55-year old Gauri Lankesh, an Indian journalist who fought against injustice and openly criticized right-wing groups, was fatally shot by three unknown attackers in front of her home in Bangalore. The incident took place on Tuesday and has led to widespread shock and outrage across India, with fellow journalists and members of the civil society forcefully denouncing the murder. Lankesh was a famous critic of the right-wing central government, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), condemning them for targeting minorities and fostering a culture that condoned “lynching, mob violence and hate crimes.” She also vocally defended the rights of marginalized groups in India, calling Dalit victims her “sons,” thus inciting the anger of many Indians who support the widely-criticized caste-system.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Sudipto Mondal, a Bangalore-based journalist, declared that “the fact that she was so vocal made her a prime target. And I suppose that goes for a lot of people over here, which is why there are fears that other people might be in the line.” Though officers have said the motives of the assailants remains unclear, Lankesh’s fearless criticisms of the central government undoubtedly provoked the ire of many. In a statement to the Indian website Newslaundry last year, Lankesh noted: “Unfortunately, today anybody talking in support of human rights and against fake encounters [extrajudicial killings] is branded a Maoist supporter…along with that, my criticism of Hindutva politics and the caste system…makes my critics brand me as a Hindu hater. But I consider it my constitutional duty to continue – in my own little way – the struggle of Basavanna and [social reformer] Dr [Bhimrao Ramji] Ambedkar towards establishing an egalitarian society.”
Several groups have publicly condemned the killing and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has ordered a thorough investigation. The Editors Guild of India stated that “[Lankesh’s] killing is an ominous portent for dissent in democracy and a brutal assault on the freedom of the press.” Other organizations also labelled the murder of Lankesh a potent symbol of the attempt to silence critical voices in Indian society. Tellingly, the CPJ reported last year that 27 journalists had been killed “with complete impunity” in India since 1992.
On Wednesday, members of the public in several Indian cities held candlelight vigils in honour of Lankesh, while hundreds of mourners flocked to her state funeral in Bangalore. Meanwhile, the rising threat of right-wing attacks on journalists has raised concern among the civil society and members of the political elite, with Shashi Tharoor tweeting, “Assassination is the most extreme form of censorship. #GauriLankesh said things some people did not like2hear. She was killed4doing her job.” In addition, Ganesh Devy, a linguist and novelist, branded Lankesh “the most fearless and outspoken crusader for the marginal people.” Just a few hours before she was murdered, Lankesh posted a sharp condemnation of the Indian government’s intended deportation of Rohingya refugees on her Facebook page.
Furthermore, Lankesh’s death has elevated fears over the state of free speech and the right to criticism in India, where far-right Hindu groups have attacked those holding secular views. Notably, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to denounce her murder. As such, many Indian Twitter users have taken to the social media platform to criticize Modi for following other Twitter users who appeared to be celebrating Lankesh’s death. The hashtag “#BlockNarendraModi” was trending on Wednesday night through to Thursday.
Nonetheless, the sad reality is that Lankesh’s death is symptomatic of a wider, growing political fanaticism in India that has progressively shut down the voice of dissenters. For instance, two years prior to Lankesh’s death, the distinguished scholar and writer, MM Kalburgi was murdered outside his home. Govind Pansare, an outspoken critic of extreme far-right Hindu groups, was also killed in the same year. Over the past few decades, far-right extremists have been emboldened through a certain impunity that contravenes the very values of Indian democracy: justice for all, equality, and liberty. When minority groups are brutally targeted and journalists are murdered for vocalizing their criticism of the establishment, the silence from the ruling party (and other right-wing groups in India) is deafening. With that said, the culture of impunity that surrounds the senseless attacks on journalists and minorities must be shattered if anything meaningful is to change in India.
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