» News » Lessons from Gauri Lankesh's murder

Lessons from Gauri Lankesh's murder

By Shekhar Gupta
September 21, 2017 08:35 IST
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'Once you set up a tweet-storm of vilification, labelling individuals anti-nationals, traitors, blasphemous, and foreign agents, you are creating enough justification for somebody with a gun to kill, or for a mob to lynch,' warns Shekhar Gupta.

IMAGE: A candlelight vigil in Thiruvananthapuram for murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh. Photograph: PTI Photo

There are several things about Gauri Lankesh and her murder -- or more aptly, assassination -- that we know for sure.

First, she was a powerful opinion leader and an intrepid rationalist in the sharp Left-liberal space.

Second, she had the courage to speak her mind, and was not deterred by threats routinely thrown at her.


Third, as it invariably happens with those clearly positioned in a sharply polarised debate, those that agreed with her did so passionately.

Those who disagreed complimented this fully from the other side of the fence or ideological akhara.

As is the norm for a decade now, some of these critics imputed motives to her actions. Some said vile, threatening things.

The next thing we can say with reasonable certainty is that it was a political assassination.

We are neither social media Clouseaus nor so politically bigoted as to blame our favoured usual suspects and move on.

That has risks, especially when, as often happens with political killings, the issue goes into the politically loaded police-court 'orbit', tilting with changing regimes.

Witness the orchestrated turn in the cases of the Samjhauta Express, Malegaon, Aseemanand, and Sadhvi Pragya Thakur.

The central point is a very simple one. It is that people are entitled to hold opinions, campaign for them, and use all methods of activism, persuasion, and protest a democracy offers, as long as they aren't indulging in or inciting violence.

Similarly, those who disagree can only do so peacefully, however loudly.

Nobody has any right to inflict violence on anybody for her opinions or beliefs.

No civilised society can accept the idea that a citizen 'deserves' to die for her views.

Justifying taking somebody's life for her views will shift us back from a civilised, Constitutional national entity to some awful place we'd rather not go.

So a good central point to begin with is: Nobody must be harmed for her views.

A decade ago, when social media just appeared in our lives, many us, old-fashioned types, ridiculed it and dismissed it as a passing fad.

Not today, when the heads of the world's largest democracies enjoy the followings of tens of millions and use them as a means of direct communication with the people.

It follows that a 'hijack' of due process and incitement to violence through the media -- conventional and social -- are also crimes.

Beginning with Mahatma Gandhi, India has built an unsavoury record in political assassination on account of power rivalries or just to settle scores (Partap Singh Kairon, Lalit Narain Mishra, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi) and for ideas.

In ideologically polarised zones, especially West Bengal and Bihar, both the Left and Right have killed to silence the other.

In Andhra Pradesh, N Chandrababu Naidu survived a Naxal ambush and the late chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy's father was killed by political rivals in a bomb attack on his car.

Between 1978 and 1994 in Punjab, tens of thousands were killed -- scores of them specifically for their ideas.

Prominent among them were the founder of the Hindi-Urdu-Punjabi publishing powerhouse Punjab Kesri group Lala Jagat Narain, then his son and successor Ramesh Chander, and many journalists, hawkers, and vendors working for them.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's method was simple and effective. He held court at the Golden Temple, and had somebody stand up and accuse a politician or an intellectual of deceit or blasphemy.

What should be their punishment, he would ask and leave it there.

This was enough justification for somebody with a gun to do the rest.

He put out a similar 'sanction' on one nationally respected intellectual because somebody gave him a loaded translation of his articles on the Khalistan campaign.

'How can you target a budhijeevi (intellectual) for speaking his mind?' I asked Bhindranwale, hoping he'll see reason.

'What would you do, Shekharji, if somebody called your guru a shahi lutera?'

When I re-read, I found the writer had quoted from a widely acknowledged history of the Sikhs titled Robber Noblemen and somebody had mischievously transliterated that for him.

He was only waiting to hand out the death sentence for blasphemy.

It took several rounds of explaining and calming by many well-meaning people, including moderate Sikh scholars, to make him rethink. It was scary.

Then, as now, it is 'talk' that provides justification for a targeted assassination.

The eyewitness experience I bring from the past is a man speaking from the highest spiritual and temporal seat of his faith.

That pulpit today is social media and you don't have to be a sadhu, a baba, a sant, or a maulana to be able to use it.

Once you set up a tweet-storm of vilification, labelling individuals anti-nationals, traitors, blasphemous, and foreign agents, you are creating enough justification for somebody with a gun to kill, or for a mob to lynch.

Once an individual, or a group, is armed with the moral justification to take someone's life, a gun will be found.

The people will also be hoping that afterwards politics would take over and send the legal process into a spin.

Rivals will then fight over the politics of the crime and you might just get away with murder, and that seems to be the case with the Malegaon and Samjhauta blasts now.

And in fairness, even at the risk of finding asymmetric equivalence, an example is that of the infamous Pandey friends who hijacked an Indian Airlines plane from Lucknow to Delhi in 1978 to protest Indira Gandhi's arrest by the Janata government.

The prosecution case simply vaporised as Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980.

Those committing political crimes thrive on a quick politicisation of their acts, not just saving their neck but also bringing them rewards.

There are simple and sobering lessons to be drawn from Gauri Lankesh's killing.

First, the investigations and legal process should remain immunised from politics.

Hasty demands to hand this over to the Central Bureau of Investigation or the National Investigation Agency or some such organisation, caged or not, should be dismissed.

Ideally, a court should take this under its direct supervision. Our courts have set enough precedents now for doing so.

This political assassination is significant enough for such an intervention.

Or else it will be trapped between commando-comic channels and inspired social media handles creating mythologies fronted by her obviously estranged brother, or a Karnataka chief minister exploiting the death by offering a ridiculous colonial symbolism that Gauri Lankesh might have resented and ridiculed -- a 21-gun salute.

Siddaramaiah has to answer why his Congress government is unable to protect Karnataka's rationalists or catch their killers.

The next lesson is that in her death, Lankesh may have closed the debate on the need for responsible use of social media.

There is no room for the usual on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand whataboutery. The law should apply equally to hate speech on social media as on the conventional one and incitement to violence must be prosecuted as serious crime.

The political class will also have to give up the temptation of employing social media lynch-mobs and the justification cannot be that the other side also does so.

Their purpose is to shut their critics up with abusive shock-and-awe. But physical violence can follow in its wake.

This lead has to be taken by the prime minister. The argument that following somebody is not an endorsement doesn't wash unless the other person is a public figure, even rival.

To follow those who abuse in your name is an endorsement. I also speak with the credentials of somebody routinely abused by all -- the Right, Left, and the Aam Aadmi Party.

And finally, the lesson for us in the media, and those with liberal claims, is: Freedom of speech and ideas is common to all, irrespective of where we draw the fence.

To have any chance of winning in angrily polarised times, our defence of these freedoms has to be unqualified and unequivocal, not selective.

Liberalism means engaging with the 'other', listening to them, not dismissing them as stupid or amoral.

Then, we might have a chance of bringing the current discourse back from violence and abuse into the bounds of civility.

By special arrangement with ThePrint

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