Killing a Mockingbird
Gauri Lankesh’s was a rare strident voice that relentlessly asked uncomfortable questions and looked communalism in the face
The first time I met Gauri Lankesh after I be came a journalist, we fought. Bitterly. We were a group of journalists at the Bangalore Press Club, an election had just concluded, and we were talking about voting. I said I did not vote, and that I had the right not to vote. Gauri disagreed vehemently, saying it was the basic duty of every citizen to vote and that those who do not had no right to complain. Now, when Gauri argued, she could be very vocal and brusque, to a de gree that would leave her opponent furious.As I was that day.In those days, Gauri was living in Delhi. She returned to Bengaluru in 2000 when her father P Lankesh died. Lankesh was a legendary figure, in Kannada literature and outside. A lec turer of English literature in Bangalore University, he had quit in 1980 to launch Lankesh Patrike, an independent, weekly tabloid, before which the government of the day quailed. When he died suddenly -after putting the edition to bed the previous night -the publication’s future was doubtful, considering that none of his three children, including Gauri, seemed likely heirs to his journalistic legacy. But persuaded by the weekly’s publisher, Gauri took over the job, though she never sat in her father’s chair at the office.

She Fought the Good Fight

Despite inheriting the mantle of her illustrious father, many of us were unsure about what her politics would be. I bracketed her as another convent-educated member of the elite, a believer in the very system a group of us journalists were opposed to. But Gauri was to prove me wrong.And in the process, become more family than friend.

As a member of the Komu Souhar da Vedike (Forum for Communal Harmony) set up by civil society members in Karnataka, she was active in protesting the right wing’s attempts at communalisation in Karnataka. That was the time when the Bajrang Dal was laying claim to Baba Budangiri, a Sufi dargah near Chikmagalur, and declaring it the Ayod hya of the south. In November 2003, she, along with Girish Karnad and many others, defied ban orders in Chikmagalur and courted arrest.

But the spark that lit the activist fire in her was a controversial reporting assignment we tackled together, interviewing Naxals in the forests of Karnataka.From the reportage and the ensuing controversy, Gauri gained the tag of “Naxal sympathiser“ and lost many friends who were cautious about associating with someone the state had its eye on. Undeterred, she plunged into activism wholeheartedly but always as someone who was firmly against resorting to violence.

The decision to report extensively on the Naxals had another, far worse fallout for Gauri. She lost her father’s paper, after her brother Indrajit accused her of becoming a mouthpiece of the Maoists and forced her out of its editorship. Gauri was devastated but with the support of her sister, filmmaker Kavitha Lankesh, and numerous friends, she launched Gauri Lankesh Patrike on March 8, 2005, which would have been her father’s 70th birthday. The paper she edited was distinct from her father’s. While Lankesh Patrike had its share of controversial stories, its focus was on mainstream politics and had the literary tone of P Lankesh. Gauri Lankesh Patrike had no qualms about adopting a much more strident, vocal tone, and tackled communalism head-on, edition after edition. There was little distinction between her activism and journalism, something she was both admired and criticised for. For Gauri, it was no contradiction. To give you an idea of the politics of the paper, the last 10 editions either had cover stories or detailed reports on the saffronisation of India and the dangers it posed.

Bringing out an independent paper without advertisements, outside the ambit of the corporate media, was never easy. More so, when it was a paper that never shied away from asking uncomfortable questions. There were weeks when funds were so scarce that it was doubtful whether the next issue of Gauri Lankesh Patrike would come out. Somehow, it always did, even if it meant digging into personal savings.

Once the edition was put to bed on Wednesday evening, we would gather at her office for cigarettes, Khodays, songs and conversation which went on late into the night. Plans would be made for the next trip, some of which happened, and many which did not. Gauri was always game for the next adventure. But only after her deadline.

Over time, some of us chose safer, more comfortable options but Gauri kept fighting the good fight. The line that the paper took earned its editor many brickbats but Gauri would address these, just as she would any appreciation. Engagement was important, she believed, even if it meant replying to hate mail.

We told her, time and again, to be careful, to move closer to the city. But she would dismiss our fears with a “Don’t talk like a man“ (ie “Don’t be patronising“). The closest her well-wishers got was to convince her to install CCTV cameras in the porch of her house.

When those bullets were fired on Monday night, they were aimed not just at Gauri but at that rare voice called independent journalism. Dissent was never welcome but, today, it is in danger of being wiped out.