The Murder of an Indian Journalist, a Hero, My Friend

The slaying of Gauri Lankesh, an implacable foe of Hindu fanaticism, shows how much trouble India's liberal democracy is in.


Joe Athialy via

The rising forces of religious extremism, intolerance, and lawlessness in India inflicted a terrible casualty this week: They slayed my dear friend, Gauri Lankesh, the nation's bravest and fiercest journalist. If a country's moral health is to be judged by its capacity to handle dissenters and critics, then my birth land—and the world's most populous democracy—is in a truly dark place right now.

Gauri was gunned down by unknown assailants outside her home in Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley, as she stepped out of her car last week. Reports suggest that her assassins were lurking outside her driveway awaiting her return from work. They sprayed her petite frame in a hail of bullets and sped away.

Unfortunately, she is not the first Indian journalist to be murdered so gruesomely—or brazenly. It is not clear who was behind the attack but at least three of her "spiritual" brothers who, like her, spoke out against the alarming growth of Hindu militancy and shrinking secularism have been likewise struck near their homes in the last few years. None of the murders have been solved, something that distressed Gauri to no end—not because she cared about her safety (she always told me not to worry, "love and hugs"!), but the chilling effect on speech.

According to Reporters Without Borders, India in 2015 was among the three most dangerous countries for journalists, worse even than Pakistan and Afghanistan, neither one of which, unlike India, makes any pretense of being "liberal." Furthermore, death threats on social media against a long list of journalists whom Hindu militants daily berate as "libturds" and "presstitutes" have become commonplace. Such coarse and violent language is dehumanizing, legitimizing violence against journalists.

Yet India's Prime Minister Narenda Modi, a Hindu nationalist himself, has not seen fit to make a national appeal against such hateful invective. More tellingly, he has yet to issue a statement condemning Gauri's assassination, notwithstanding demonstrations and candlelight vigils by heart-broken scribes and grieving fans all over the country, which are now entering their second week.

The state government threw her an official funeral, which would have surely made her laugh given that the same government, just a few months ago, convicted her for criminal defamation for exposing two Hindu politicos who had swindled their own party's workers. She was sentenced to six months in prison (postponed pending an appeal) a clear effort to punish her opinions and make it costly for her and others like her to exercise their free speech rights, she noted.

To say that Gauri, whom I met in journalism school in New Delhi 34 years ago, was a remarkable woman would be an understatement. There was just no one I knew that was packaged quite like her. She combined a gentle warmth, profound compassion, easy forgiveness with a steely, unwavering, moral conviction. She was also preternaturally humble and honest—a hero who didn't have the vanity to imagine being one.

We bonded over boy talk and politics—in that order—during all-night gossip sessions as she filled up the ashtray and gave me a contact high. She was already well on her way to sorting out her politics even before we met when, barely out of high school, she bylined a piece, "Objection Overruled," lambasting a Supreme Court ruling that banned women from appearing in court in jeans, slapping a picture of her riding a scooter in a denim jumpsuit with it.

Still, she listened more than she opined, which was one reason that neither one of us dreamed then that two decades later she would single-handedly found the eponymous Gauri Lankesh Patrike—a tabloid that combines the counter-establishment politics of the Village Voice with the gossipy salaciousness of the New York Post. And what's more, turn it into such a fierce and uncompromising voice against India's triple bane of "communalism" (religious fanaticism), "casteism" (caste oppression) and corruption that it would get her killed.

She shared these causes with her dad, himself a highly successful tabloid publisher whose newspaper she ran for 10 years after his death before quitting following a spat with her brother. She used to say that her progressive father, whom she revered, turned her into a feminist (a sentiment that one would hardly expect coming from the mouths of effete Third Wave "intersectionality" feminists in the West today who believe men aren't capable of an authentic understanding of women's travails under patriarchy).

She wanted to promote her father's legacy, no doubt—which is why, despite her faltering grasp of Kanada, the local language, she opted to publish her newspaper in it, as he had done. He had convinced her that if she wanted to fight for the social underdogs—the poor famers, dalits (untouchables), low-wage women – she had to reach out to them in their language—not that of English-speaking urban sophisticates. She also embraced his business model, refusing advertisements lest they dilute her paper's anti-establishment commitment, and depended solely on subscriptions—which too had to be kept nominal if her target audience were to afford them. Thanks to that decision, she was financially strapped, barely able to meet payroll every moth. Just a few days before she was gunned down, she had cashed her last life insurance policy, according to her friend, Krishna Prasad. She had stripped down her life style to the bare essentials, giving up all the little girly frills she once relished.

But she was more than her father's daughter. Gauri had to fight fights that her dad didn't.

She was a cosmopolite at heart who loved Bangalore because of its openness and tolerance. It was one of the safest cities in India for women in the 1970s and 1980s when women could, as she wrote, hop on their "RX 100 Yamaha motorcycle" and go "whrooming, without raising an eyebrow." Women inhabited the pub scene as much as men—and not in long skirts with loose blouses, Gauri observed, but "jeans and a Little Black Dress." Bangalore didn't have a "live and let live" ethos, it had an "adjust a little" attitude—meaning that every religion and way of life happily made space for the other.

All of that began to change before her eyes over the last 15 years with the increasing "saffronization"—saffron being the color worn by Hindu fanatics—of her state. Hindu thugs in both parties—BJP, the majoritarian Hindu party, but also Congress, the so-called secular party of religious and other minorities—started thrashing women who wore "immodest" clothes or celebrated Valentine's Day. They invented the threat of "love jihad"—Muslim men seducing Hindu women—to justify terrorizing Muslims in the state. The ugly head of cow vigilantism—Hindus beating and lynching non-Hindus who consume beef—has reared its ugly head since Modi assumed office.

She understood before many others that the project of this new, virulent Hinduism was to resist reform of its own regressive practices while demonizing India's minority religions for theirs.

Gauri was going to have none of that. She mounted scathing attacks on them. She used strong, sarcastic—though, unlike her enemies, never abusive—language, named names, connected dots—in her newspaper, at conferences, on air. She yielded not an inch in her patriotism. She was an atheist and something of an Enlightenment rationalist who demanded a radical separation of religion and state. But she defended her views not by referring to Western thought but India's own rich intellectual traditions. This made the typical Hindutva (Hindu nationlist) attacks on their political opponents as "anti-national" or "anti-Hindu" fall flat when hurled at her. In fact, the authentically indigenous mode of her writings fundamentally deflated their claims of being the "true" representatives of their country and culture. That's what made her truly dangerous.

She knew Hindu mythology in all its resplendent local diversity long before University of Chicago's Wendy Donniger wrote a scholarly treatise about that. So she could counter Hindutva efforts to impose its dogma by referring to Hindu epics and scriptures and showing just how contrary to the true spirit of Hindu pluralism that was. The source of her own lack of faith in god, she once told me, was Charvaka, an ancient materialist school of thought within Hinduism. She mercilessly mocked public figures whose misguided displays of piety, consciously or unconsciously, entrenched upper-caste Hindu hegemony. (For example, she wrote a piece last year lambasting India's president in 1951 who publicly washed the feet of 201 Brahmins and drank the water as "vulgar"—a virtually blasphemous thought in today's India.)

She made mistakes and had her blind spots, to be sure. Unlike me, she had a strong socialist streak. She didn't condemn Naxalism—a militant Maoist movement in India that fights for lower castes and farmers against feudal, upper-caste landlords—as forcefully as she should have. She called for the "rehabilitation" of its members because she saw them as more misguided than dangerous—and also because, whatever their excesses, they paled in comparison with those of a violent state that without any due process killed real and alleged Naxals in fake "encounters" (confrontations), including one with our journalism school senior, Saket Rajan, whose death profoundly affected Gauri.

The Charlie Hebdo slaying by Islamist terrorists generated widespread worldwide condemnations. But the climate of hate created by Hindu fanatics against Indian journalists has elicited barely a peep. This is partly because Hindu extremism is still a local phenomenon whose poison hasn't yet spread. And it is partly because the West, thanks to its own insularity, still sees India as the land of white doves and Gandhi. It simply hasn't adjusted to India's new reality. This is too bad for India because if it is going to slay people like Gauri who are trying to dig it out of its moral hole, it could use some light from the outside to expose its rut.

Gauri's assassination shows just how far India's once-proud liberal democracy has fallen. It will be up to us, her liberal comrades and friends, wherever we are, to try and lift it up again.

May we make your country worthy of your sacrifice one day, Gauri.

Love and hugs.

A version of this originally appeared in The Week.