Gauri’s assassination made it blindingly evident, more so in the light of forensic similarities. There was a design.
She was using her travels to connect with the people whose concerns she felt for, and which she thought the rest of the 'elitist' media had largely abandoned. Photo: PTI
Someone, either an organisation or a coterie of like-minded individuals, was periodically targeting prominent rationalists, heretics, agnostics and sceptics. The fact that the only weapons these people wielded were pens and words and that they were senior citizens (or close to it) did not seem to matter. Their iconoclasm was deemed dangerous enough that they had to be eliminated.
At that time, neither Gauri nor her family or friends or associates could have even imagined she would be on the hit list, although she was a frequent target of verbal attacks and online trolling, both of which she took head on. Not only was she much younger than the scholars who had been eliminated, she did not have the academic body of work of the three slain men — all of whom were steeped in scholarship. But as a journalist, she shared and aired views similar to theirs. She described herself, and was recognised, as an activistjournalist. She had called out Bhuvith Shetty publicly one time after the Kalburgi killing, reading out his tweet at a meeting and warning that the life of rationalists was in danger.
In fact, her journal (Gauri Lankesh Patrike, derived from her father’s eponymous Lankesh Patrike) had fallen on tough times in recent years. The circulation had dwindled to a few thousand. She was struggling to keep it going after a family feud with her brother Indrajit, who ran his own Patrike. Gauri kept her journal alive through support from a few friends and by cross-subsiding it with revenue from publishing guides in Kannada for young people taking competitive entrance exams.
Essentially, her Patrike itself was hardly a threat despite its nagging — and often virulent — attacks against the right-wing.
Her Patrike itself was hardly a threat despite its nagging — and often virulent — attacks against the right-wing. Photo: Shehla Rashid
In recent months though, Gauri had begun travelling across Karnataka, organising workers and vulnerable communities. She joked to me in one conversation that since her detractors sought to harass and silence her by filing defamation and libel cases in different and distant parts of the state, requiring her to journey frequently to the hinterland, she was using the travels to connect with the people whose concerns she felt for, and which she thought the rest of the "elitist" media had largely abandoned.
"Couple of weeks ago, we carried a story about one Raghaveshwara Swamy who had invited none other than mallika sherawat to lay the foundation stone at the 'birthplace' of hanumantha near gokarna," she wrote in an email on June 1, 2009. "...now, his disciples are angry at me and have filed about a dozen cases in a dozen different places across the state. so, i guess, i shall be soon touring the state non stop just to avoid arrest warrants."
That email also reflected the personal tribulations and the lonesomeness of a large-hearted fighter. She wrote in it of the "need to be in kodagu on saturday (court case). but am trying to make a holiday of it by booking two cottages at nisargadhama near mercara. it’s a really nice place. but looks like no one is coming with me. parvateesh is in bijapur, kumar my colleague is busy with the eelam book, raju the manager and shivasundar the columnist are also busy. family can’t make it because 'going on friday returning on Saturday' is too hectic for them and my little princess [her niece Esha, whom she regarded as her own daughter]."
Nathuram Godse (below) shot an unarmed man called Mahatma Gandhi (above) with a 9mm Beretta, on January 30, 1948. Photo: Screengrab
But Gauri led a rich and purposeful professional and social life as an activist with leftist leanings. She had also thrown herself into a fierce Veerashaiva–Lingayat debate that had enormous political consequences in Karnataka, in southern India and perhaps even beyond. It was an issue that could affect the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral calculus and its plans to supplant the Indian National Congress as a pan-Indian party, and achieve its professed aim of a "Congress-mukt Bharat", a Congress-free India. Not that she was a Congress stooge, but Gauri stridently opposed the emergence of right-wing fundamentalism in Karnataka and India — a stance that made her a target of vicious attacks.
Still, it would require extraordinary pusillanimity to kill a diminutive, unarmed woman in cold blood. But the killers were nothing if not spineless. When it comes to cowardice, you can’t beat an extremist — of any religion. Lacking reason, logic, words and powers of persuasion, which are the armaments of the intelligentsia, the extremist’s weapon of choice is a sword, a trishul ... or a gun, whether it is in Khyber, Kashmir or Kanyakumari, or even further afield in Kabul or Kansas.
After all, how much courage is required to ambush a defenceless and unsuspecting woman in the dark, and then ride away into the night?
The last issue of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, edited by Gauri Lankesh. Photo: Screengrab
The manner of her killing, executed with such precision, showed clear premeditation. They had stalked her. Investigators, who the state government claimed were on the verge of cracking the case all through November 2017 to March 2018, spoke of four people surveilling Gauri’s home and commuting pattern before striking. Given the sequence of victims and the toxic celebration by wingnuts that followed the killing, it also appeared to be an ideological and political murder, with religious and doctrinal elements. It was only after Gauri’s assassination on 5 September 2017 that the dots began to be connected through forensic evidence linking the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and MM Kalburgi.4
It was discovered that the weapons used to kill them were similar, and in the case of Gauri and Kalburgi, perhaps even the same firearm: a local knock off of a 7.65mm Beretta gun. It is a weapon favoured by hit men and contract killers in India — a country with low firearm penetration.
In the days after her death, liberal, leftist and progressive activists forwarded the trope that "those who killed Gandhi killed Gauri too". If they had any interest in forensics, they might have noted that the two were also killed with similar weapons. The weapon Nathuram Godse used to snuff out Gandhi’s life was a 9mm Beretta.
(Excerpted with permission from Westland Context.)