Not all murdered journalists in India are the same.
The horrifying murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh in India is making headlines around the world. It is a despicable and most heinous crime. It is also not so very rare. Why do the murders of some journalists in India send shock waves around the world and others barely get a mention?
A few years ago Indian news television, to be more specific Indian news television based in the capital Delhi, invented perhaps the most tone-deaf phrase in the history of Indian journalism — the tyranny of distance.
This ‘tyranny’ has been used to explain why everything that is, literally and figuratively, close to Delhi, and to the hearts of its journalists, by which one mainly refers to English-language journalists who have always been more sanctimonious and narcissistic than others in India, ricochets from prime time to prime and headline to headline, often swirling around the world in outrageous tsunamis that serve, largely, to bring fame to the self-righteous in a country often numbed by everyday horrors.
The ‘tyranny’ was a simple and revolting idea — that which matters to us, matters. That which is far away, does not. This has been used to smugly explain away everything from why floods sweeping away villages and towns get less attention than two days of rainfall in Delhi to why ponderous political editors call election after election wrong.
But the murder of Lankesh who was a vocal critic of the incumbent government, often described as Right-wing, and also seen by many as a fervent supporter of ultra-Left wing guerrillas called Naxals engaged in a war to overthrow the Indian state, faced no such tyranny. It was immediately, and correctly, protested by every big name commentator and scribe in the country.
Mourned by the country’s biggest journalists and public intellectuals many of whom were personal friends of the murdered journalist, the Lankesh story appeared in The Washington Post, the BBC and The New York Times.
Lankesh was murdered more than 2,100 kilometers (approximately 1,300 miles) away from Delhi in her hometown Bangalore, which is regularly in the news as the ‘Silicon Valley of India’ because it plays host to most of the country’s technology firms and has a ‘start-up culture’.
In 2015, Jagendra Singh, a journalist in Uttar Pradesh, the state neighbouring Delhi, was burnt alive. The place where kerosene was poured on him and set ablaze is Shahjahanpur, around 360 kilometres (223 miles) from Delhi.
Lankesh and Singh had many things in common: both wrote extensively in the Indian languages which were their mother tongue, Kannada and Hindi. Both were furious critics of politicians — Lankesh of the incumbent national government of India and Singh of the government in the state of Uttar Pradesh at that time.
But there were some critical differences. Singh was not effortlessly bilingual like Lankesh. He did not write in English. He had not trained or worked in Delhi. Nor did he have a network of extensive friendships in the top echelons of Indian journalism and political commentary in Delhi. After Lankesh died, several high profile editors spoke of being on messaging terms with Lankesh. Barely any could have said the same about Singh. After the murder of Lankesh, protest marches were organised in many cities, and journalists gathered at the Press Club of Delhi, one of the most powerful watering holes in the country, to pay tribute. There was no such respect for Singh — and therefore he never received a funeral with full state honours as Lankesh did. Clearly, therefore, Singh must have suffered from the ‘tyranny of distance’, even though he was, relatively, murdered next door.
But there were other, even more important differences, between Singh and Lankesh.
No one yet knows who killed Lankesh. She had spoken extensively against the ruling national party and had even lost a defamation case against members of the party. After her death, her brother spoke about how she had also been receiving threats from Naxals.
But there is no such ambiguity about Singh’s murder. Before he died, Singh gave a detailed statement to the police where he explained how a bunch of cops on the instructions of a powerful member of the ruling party of the state of Uttar Pradesh in 2015 had held him down and set him on fire. He had written extensively about the criminal activities of this politician.
Soon after his death, Singh’s sons gave a statement to the cops that their father ‘self-immolated’. Which is of course not what the dying Singh said (in fact, Singh had even asked in his statement — if they wanted to punish me, why didn’t they just beat me? Why did they set me on fire?). The politician remains free.
Singh is not the only low profile Indian language journalist whose murder has been ignored by the powerful editors who rule Indian media and commentary, and their colleagues and friends around the world with the combined power to decide what ‘the India story’ will be.
Consider Rajdev Ranjan.
Ranjan, like Singh, wrote mainly in Hindi. Like Singh, he had misfortune of being unknown in Delhi and not being bi-lingual (which in India always means, if it has to mean anything substantial, that one of the languages in the ‘bi’ has to be English). He also had the misfortune of writing many reports on the murderous crimes of an infamous politician and mafia lord in a place called Siwan in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. This mafia boss is perhaps the closest associates of one of the most famous politicians in Bihar — a man so corrupt that these days, by court judgement, he cannot contest elections. The distance between Siwan and Delhi is just above 900 kilometres (around 560 miles).
Like Singh, no one really cared about the killing of Ranjan. Certainly no national (or international) news organisation gave him the time of day. After his murder, Ranjan’s father said — everyone can guess who the killer is but who can name him?
In Haryana, once again a state neighbouring Delhi, the name (and murder) of Ram Chander Chhatrapati was ignored for 15 years until the ‘godman’ who he took on, and who probably got him murdered, was sent to prison recently on charges of rape.
In Uttar Pradesh, Singh’s state, at least four journalists have been murdered between 2013–2015. But in Delhi not one editor could tell you that they had ‘just a few days/hours ago’ been texting any of these scribes like they could about Lankesh.
None of this takes away from the horror of the murder of Gauri Lankesh. Her killing hits at the very heart of the Indian dream of building a prosperous, liberal India. Without the freedom of speech, there is no democracy.
To point out all these other names is not, to use a term made popular on Twitter, ‘whatabouttery’. To point out these names is to show the structural elitism and injustice that pervades the very system that is in-charge of accountability and justice in India.
It is to decry the selective nature of even murder investigations in a country of 1.3 billion people. It is to hold a mirror before Indian society so that it can see the systemic failing that rots its very core.
Gauri Lankesh, always and forever on the side of the voiceless, god bless her soul and her free pen, would have understood.