Remembering Gauri: The Tip of the Iceberg

Earlier this evening, journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered at her home in Bengaluru when unidentified gunmen fired seven shots at her, killing her on the spot. While I have met her many times, I cannot claim I knew her very well for we rarely met socially and across the years our meetings were few and far between. We used to bump into each other at a diverse set of events — seminars, conferences, protest rallies, discussions, activists coming together to brainstorm — and I was always struck by her vivacity, eloquence, sharp mind and keen idealism. But what hit home hard tonight, leaving me profoundly shaken, is the realisation that someone I personally know has been the victim of a brutal mafia-style assassination. I cannot imagine the extent to which those emotionally close to her must be shattered.

Judging from television news, social media, and a few conversations, there are two key questions that have dominated people’s minds: “Who did this?” and “Why did they do it?” Speculation leans toward the explanation that she was killed for her political beliefs, her strident and public critique of Hindutva, right-wing ideology, and the politicians who perpetrate it. Foregrounding of speculation is insufficient, unethical and unproductive. These questions must form the foundation of a rigorous investigation and due process of law, executed by those public authorities to whom the responsibility is assigned, and aimed at bringing her killers to justice.

But asking these questions is not enough, there is one more question we must ask: “What did this?” For we cannot see Gauri’s murder as a one-off event tied solely to the specificities of her situation. There is a larger “what”: a system that allows such killings to take place with regularity. To name a few examples (and we all know there are many more):
· The murder of politician Haren Pandya in Ahmedabad in 2003.
· The killing of whistleblower Satyendra Dubey in Bihar in 2003.
· The hacking to death on the outskirts of Bengaluru of anti-alcohol campaigner A.T. Babu in 2008.
· The shootings of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar (2013), Govind Pansare (2015) and M.M. Kalburgi (2015).
· The hacking to death earlier this year of Rajesh Edavakode, an RSS worker in Kerala.
· The ‘unnatural’ deaths, between 2009 and 2013, of over twenty people involved with the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh.
· The lynching deaths of Mohammed Akhlaq (2015), Pehlu Khan (2017) and Junaid Khan (2017).

This list is far from comprehensive, but is enough to demonstrate a pattern where vicious violence is regularly chosen as the easiest means for the resolution of inconvenient dissent. The frequency of its occurrence proves that violence feels it can operate with impunity, shielded by a combination of political protection, incompetent and compromised police, an inadequate and inefficient judicial system, and a host of other systemic failures.

Let us hope that events that unfold after today run against the grain of precedents like Pandya, Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi; that we find Gauri’s killers and are successful in bringing them to justice. But achieving justice is the tip of the iceberg. We also have to pursue the building of a public systemic infrastructure that consistently delivers justice, accountability, transparency, grassroots democracy and the rule of law. If we fail to do this, Gauri Lankesh and all the others will have died in vain.

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