Gauri Lankesh murder: Speculations rife as search for killers and justice spring up multilevel battle

Far beyond the rigorous travails of a forensic examination of the crime scene and laborious task of searching and knitting down every single lead to punish the perpetrators, the murder of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru is now a complex battle on many fronts – social, ideological and political.

While the social media outrage over Gauri's brutal killing triggered a war of ideologies — on the social and political fronts — the incident's coverage by the media has come under attack as well. Few took on the media as well for its tendency to dish out spot justice based on half-baked information and for bludgeoning the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the process, even before the motive of the murder has been established.

 Gauri Lankesh murder: Speculations rife as search for killers and justice spring up multilevel battle

File image of Gauri Lankesh. PTI

There are several things at play here. Gauri's body of work which compels one to ask the question what kind of enemies she must have made while dissenting against powerful organisations; her strained relationship with her brother Indrajit who did not see eye-to-eye with his sister on core issues; alleged involvement of right-wing elements; Karnataka Assembly Election due next year and what prevents Chief Minister Siddaramaiah from handing over the probe to the CBI and finally the atmosphere of violence and fear that is fermenting in the state.

The crime and politics of it all

Gauri was shot dead outside her Bengaluru home in Rajarajeshwari Nagar at 8 pm on 5 September by three assailants when she was entering her home.

"A total of seven bullets were fired out of which four missed the target and hit the wall of the house. Three bullets had hit her – two in her chest area and one in the forehead," Bengaluru Police Commissioner T Suneel Kumar said, according to IANS.

Soon after, the news of her death spread like wildfire and social media and civic society erupted in protest. Several eminent personalities and journalists questioned the murder and the deteriorating law and order in Karnataka where killing dissenters has become commonplace. Gauri was the editor of the weekly Gauri Lankesh Patrike – a magazine which has been described as an "anti-establishment" publication — and has come under attack for her views on the politics of the Sangh Parivar in Karnataka.

In November 2016, Gauri was sentenced to six months imprisonment by a magistrate's court in the north Karnataka town of Hubbali in two separate cases of criminal defamation brought by two BJP leaders against her tabloid. The court convicted Gauri in two separate judgments pronounced on 28 November, 2016 and imposed a fine of Rs 10,000 each in both cases. The judicial magistrate court, however, also granted the journalist bail to file a plea in a higher court.

Titled Darodege Illida BJP galu (BJP men involved in criminal activities), the article named three people from Hubli — Shivnath Bhat, Venkatesh Mestri and Umesh Dushi — and alleged they were involved in cheating a businessman in the city. It also imputed Dushi’s involvement and carried his picture.

Even though several articles have slammed the speculative-style of reporting in the case — given Gauri's line of work, reports said that there's a high possibility that it could be a political assassination.  However, until a logical conclusion is reached upon nothing could be said definitively.

Gauri was an outspoken critic of right-wing Hindutva politics. She was also known for her pro-poor and pro-Dalit stand and she did face political backlash for her ideologies.

According to reports, Gauri in the past worked to rehabilitate Naxals who wanted to return to the mainstream and was one among those involved in the founding of Citizens Initiative for Peace (CiP) in the state. Several of them, including former Naxal leader Sirimane Nagaraj surrendered to the state in December 2015, thanks to her tireless efforts — as did others like Rizwana Begum, Parashuram, Padmanabha, Chennamma, Shivu, Bharathi and Kanyakumari before the Chikmagalur district administration.

Family politics adds to the narrative

When Gauri's father, P Lankesh, one of the most respected journalists and an unwavering editor of Lankesh Patrike, died in 2000, Gauri and her younger brother Indrajit fought over the ownership of the Kannada weekly and the ideology it should follow.

Interestingly, their falling out involved Gauri publishing an interview with a Naxal leader. Indrajit was severely opposed to the editorial call. "The incident led to a vicious spat. Indrajit accused Gauri of turning the magazine into a Naxalite platform, while Gauri allegedly said he had threatened her by pointing a gun at her."

Gauri was seen to be left of centre - while recent speculation put him on the right. Speaking to NDTV, Indrajit said, "She was on the left and I was not on the right because I was just a journalist. My father taught me one thing in the Lankesh school of journalism that you should always be in the opposition part as a journalist."

Convinced that Gauri was killed because of her ideology, Indrajit was one of the first to call out that her sister's murder was not a random incident. Being the de facto spokesperson of the family after Gauri's death, Indrajit was convinced that Gauri was killed because of the ideas she expressed. "It might be the right wing extremists or it might be the Maoists because of the background," he told NDTV.

Gauri's sister Kavita, however, refuted Indrajit's views and said that her sister had been working with the state government for years to rehabilitate the Naxals and they were in "no way" linked to her murder. Kavita reiterated that Indrajit had no clue about Gauri's life. Gauri was living with Kavita.

India Today quoted Indrajit as saying that he had been informed that Naxalites were printing pamphlets that warned their fellow Maoists against joining the mainstream. Interestingly, in July this year, there were murmurs that Indrajit was tipped to join the BJP. The New Indian Express published a report quoting the youngest son of P Lankesh who said, "As of now I am just known to be aligned to BJP’s ideology, of course, Yedurappa and Narendra Modi’s leadership has inspired me to join politics. It is just a thought now, and it is too early to give any kind of confirmation..."

Siddaramaiah's reluctance to hand over the case to CBI

Karnataka is gearing up for the extremely crucial Assembly elections scheduled early in 2018. The stakes are exceptionally high for Siddaramaiah. Under these circumstances, when Gauri was murdered in cold blood, Siddaramaiah took it upon himself and his government to solve the case. This was evident when during the press conference on 6 September, the chief minister, instead of handing over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), as demanded by Gauri's family, decided to let a Special Investigation Team (SIT) led by an Inspector General-level officer to probe the crime.

He said the Karnataka government was firm on tracking down the culprits at the earliest and directed the Director General of Police to form the SIT. The chief minister added that he had an "open mind" for a probe by the CBI in the case. "But let the SIT investigate. If family members (of Gauri) are very particular, I am with an open mind," he said.

With the elections looming large, the chief minister probably did not want to hand over the reins of an important case to a central agency where neither he nor his government would have any say. And if the Karnataka Police crack the case that would be the best political capital that Siddaramaiah could earn months before Karnataka votes for its next government.

BJP's narrative did not help either

The BJP and its ideologue RSS faced the maximum flak after Gauri was assassinated. Suspicions that a fringe Hindutva group was behind the murder grew stronger after reports drew parallels between Gauri's murder and previous killings of rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare.

Karnataka home minister Ramalinga Reddy drew parallels among the killings allegedly by fringe Hindu groups. Historian Ramachandra Guha felt that Gauri’s murder was "part of a pattern that links the deaths of Dabholkar, Kalburgi and (Govind) Pansare".

This link was further bolstered by a senior police official who said that the modus operandi in the Gauri murder seems very close to what had been witnessed earlier. "Bullets were fired on chest and heads, and the three assailants came on a bike. It's very similar to what was witnessed in the murder of Pansare, Dabholkar, and Kalburgi," the police official said.

The official also added that like Pansare, Dabholkar, and Kalburgi, Gauri was also not very influential. "She was not someone who could bring down a government. So, why such killings continue to take place also warrants investigation," he said.

While all fingers pointed at the saffron party, only two BJP leaders went on to condemn Gauri's murder - Smriti Irani and Ravi Shankar Prasad. The top leadership of the party, which includes Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh, did not say a word after the murder. Rather the prime minister got embroiled in an ugly social media trend called  #BlockNarendraModi.

The hashtag started trending as an outrage against the prime minister and snowballed into a Twitter war as anger over Modi following abusive online trolls on Twitter spilled out on social media and the hashtag #BlockNarendraModi in no time became one of the top trends on the microblogging site. The hashtag was inspired by one Nikhil Dadhich, a pro-right-wing troll, who gushed about the fact that the prime minister followed his Twitter account. Dadhich, in fact, mentioned that in his Twitter profile. Almost 48 hours later, Modi still follows those handles.

Sure, the prime minister following someone on Twitter is not a character certificate, as BJP said, however, the restraint he showed was not enough. And even though not directly related, extreme fringe groups and Hindutva supporters back the BJP and vote for them. "The degree of separation between mainstream and fringe is not significant intrinsically but only functionally. At times even the fringe appears mainstream and vice versa."

Konkan, southern Maharashtra and the recent spate of violence

It is unfair to see Gauri's murder through the myopic glasses of state politics, one must look at the Konkan coast leading all the way up to southern Maharashtra. The Konkan coast is intricately connected with fringe Hindu groups like Sri Ram Sene (accused of delivering kangaroo court-like judgments), Sanatan Sanstha (accused of murdering Dabholkar) and Hindu Jagaran Vedike.

RSS functionary Prabhakar Bhat Kalladka was recently elevated from a behind-the-scenes strongman to the forefront to win the Dakshin Kannada region for BJP. According to this report, it's under him that the fringe groups have become stronger.

According to The Wire, the Sanstha began work in the 1990s mainly in the region bordering Maharashtra and Goa and hence, it now has a good network of followers in Konkan and Goa besides parts of south Maharashtra.

As followers increased, the Sanstha began organising weekly satsangs in temples or conducting moral science classes in schools. It presents itself as a spiritual organisation that works for social uplift and national security, and to rekindle dharma.

Speculations take centre-stage

Thanks to the proliferating regional channels in Karnataka, speculations are fed with enough information – both correct and half-baked. With the state poll not too far away, it is only too obvious that political entities would mould the incident as it suits them from this heap of mostly unverified information to reap the maximum mileage out of it. Justice for Gauri is going to a long-haul battle through this myriad of complexities and one can only hope that it is not denied.

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Updated Date: Sep 09, 2017 16:51:26 IST

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