Gauri Lankesh wouldn’t have liked the politics being played over her murder
We have to multiply the Gauris we are representing. The whistle-blower, the Naxalite, the Dalit and the dissenting journalist need to be honoured and protected in terms of a more creative idea of justice.analysis Updated: Sep 13, 2017 12:49 IST
A philosopher friend of mine once told me death is a strange event. It is not only about the destruction of a person, it is about the way the person gets refracted, reconstructed through the memories of different people. There is little time for mourning, for the pain and the balm of remembrance, the almost ephemeral anecdotes of ‘when you last met,’ the trivial gossip of every day. One senses this when Gauri Lankesh was brutally shot. Media transformed her from a person to a corpse without any sense of waiting. As the public spectacle was being played out, I remember a few friends of mine mourning her, celebrating her for the person she was before the person became an icon, a fetish to be used by interest groups.
I remember a friend of mine, a very senior journalist tell me people do not realise that she took time to grow. Gauri was not a good writer. She was no match for the father Lankesh who was a legend. She combined the vernacular and the cosmopolitan through hard work, by going beyond the seediness of a traditional tabloid, with its questionable links to politics and corruption to create a cosmopolitanism.
Part of it came from the fact she kept in touch with her old college activists, her teachers. Her first claim to maturity was the way she struggled to allow Naxals to return to civic life, to the mainstream as it is pompously called. Part of it came from her understanding that a single-focus radicalism was not as interesting as a multi-chromatic dissent covering all the key issues from caste and gender to rationalism. Some of the credit must go to the fact that Kannada literary imagination allowed for a hybridity of culture and politics where diversity was as important as equality. Gauri in that sense was a creature of her milieu and was still being forged by it. I remember reading the social activist Madhu Bhushan’s very gentle pieces on Gauri. Madhu met her on the last day and as she, Gauri and Kalpana, another friend, talked, what she and Kalpana sensed was Gauri’s desperate need to talk. It was as if conversation filled in all the spaces writing and politics left empty. Her conversation was urgent, gossipy, compulsive creating a sense of friendship, of time lost and relationships mended. I began with this because this aspect of Gauri Lankesh, the creativity and openness is lost in media reports. She appears as a full rounded archetype, a presence now convertible to an icon, an idol and a fetish, a creature to be appropriated by different groups. Politics swallowed up the person creating an emptiness of recognition.
Sadly I do not think it was the kind of politics Gauri wanted. Hers was a search for justice and cosmopolitanism, a possibility of repair and reconciliation. What we got instead was a seedy vote bank, interest group politics which looked at Gauri with the coming election in the eye. The CM headed the show, granting immediate protection to a dozen other intellectuals. It was literally like distributing doles after a disaster, a pretended act of concern and magnanimity which distracted people from the violence of the crime or the causes she fought for. What this created was an element of hysteria and fear and what it might eliminate is a proper enquiry into Gauri’s death. Suspicion and the politics of suspicion is not enough. What one needs to publicise and investigate is the interest groups she threatened and which sought to eliminate her. One has to remember that Gauri was something the right found difficult to defeat, a left liberal icon who was deeply embedded in the politics of Karnataka. She was one of the few who could speak Kannada and yet be an English language icon. Her bilingualism led to multi-culturalism where different kinds of marginalities meshed to create a processional sense of democracy. It is this that memory and the politics of civil society have to keep alive.
One has to remember it was not merely Gauri’s death that was a scandal. It was the politics of Karnataka, the contractor lobby, the rise of right wing groups, the triviality of electoralism, the pressure of regionalism, the emptiness of the technocratic elite which makes it the cesspool of fear, cynicism and panic that it is. Justice will not come from an indictment, a picking of a scapegoat who is only an instrument of deeper, more brutal politics. Media has to move beyond the scandal of drawing rooms and the current superficiality of reportage which displaces politics into a search for scandal, gossip, ideological rhetoric without honouring the politics, the social world Gauri sought to create, while sensing her own limits. I am not denying the politics of Pansare and Dabholkar. It is however only one strand of a variegated complex world we are fighting more critically.
Can civil society groups, which in Bangalore include dedicated academics, activists, lawyers, open up and debate the issues she was concerned about? How does a Naxal return to ordinary life without being an external target of some trigger-happy policeman or some idiot ideological faction? How does one sustain the varieties of dissent without becoming cynical or patricidal? Gauri Lankesh’s murder cannot merely feed the mills of gossip, of family quarrels, of CBI incompetence, of politicians shedding crocodile tears. Democracy and civil society need to be more inventive. Right now, our intelligentsia is reacting like Pavlov’s dogs, knee jerk in their responses, content with the offer of security as a Linus Blanket, indifferent to the dozens of small town journalists shot without any act of remembrance. We have to multiply the Gauris we are representing. The whistle-blower, the Naxalite, the Dalit and the dissenting journalist need to be honoured and protected in terms of a more creative idea of justice. Hysteria is too short-lived to leave behind anything worthwhile. This, civil society and democracy in Karnataka have to understand.
Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P Jindal Global University
The views expressed are personal