In early August, Gauri Lankesh rang me up with a special request: “I am helping to organize an event in Mangalore for progressive Muslim writers, I am keen that you should attend.” I asked her a little more about the group, and why it was confined to Muslim writers. “Trust me Rajdeep, these are genuine grassroot intellectuals that you would like to listen to, and I’m sure they would like to hear you too,” she replied. She said that the aim of the conference was to build bridges, to find ways to promote the values of peace and tolerance. Gauri could be very persuasive, so a few weeks later, she WhatsApped me again: “Remember my request, when can we have you in Mangalore?” I promised her that I would confirm within a week. The week, sadly, would never come.
A few days later, I was preparing for my 9 pm news show. The Rohingya issue was top of the mind that evening and I had prerecorded a discussion questioning the government policy of deporting thousands of people, including women and children. As I walked into the studio, I was shaken out of my comfort zone. There was a news flash onscreen: ‘Breaking News: Gauri Lankesh shot dead’. For a moment, as I adjusted my mic and jacket and prepared to read the headlines, I was gripped by a sense of total numbness. I read the headlines in a state of shock before my producer whispered, “Sir, let’s go straight to the breaking news, journalist Gauri Lankesh has been shot dead.”
News journalists living in the whirl of 24-hour television where today’s news is the next hour’s history are inured to earthquake, flash floods, terror, disaster. Even so, when a news flash tells you that someone you know has been just shot dead, the mind freezes, the hands start to shake. We managed to finish the news show that evening amidst a rising sense of disbelief, sadness and yes, anger. “Shit,” I said to myself, “Don’t tell me that Gauri has been killed by one of the right-wing loonies she has been speaking out against.” I even put this question to a Karnataka BJP local leader on the show, a question that seemed to agitate him, perhaps rightly so, since within minutes of a murder how does one reach any conclusion on the killers or their motives.
And yet, Gauri’s death seemed to fit a pattern. Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar, Govindrao Pansare, all staunch rationalist voices shot dead by unknown assassins, their murderers, shamefully, still not caught or convicted. All these individuals, much like Gauri, had spoken out against a poisonous streak of communal politics, an ideology driven by hate and prejudice. Was Gauri also a victim of these hatemongers simply because she had refused to back off and instead chosen to confront them? Or was there some other angle to her killing that might not be immediately apparent?
It was wrong to speculate while the investigations were still ongoing. We were not sure who had killed Gauri, but we were certain of who was gloating over, almost celebrating her death. The venomous response on social media in particular against her, suggesting that she ‘deserved’ to die because she was an ‘antinational’, ‘leftist’, ‘naxal sympathizer’, left me dazed. Is this what we had come to as a ‘civil’ society, so polarized that we could not even mourn the dead with dignity? And why would the prime minister of our country choose to follow such ugly voices on Twitter?
I cannot claim to have known Gauri intimately but always saw her as an integral part of the larger journalistic fraternity. Yes, there was a time when journalists saw themselves as part of a community, and not as ‘rivals’ engaged in constant one-upmanship. Gauri and I both started at the “Times of India” around the same period. She moved on to “Sunday” magazine and later became a driving force at the Kannada news magazine, “Lankesh Patrike”, that her father had started.
While Gauri sought to go back to her roots, I chose to drift from print into the glamorous world of television. I was in the public gaze as a ‘celebrity’ anchor but always admired Gauri for the manner in which she had abandoned the high-profile ‘mainstream’ media to build an institution that was seeking to bridge the gaping divide between regional and English language journalism. While we were impostors in the rarefied world of national news TV studios, she was undoubtedly in touch with a more authentic reality. Whenever I needed an angry voice to respond to a Bengaluru issue, or indeed a show where communal politics was being discussed, I would turn to Gauri for an articulate perspective. Whenever there was a debate that angered her, she would SMS or WhatsApp an irate response.
I always sensed in Gauri, an energetic persona, the earnest desire for change, the impatience with political correctness, the yearning for a better, more egalitarian society. I may not have agreed with all her views, but respected the courage of her convictions. She was not a cynic but an idealist who hoped and hankered for a more just social and political system. I could never have matched her revolutionary fervour: she lived life with the spirit of a fearless advocate for human rights, with an uncompromising attitude of reaching out to those who she felt were being victimized. Which is why I guess she was pushing me to attend the Muslim writers’ forum in Mangalore, if only to listen to marginalized voices she thought I would probably never get to hear in a noisy studio cage. I will still try and go to Mangalore one day soon. Only Gauri won’t be there by my side.
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