Murder of Gauri Lankesh: a wake-up call for journalism 

Protest against the murder of Gauri Lankesh

Why aren’t journalists covering stories of inequality, injustice, intolerance, corruption, discrimination, communal polarisation, etc that editors are extolling about Gauri Lankesh now?

Gauri Lankesh didn’t call too often. But when she did, it would be late in the night and it would be a very long one. Usually they were about the various wars she was waging in her mind and in the magazine. Almost always on the heavy toll it was taking.

On April 18 this year, she seemed especially distraught. Demonetisation, she confessed, had knocked the bottom out of her business. She had barely enough money to last another month, she said.

“Yenu maadodhu, mundhakke yenu daari?

“Yaavaga badalagatthe, yenaaru gottha-paa?”

(What do I do? What is the way forward? Do you know when things will change?)

Her eponymous, ad-free weekly depended entirely on newsstand sales. There was nothing like the annual, 3-year or 5-year subscriptions that English magazines offer and fall back on for a steady source of revenue.

Narendra Modi’s surgical swipe of the pockets of ordinary Indians on November 8 had made even Gauri’s readers, not quite upper class and a steadily diminishing lot over the years, reluctant to part with the cash.

But sustaining the weekly after #DeMo wasn’t alone on her mind. She also published guidebooks for examinations and general books, many of them translations. These publications, with a higher cover price than her tabloid and with a bigger profit margin, kept ‘INS Gauri’ afloat.

If they fell, the battleship would sink.

After offering my two cents on going digital etc, I put her in touch with a couple of CEOs who understood the economics of the publishing business better and who could guide her on how to weather the storm.

‘Gauri Lankesh Patrike’ survived five months.

Gauri Lankesh?

***

I narrate this anecdote only to illustrate four points that seem to have been subsumed by the welter of words her death—correction: her calculated, coldblooded murder at the altar of her home—has evoked.

  • One: the stellar battle a small, single woman fought—all on her own and all very silently. ‘I Am Gauri’ makes it seem like a fairy tale saga of a fiery, fearless journalist overcoming all odds, but it wasn’t so, at least not lately.
  • Two: the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetrated by the fat cats in mainstream media that tabloids are “roll-call”, pay-up-or-you-are-damned, extortion rackets of their editors and journalists, lies exposed.
  • Three: all “Naxal sympathisers”, "peaceniks", "JNU pricks", "radicals" don’t have access to bottomless “foreign” funds and don't lap around in luxury. When her end came, the ignition was on in Toyota’s cheapest offering in India.
  • Four: till the very last breath, her fate, especially her financial fate, was tied inextricably with that of the man she fully and properly loathed and despised.

Given her family’s longstanding ties with various political worthies in Karnataka, including and especially Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, finding funds must not have been difficult but Gauri’s phone calls suggested she didn’t go that route.

At the funeral in Bangalore, the CM's media advisor Dinesh Amin Mattoo said he had heard that Gauri had surrendered her last life insurance policy just a few days ago to make ends meet.

At a condolence meeting in Mysore, Swamy Anand who worked with the Lankesh family for 30-odd years said she wrote for English publications only to pay for her Kannada journalism.

Her bank balance, said somebody else, would most likely be in the low thousands.

Be that as it may, the impact of easily the most destructive economic decision in post-Independence history on farmers, weavers, shopkeepers, daily wage workers, etc has been told, re-told and spun.

The saga of ‘Gauri Lankesh Patrike’ tells you what a lethal effect it has had on journalism, especially for small newspapers, especially in the languages.

And the accompanying trauma on those who run and work in these enterprises.

And the hollowing out of the democratic discourse.

The only consolation is that even the goons who pumped the bullets into her couldn’t prevent Gauri from enjoying RBI’s official stamp on the #DemonetisationDisaster for a full five days.

***

In a roundabout sort of way, and that is probably her lasting contribution to the fraternity, Gauri Lankesh has shone the light on the state of modern Indian journalism. Looking at the coverage of the protest marches, rallies and meetings, a common reader and viewer must be wondering:

How did the editor of a small, unheard-of, financially strapped Kannada tabloid end up irritating somebody so much that they decided to send her off to her next assignment in the hereafter?

Conversely, how come so many of our large media houses and big publications are happily swimming along with the sharks without the kind of harm that has come to Gauri & ‘Patrick’?

And listening to the grandstanding by the great gasbags of Lutyens Delhi's media, online and offline, young reporters must be wondering:

Why aren't we freely covering the kind of stories - of inequality, inequity, injustice, intolerance, corruption, discrimination, communal polarisation etc - that these bozos are extolling about Gauri Lankesh now?

The American journalist, David Halberstam, said famously that journalism was not about making friends and earning praise, and that if you were looking for it, you must go somewhere else.

As vast sections of the Indian media bury their head in the sand to the leaping flames of competitive communalism and the dragon seeds of hatred and bigotry being sown in our midst, the roles have been reversed.

It is Gauri who has had to go off somewhere else.

***

In November 1984, the English cricket team arrived in India to play a Test series. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by her bodyguards a few days earlier.

The British High Commissioner in Bombay, Percy Norris, who hosted a reception for the English team ahead of the first Test, had been shot dead on the first day of play.

In his memoirs ‘Foxy’, the England opening batsman Graeme Fowler writes about going out to bat at the Wankhede Stadium in such circumstances.

“There were 55,000 people and any one of them could have had a revolver in his pocket.”

Journalism today is like that.

Correction, bold, courageous news journalism—which speaks truth to power, which stares the bigot in the eye, which bites the hate mongers, which exposes the crooked, the corrupt and the communal—is like that today.

You never know who could pump a few bullets as you open the door.

Or when.

Fowler managed to reach 28 that day.

Gauri Lankesh did much better to reach 55.

***

Last November, Gauri texted to say: “I have joined your gang. The editor of ‘Bangalore Mirror’ has stopped my column.”

When I sent my commiserations, she replied: “WTF. We shall survive and stomp out communal elements.”

Will we, Gauri?

(The author is former Editor-in-Chief of Outlook, senior journalist, columnist and a prolific blogger)

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