Gauri Lankesh’s assassination puts India in a group of select nations where rationalists, journalists and activists are periodically killed for challenging reactionary and regressive right-wing politics and its socio-religious-economic moorings. One does not need to point fingers towards the bloggers’ murders in Bangladesh across the border any more. In the deaths of Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, India has its own serial homicidal narrative vis-à-vis dwindling freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech is in a precarious position today. “Freedom is in peril,” to borrow the words of Jawaharlal Nehru. Journalists in India have long been aware of the cons of honest reporting and expression of their opinions. You ignore monetary lures and trolls and continue on your path. At times, your work and ethics may come into conflict with your organisation’s big-picture aims. If the difference becomes irreconcilable, you leave the ship and search for a new one.
At times, journalists would also get killed, especially those working on a crime story or an investigation. But never in the history of the country, have rationalists, activists and journalists been serially eliminated for voicing their opinion against a political ideology and the ideas that it stands for.
The idea is very simple. First, they try to buy you out. When they fail to do that, they resort to threats and intimidations. And when everything else fails, they bump you off. Interestingly, some of the people, expressing shameless glee at the news of Gauri Lankesh’s death on Twitter, are followed by the Prime Minister himself. Some of them are also dishing out warnings to ‘presstitutes’, asking them to mend their ways or meet Gauri’s fate. The Prime Minister who, on Twitter, is usually alive to situations in other continents, is conspicuously silent. Now, what message does it convey to journalists?
As journalists, we have to confront the changed reality of our times. Quite clearly, there are more such elements today than ever who think that the media should no longer be the fourth pillar of democracy. As a matter of fact, their ‘one nation, one culture’ theory runs antithetical to the very spirit of democracy, the culture of debate and fusion. They see media as a pliant constituency, aiding in their efforts to change the socio-cultural skeleton of the nation.
So, what choice do journalists have? Realistically, there are none. I can speak for myself. I have a school-going son and an ailing mom at home. I have responsibilities. The fact that both me and my wife, also a journalist, have been repeatedly threatened (both offline and online) by the very elements against whom Gauri Lankesh wrote tirelessly can’t be comforting. What happens to my son and my mom if something were to happen to us?
But is that enough reason for me to join the pliant editors’ club and spend my workday in passing off photoshopped images, doctored footages and concocted narratives? If journalists start manufacturing facts, hiding the truth and replacing history with mythology, what kind of a country and society will we leave for our children?
The point is not to be afraid. The point is to publish more investigative stories that puncture the myth of development, the point is to counter this culture of intolerance and violence, the point is to speak for the rights of people no matter how less their numbers may be, the point is to be humane and rational, the point is to promote a fair society so that we can live, eat, talk freely in a free country without any fear or hesitation.
This would be the ideal tribute to heroes like Gauri Lankesh and the others who fell for resisting the culture of hatred.
I first met Gauri Lankesh at my Kolkata home. It was most possibly 2005. I was then with The Week magazine. She had come to visit my grandmother and my father, both of whom were writers. She had gifted dad a Chanapattana-style wooden acupressure contraption. It still lies on a shelf at home.
Much, much later, we would be co-panelists at a seminar on media, ethics and society at a Delhi-based journalism institute.
Gauri Lankesh’s murder has shaken up an entire professional community. Hopefully, journalists who have been fence-sitters till now will realise that this is the time to choose sides. One just hopes they choose that wisely.
Jawaharlal Nehru did not stop at saying, “Freedom is in peril.” The next line reads, “Defend it with all your might.” Our strength stems from our pens. Let’s put them to good use.