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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.

GauriJoe Athialy via Foter.comThe 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.

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  • SIV||

    sic semper "libturds" and "presstitutes"

  • ||

    sic semper "libturds" and "presstitutes"

    I wouldn't go that far but without even having known the woman and reading:

    Unlike me, she had a strong socialist streak.


    Made me think "With friends like you, who needs enemies?"

  • Citizen X - #6||

    SIV loves seeing people he doesn't know but thinks he might disagree with get brutally murdered almost as much as he loves having sex with barnyard fowl.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    You know what? You don't get a witty remark.

    Go shove a rusty nail up your urethra and die screaming, you inferior, worthless, sub-human SCUM.

  • ||

    Hindu terrorists haven't gotten as much notice because they haven't moved to other countries and tried to remake them.

  • Drave Robber||

    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.

    So she was a caste traitor, right?

  • Memory Hole||

    Well, that settles lunch. Hamburger it is.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    this once proud liberal democracy

    I'm certainly no expert on the Indian subcontinent, but I would be hesitant to talk about India as a proud liberal democracy-- certainly not in a way that would suggest a long tradition of it.

    Here's a short list of assassinated Indian politicians. I mean, I understand that Democracy is messy, but come on.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    India still has a caste system, the bubonic plague, and treat women as second class citizens.

    Being able to vote is not the only thing that makes a country great.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "libturds" and "presstitutes" have become commonplace. Such coarse and violent language is dehumanizing, legitimizing violence against journalists.

    Using those two words alone doesn't "legitimize violence" against anyone. I've been called lots of names in my life, and never once did I think that the name calling legitimized violence against me.

  • Domestic Dissident||

    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.

    First of all lady, most "westerners" don't have the tenuous, divided loyalties that you do, and are far too busy desperately trying to hang onto their jobs, survive, and take their of their families to care very much about reporters in India, sorry. News flash: many of us barely even give a shit about reporters in own our country, much less yours. The fact that you think this should be a major priority for us "westerners" to worry about just shows how completely disconnected from reality you are.

    Second of all, if she was anything at all like you, then frankly I'm not all that surprised someone killed her.

    Finally, this sounds like another good reason for you to go back there. Clearly you care deeply about this, so why not go and do something about it? I don't know exactly what the fuck it is you think the rest of us should do in that stupid head of yours, but I can promise you we're not doing it. Crazy, violent Hindus are your problem, not ours.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Second of all, if she was anything at all like you, then frankly I'm not all that surprised someone killed her.

    Now that's the type of language that legitimizes violence.

  • Domestic Dissident||

    I know my language is rough, but honest to goodness, it's not enough for this annoying cunt to tell us the sad story of her friend, but she also needs to patronize and insult us for not caring enough and tell us how stupid and ignorant we all are for not being sufficiently up to speed on the domestic political situation in India?

    Fuck this sanctimonious dipshit twat with a rusted-out spoon. If she was within reach of me, I swear I would give her a good old-fashioned British backhand right across her big stupid mouth.

  • Brandybuck||

    You're still butthurt that Shikia didn't vote for your god Trump, aren't you?

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    Fuck this sanctimonious dipshit twat with a rusted-out spoon. If she was within reach of me, I swear I would give her a good old-fashioned British backhand right across her big stupid mouth.

    So much for the NAP...

  • Les||

    You are mighty!

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    You had better hope there isn't a Hell, and if there is, you better hope it isn't an ironic one.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Simple Mikey doesn't have many layers, so the urge to sort of go into some retarded, violent ape-flailing is never far beneath the surface of him.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    The tone of many of these comments is deeply depressing. Based on what I have read, Gauri Lankesh was a true champion of free thought and free speech and stands head and shoulders above the supposedly libertarian wiseguys who have ridiculed this piece. I am sorry for Shikha's loss, which is ours as well.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Some of the logic in this piece is the same logic used to support all sorts of assaults on the First Amendment.

    Going after those who would point this out for their insensitive speech in these comments seems tone deaf, as well.

    Using the death of someone who may have been murdered for her speech to call for the government to speak out against speech is highly problematic from a libertarian perspective.

    This place used to cater to those with a libertarian perspective. If she wants to use the same arguments that the SJWs use to go after our First Amendment rights--in the defense of, what, First Amendment rights? . . . then she shouldn't be surprised to get the libertarian perspective in comments.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    You can criticize the language someone uses--"cunt", for example--without suggesting that they be silenced or the word be banned. There is nothing in Shikha's piece to suggest that words like "libturd" (or maybe "cunt"?) should be banned. Only that their use can be vicious and offensive. Since when did "libertarian" become a synonym for "whiny bro"?

  • Ken Shultz||

    She want the Prime Minister to tell people which speech is unacceptable--and the speech she cited doesn't violate anyone's rights.

    Furthermore, she's conflating speech with violence, which is the go to argument for those on the left who are coming after our First Amendment rights.

    Do you not see the difference between the speech she cited and violence? Here's a hint: The problem with what the extremists did wasn't the speech what Dalmia quoted. The problem was that they murdered someone.

  • ||

    She wants the prime minister to say something about this, not to ban the speech or punish the use of speech. She is asking the prime minister to use his moral authority with hindu nationalists to speak out against the killing of journalists. I honestly can't imagine why you'd have a problem with this.

    Do you not see the difference between moral suasion and violence?

  • Domestic Dissident||

    I almost felt really bad about it for a minute or two... until I got to the gratuitous, completely unnecessary insults towards "the west", which turned my stomach and quickly reminded me of what a despicable woman we're dealing with here.

    And I'm still not sure exactly what it "the west" is supposed to do about this, beyond saying "hey crazy, violent Hindu extremists, please don't murder your own reporters, because that's wrong." This is entirely a domestic problem for India that they have to figure out how to deal with.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    Your stomach turned only then, huh?

  • ||

    "the west" has a media that operates with significant press freedom, has global reach, and a greater ability to protect itself against violent retaliation than does India-based media. Of course Western media, ngo's, and others could help shed light on hindu extremism and violence in India. And there's nothing wrong with saying that that would be helpful.

    Also, nice to know that you're the kind of person who only feels bad about someone being murdered if their friend doesn't say anything that pisses you off.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    What Shikha, no articles about how India should be open border country and allow in as many non-Indians as possible?

  • KevinP||

    India treats its own citizens brutally and non-citizens as sub-humans.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "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."

    I don't support hate speech laws.

    I can clearly see the difference between speech and murder.

    Is it the Prime Minister's business to police speech?

    Part of being a libertarian to me means believing that if government has any legitimate purpose at all, it's to protect our rights. No one has a right not to be called bad names, but everyone has the right not to be murdered. Call on the Prime Minister to denounce murder or extol freedom of the press.

    Don't criticize the Prime Minister for not railing against speech.

    Everyone has a right to free speech--even the stupid and evil nationalist extremists--just like everyone has a right not to be murdered. When a journalist is murdered, calling on the government to denounce speech seems counterintuitive to me.

    The Prime Minister should be denouncing murder and extolling both freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

    Not denouncing speech. Denouncing speech is exactly the wrong thing to do.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Yet India's Prime Minister Narenda Modi, a Hindu nationalist himself, has not seen fit to make a national appeal against such hateful invective."

    I don't support hate speech laws.

    I was going to point out the irony of this but I let it slide-- making a national appeal can be interpreted as just asking nicely, with no legislative intent behind it.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The PM has no business telling people what not to say.

    And the solution to extremists murdering journalists because of their speech is not getting the extremist PM to start telling people that their non-violent speech is unacceptable.

    As we've both pointed out--why have the PM criticize speech when the problem is murder?

    And how can the answer be signaling?

    That's like taking the confederate flag down from over the statehouse in response to a church shooting.

    In response to racism, we could start holding the police accountable for their brutality, call off the racist drug war, and/or bring school choice to whole communities in the state that are trapped in failing schools.

    But why do any of that--when we can just take down a statue of Robert E. Lee instead?

    That's the kind of signaling being called for here--only worse in its own way.

    The government may not have a right to put up Robert E. Lee statues, but stupid and evil extremist individuals do have a right to free speech. Making a windmill out of their speech rights to tilt at is the same thing the SJWs do here in America to come after our First Amendment rights. Why pretend otherwise?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I agree that criticizing speech to curb murder is kind of silly. Perhaps you should concentrate on the murder part. But that's never popular because there are already laws against that. I just couldn't get my blood up that much after Shikha "wished" openly that the PM would say something about other mean people.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Oh, and by the way--it's supposed to be a libertarian website!!!

    Why should we have to point out to staff that there's a difference between speech and murder?

    It gets old after a while.

  • SIV||

    The government may not have a right to put up Robert E. Lee statues

    Has the government ever put up a Robert E. Lee statue? They didn't put up the one in Charlottesville or the one on Monument Avenue in Richmond. They sure as hell didn't carve that bas relief into Stone Mountain in Georgia.

    I wouldn't be surprised if the NPS has erected some Yankee statues in the past 50 years but war memorials and statues of historical figures were traditionally private efforts, even if the location-such as a courthouse square-may have been public property.

  • HenryC||

    Almost all the private monuments have had to get at least local government approval for sites. Many of the "private" monuments were proposed at the local government level and private donations were arranged. For the most part monuments have been public private partnerships.

  • saguaro||

    I am sorry for your loss.

  • HenryC||

    Hindu religious terrorism is strictly an Indian problem. It is not international like Islamic, Palestinian, or drug lord terrorism is. That is the reason most of the world ignores it. It does not effect them. As a libertarian, on the whole I regard that as a good thing, not a bad thing.

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: 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

    A journalist killed in India?
    Are you sure the journalist wasn't in Russia?

  • Mark22||

    "libturds" and "presstitutes" have become commonplace. Such coarse and violent language is dehumanizing, legitimizing violence against journalists

    "Stop criticizing us in any way or we are going to accuse you of being murderous radicals."

    Sorry, no go.

  • JeremyR||

    If you care so much, why are you in the US writing an article that no one really cares about? Maybe go back to India and get involved?

    This is the flip side of the problem with open borders. Why don't the people who want to move to another country to better themselves, instead try to make their home countries better?

  • ||

    It's amazing how some people have the ability to care about what happens in multiple countries.

    Also, FYI, due to the magic of the world wide web, people from other countries (even India!) can read articles written in the United States and posted to US-based websites. One of the benefits of this is there are people who can write about a journalist who was killed for her opinion without themselves being a target of such killing.

  • DRM||

    Let's see, she was fired from a newspaper run by her own brother over her support for Maoist terrorists attacking police, and counted among her "adopted children" one person who's a leader in the student wing of the Communist Party of India and another who's a leader in the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation.

    And you managed to get her called a "hero" in a headline on Reason.

    Quite an accomplishment.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Didn't read the article. Are you saying we don't have a cow in this fight?

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Hopefully, Hindu fanatics aren't emigrating from India. Hinduism doesn't seem like the kind of religion that matters all that much if you're several timezones away from the Ganges.

  • The Last American Hero||

    If Hindu fanatics are the problem, maybe they should loosen up the restrictions on Pakistani Muslim immigrants. Problem solved.

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