Gauri Lankesh's murder is proof bigotry and intolerance have put a fatal tear in our national soul
India cannot afford Hindu chauvinism. It does not need it.
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Just the doubt should be alarm enough.
Journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead point blank at her house last night by three unidentified assailants. It is true we do not specifically know who her killers are yet. But the instant doubt that has exploded across the country – the conviction – that she has been killed for her ideas should be alarm enough about the perilous abyss India is sliding towards.
Gauri was a fierce opponent of Hindu majoritarianism. As the shock and anger and horror around her chilling murder peaks over the next few days, it is highly likely that many BJP leaders and apologists will hide behind a fig leaf: They will urge everyone to let law take its course, they will remind people that the killers are not yet known so it’s premature to jump to conclusions. This is why it is imperative to assert that just the doubt is damaging enough.
Over the last three years, three other trenchant, outspoken rationalists have been murdered: MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar. Each shot in an ominous pattern: death threats, orders to back off, then brazen bikers pumping bullets at close range; in Kalburgi’s case, an even more brazen knock on the door, his assassinators shooting in his drawing room while his wife tragically went to fetch them coffee in good faith. Even these killers have not been identified yet. But as lyricist and rationalist Javed Akhtar says with acuity: “Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi, and now Gauri Lankesh. If one kind of people are getting killed, which kind of people are the killers?”
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It is outrageous that almost three years on, the assassins have not yet been nailed. Instead, there is bitter irony. In Dabholkar’s case, the investigating officer allegedly conducted a seance to consult ghosts for clues into the murder of the passionate rationalist. It is also now known that the same gun was used to kill all three. Yet, minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijju, insists there is no common link behind the murders. And the killers remain unidentified.
It is quite likely the investigation into Gauri Lankesh’s murder will go the same route. So while it is important to seek answers to who actually shot her, it is equally important not to get side-tracked by it. For the harsh truth about Gauri’s tragic death is this: The real danger India faces today lies in those who wield more metaphorical machetes.
If her killers are ever identified, they might be jailed, but that would merely localise the crime: it will not isolate the hate and bigotry and concocted sense of injury that enable – and fuel – such crimes.
Over the last few months, as several Muslim men and boys have been lynched over real or imagined slights to cows, many BJP leaders have prevaricated shamelessly on national television and social media. They have asked the media not to “communalise” the deaths; they have asked one to remember that 14-year old Junaid was not killed over a cow (just randomly murdered for being a Muslim); they have quibbled over whether Mohammad Akhlaq had beef or mutton in his fridge; and they have sought to speak of the marauding gangs of men as merely goons taking law into their own hands.
But the fact is, while Sangeet Som or Yogi Adityanath or Mahesh Sharma – or indeed the highest echelons of the RSS and BJP – may not be wielding the actual weapons, their rhetoric is emboldening and enabling it. There is a sense afoot in the country that it is kosher to kill or beat those you dislike or disagree with. Watch the faces of assailants in innumerable videos as they brazenly record their excesses: their expressions are clothed in impunity: they are saying to the camera, our time has come.
They may be foot soldiers without specific shoot orders, but their crimes are the natural, crazed, corollary of leaders in high places constantly speaking of India as a country that needs rescue. From fellow citizens. The extreme is defined by how the centre is articulated.
It’s crucial, therefore, to say this even more unequivocally than ever before: India cannot afford Hindu chauvinism. It does not need it. The Hindu gods do not need it. Hinduism does not need it. This civilisation and culture has survived perfectly for millennia without pygmy armies to protect it with country pistols and political vitriol.
(India cannot afford the dismal competitive communalism of a Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Congress either. But that is yeast for another tragic conversation.)
The greatest irony of this set of deaths is that Hindusim itself has a rich tradition of atheism and dissent: the Carvaka, Mimamsa and Samkhya schools of thought. And neither Ram, Shiva nor Vishnu seem to have minded that. But the murderers on mobikes have no way of knowing that: the country and religion they’ve been sent forth to protect is not the rich, flawed, glorious, ever evolving tree many Hindus and Indians self-confidently love: it’s a fake little plastic sapling bought in a mall.
So, as a brave journalist lies in a pool of blood, it is important that we bow to the tenets of good journalism and accept that, yes, we do not know who her killers are as yet. But just the doubt that this is no ordinary murder is damaging enough. It is proof that violent bigotry and intolerance have already put a fatal tear into our national soul. Our conviction that Gauri Lankesh has been silenced for speaking her mind will trigger a chilling effect, a psychological impact, a sense of siege.
And, god knows, India cannot afford that.