‘If Rama devotees get their hands on these [AK-47s], they will be even more fearsome than the Taliban’

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Who killed Gauri Lankesh?

Despite a concerted campaign to deflect attention in the initial days, it is becoming increasingly clear that radical Hindu right-wing outfits—Sanatan Sanstha, Hindu Yuva Sena, Hindu Janajagruthi Samithi, et al—have much to explain on what happened on 5 September 2017.

As the special investigation team of the Karnataka Police zeroes in, Gauri’s ex-husband, the veteran foreign correspondent Chidanand Rajghatta paints the political, social and religious backdrop to an assassination that shocked the world but surprised few.

(Excerpted from Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason, with the author’s permission)

***

Chidu

By CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA

On 2 March 2018, almost seven months after Gauri Lankesh’s assassination, police arrested 37-year-old K.T. Naveen Kumar, a resident of Maddur town on the Bangalore–Mysore highway, in connection with her murder.

Kumar had been on the SIT radar for several weeks after the authorities, who were keeping an eye on right-wing extremists, were tipped off that he was boasting about his connection to, and role in, Gauri’s murder.

He had actually gone underground soon after the hit and resurfaced only in January. But the SIT tasked with the probe, while keeping Gauri’s immediate family abreast of the developments, held back from arresting him for fear of losing track of any co-conspirators or the actual perpetrators. They also wanted to gather more evidence of his involvement.

Based on his ‘social activity’ and profile, police surmised that Kumar, also called ‘HotteManja’, probably on account of his paunch (hotte is stomach or paunch in Kannada), had close links to right-wing outfits, including an organisation called Hindu Yuva Sena.

They did not want him to vanish into the vast expanse of Bharatavarsha as had happened with men such as Rudra Patil, Sarang Akolkar, Praveen Limkar and Vinay Pawar, all suspects in the Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar murders.

Extremism of every kind has its protective ecosystem in India, and it is not difficult in a vast country of 1.25 billion people for people to disappear and reinvent themselves.

Of course, the conspiracy theory was that the Siddaramaiah government wanted to arrest the perpetrators as close to the Assembly elections as possible to gain maximum mileage out of extremist right-wing involvement in the murders of Gauri and M.M. Kalburgi, and their ideological comrades in Maharashtra, Pansare and Dabholkar.

But my contacts in the administration insisted that this was not the case.

The SIT wanted to crack the bigger plot: forensics in the case was increasingly pointing to the same weapon having been used in the Gauri–Kalburgi shooting, and the same vintage of weapon, possibly even the same weapon, in the Pansare–Dabholkar murders.

This went beyond Kumar; in fact, he may have been just the facilitator who carried out the recce and ferried the killer to Gauri’s home, police said, not the one who pulled the trigger.

Indeed, that is what Hotte Manja maintained under questioning, according to the police.

A group of four or five men from somewhere outside Karnataka had reached out to him via an intermediary in Mangalore. He had helped them with the logistics, including taking them to a forest near Kollegal for target practice, where they tried out different tactics with a country-made weapon: close-range shooting, longer-range targeting, shooting at moving targets, etc.

As he understood it, their target was the rationalist K.S. Bhagawan, whose incendiary views on Hindu gods and scriptures, which Gauri shared to a large extent, had attracted ire. But Bhagawan’s home in Mysore’s Kuvempu Nagar was on a busy street and it was hard to target him, so they had changed their plans.

Who were ‘they’?

Hotte Manja told the police he had no idea.

Why he helped them was clearer. Even as the SIT was authenticating and piecing together his dodgy account, there was no doubting Hotte Manja’s political, social and religious views.

Plastered across his Facebook homepage was a vast map of ‘Akhand Bharat’, a pan-India expanse showing a saffron sweep from the Gulf of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca with the words ‘Aisa hi banane ka sankalp hai’ (determined to make this a reality).

Another photo showed the back of a ‘Hindu leader’ holding aloft a sword in one hand and a saffron flag in the other; a third photo showed a mob marching through a street with scores of swords drawn and saffron flags flying between them.

And just in case you missed the cues, posted helpfully under that photo by a like-minded friend named ‘Abhishek Gands Kesari Khadga’ was a photo of AK-47 assault rifles with the caption in Kannada reading ‘Rama bhaktara kayalli banduka bandare Talibani-galigintha ugraroopa’ – If Rama devotees get their hands on these guns, they will be even more fearsome than the Taliban.

This was the true face of militant Hindutva extremism – one that Gauri knew existed; and one that the majoritarian sentiment in India remains in denial of for the most part; one that wants to turn a secular, plural, multicultural, multi-religious, multi-lingual India into a Hindu version of Pakistan.

When and how did all this happen? And did such views flow from the politics of the day, or did politics begin to represent such views?

As any student of Indian history knows, these issues have always existed in India, going back to the freedom movement that culminated in Independence and the subsequent assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Hindu extremists.

The bigotry that characterised those years has never really gone away. It has remained on the margins, and resurfaces often, trying to worm its way back into the national mainstream via politicians who tap into emotive nationalism and exclusivism.

***

All these issues came to a boil on a mellow post-Christmas December day in a moment that was singularly revealing about where Hindutva hardliners would prefer India to go.

An unabashed Hindu nationalist and RSS panjandrum, Anantkumar Hegde hails from Uttara Kannada district, the coastal north Karnataka belt that lies south of Goa.

A five-time Member of Parliament whose constituency has repeatedly rewarded him for his extremist positions, Hegde has no bandwidth for the niceties of Govinda Bhatta and Shishunala Sharifa embracing each other, or the syncretic nature of the Baba Budan Giri shrine.

At an event organised by the Brahman Yuva Parishad in Karnataka’s Koppal district in December 2017, just weeks after Gauri’s death, Hegde lit into ‘secularists’ who, in his mind, commingled all too easily with people of other religions and ethnicities.

‘If someone says I am a Muslim, or I am a Christian, or I am a Lingayat, or I am a Hindu, I feel very happy because he knows his roots. But these people who call themselves secularists,’ he frothed, ‘I don’t know what to call them. They are like people without parentage or who don’t know their bloodline. They don’t know themselves. They don’t know their parents, but they call themselves secular. If someone says I am secular, I get suspicious.’

In other words, if you are secular, you are a bastard; secularists are bastards.

This astonishingly candid display of fanaticism was not the most shocking part of it. Many Hindutva extremists are rabidly outspoken in their religious exclusiveness and racism, as are Muslim radicals and Christian fundamentalists in their lairs across the world.

What is remarkable is that Hegde was a Union minister whose word, one can reasonably assume, reflects the official line and thinking.

The BJP, Hegde continued, would ‘respect the word secular for now since the Constitution mentions it, but the Constitution needed to change from time to time’. The BJP had come to power to do precisely that, and would do so in the ‘near future’.

Hegde never lost an opportunity to burnish his Hindutva credentials, wrapped in nationalist colours.

The blog Churumuri, at once insightful and acerbic, called him, among other things, a ‘mouth ka saudagar’ who spewed ‘venom, poison, bigotry, hatred, misogyny, resentment without ever receiving an intra-office memo on decency of language and behaviour’ that the RSS insists on for its members.

‘Hegde’s CV has all the Key Performance Indicators of a first-class Hindutva lab rat: rioting, unlawful assembly, promoting enmity, violating prohibitory orders, hate speech,’ the blog noted.

‘Is the unhinged verbalisation of the 49-year-old Brahmin, designed to keep the communal cauldron on the boil, his tatkal ticket to the Vidhana Soudha should the BJP come close to its next “Mission 150” in the 2018 assembly elections?’

In other words, it asked, was the BJP lining him up to be the next chief minister of Karnataka along the lines of Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh?

Unsurprisingly, the northern end of Hegde’s parliamentary district forms the tri-junction between Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa.

It is the stamping ground for Sanatan Sanstha, the radical Hindu organisation that has come under scrutiny following the murders of Pansare, Dabholkar and Kulkarni, all of whom were familiar names in the political–academic sphere in the region but not beyond.

Gauri was less well known here, but her activism on the Lingayat–Veerashaiva fracas attracted attention in Uttara Kannada and the surrounding regions in northern Karnataka and southern Maharashtra because it is also the ground zero of the Lingayat/Veershaiva religion/caste (whatever you choose to call it).

From Sharana Siddarama of Solapur, one of the prophets of the religion, to former Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil, the area has produced many prominent Lingayats.

That the finger of suspicion pointed to Sanatan Sanstha was hardly surprising. Four Sanstha activists – with Interpol red-corner notices against their names for their alleged involvement in a bomb blast in Madgaon, Goa in 2009 – were already on the lam at the time the serial assassinations of the rationalist-leftists began.

One of them was Praveen Limkar. Under questioning, Naveen Kumar aka Hotte Manja named Limkar as the man he liaised with, leading the SIT to name him as the second accused in Gauri’s murder.

There were still many dots to be connected and much more evidence to be gathered but within weeks of Gauri’s killing, the Sanstha was already on the defensive.

In an extraordinary press conference on 21 September 2017, the organisation preemptively challenged the investigative path the SIT was on.

‘It is claimed that the modus operandi in the case is similar to that of Dhabolkar and Pansare. What is the basis for ruling out the possibility of someone else using the similar strategy? Great uproar is being caused over the murder of Gauri, but what about the murders of Hindu activists like Chittaranjan and Thimappa Naik?’ asked the Sanstha’s Chethan Rajhans.

The organisation even rolled out its lawyers on the occasion – one of them, Sanjay Punalekar, arguing that some Sanstha members may be absconding from the law because they were afraid of being wrongly accused in cases.

In all, five Sanstha members had been missing even before Gauri’s murder as agencies in Maharashtra investigated the Dabholkar–Pansare murders: Praveen Limkar, 34, from Kolhapur; Jayaprakash alias Anna, 45, from Mangalore; Sarang Akolkar, 38, from Pune; Rudra Patil, 37, from Sangli and Vinay Pawar, 32, from Satara.

Were they the same men involved in the Kalburgi–Gauri Lankesh killings?

It was a curious press conference – defensive, tetchy, and an ideological counterpunch to what was primarily a criminal investigation by the SIT.

‘There were ideological differences between the Hindu activists and the leftists. But we have fought the ideological battle with ideology and have taken the legal route in a democratic fashion. We are ready for any kind of probe in this connection,’ the Sanstha challenged in a statement, lashing out at unnamed (but obviously Congress) politicians for ‘trying to gain mileage by defaming the Hindutva organization’.

The refrain that the SIT under the Congress government was trying to frame ‘Hindu youth’ in Gauri Lankesh’s murder with an eye on the upcoming election would soon become the formal BJP line.

Meanwhile, Hegde eventually backed off from his remarks on the Constitution and apologised to those whose sentiments he had hurt, with the usual protestation that his remarks had been misconstrued or distorted. But you could see where this was going.

The words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ had been added to the description of India through the controversial 42nd amendment in 1976, changing it from just a ‘sovereign democratic republic’ to a ‘sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic’.

It is one of the foundational principles of the Indian Union.

Indeed, the Indian ethos itself is based on the principle of ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’, the world is one family. Efforts to undermine and dismantle its secular character have now begun in right earnest, the socialist dream having already been substantially whittled down at the altar of liberalisation and globalisation in the early 1990s.

***

Back in our growing-up years, Gauri and I rarely, if ever, discussed the Constitution. The subject was dry, and part of the civics and political science class, which our syllabus in high school and pre-university did not include, because we were part of the science stream, with physics, chemistry and biology of greater interest to us (the latter two in the truest sense!).

We took our rights, freedoms and liberties for granted. Constitutional issues and amendments were for law students to mull over.

Of course, the Constitution is not set in stone, least of all the Indian Constitution, which has been amended 123 times (in comparison, the US Constitution has been amended only 27 times in some 240 years).

But until recently at least, one did not think there were people in India who would like to subvert the Constitution (or ‘amend’ it, to put it tactfully) to turn India into a Hinduised Pakistan, a country whose Constitution is a travesty.

No one in recent times had so brazenly proposed a fundamental change to one of the founding ideals of the nation. But now, communalism, exclusivism and otherising were being given official sanction.

In Hegdespeak, if you were secular, or of mixed heritage, you were impure.

Such developments agitated Gauri Lankesh. Alone among our peers – most of whom were, and continue to be, unconcerned or indifferent to such developments – she recognised the growing communalisation early and warned against it several times.

I read and watched from the United States, where similar nativist sentiments were being unleashed as White nationalist extremists repeatedly pitched an anti-immigrant agenda with the unsubtle support of a presidential candidate who was backed by many Hindutva mugs.

In fact, there was a surreal similarity between some of the developments in the two countries. For every Hindutva hardliner in India, there was a White nationalist racist in America spewing the toxic rhetoric of the insecure, disguised as concern for a majority that was ostensibly being marginalised in its own country.

A devastatingly ironic poster on immigration in the US shows a Native American asking a White settler-descendent American: ‘So you’re against immigration? Splendid! When do you leave?’

Who is to say an Adi Dravida or Adi Karnataka tribal isn’t an older settler in the region predating the Brahminical or Hindutva ingress to the south?

***

Gauri had long been leery of what she called the North Indian, Brahminical incursion into southern India.

She resented the efforts to impose Hindi and inflict a culturally uniform Hinduism on a diverse and complex country.

She spoke out against the social order where the ‘lower castes’ were regarded as being outside the Hindu fold except when it suited the Hindus to co-opt them.

In fact, Karnataka has one of the highest rates of atrocities against Dalits in the country, a fact that is partly ascribed to Dalit self-assertion and the upper-caste reaction to it, and partly to higher reporting. Lankesh Patrike had long been a forum for Dalit writers going back to her father’s days at the helm, and the paper continued to be such a platform with Gauri as publisher.

In the last few years, many of Gauri’s battles were fought on Twitter – a forum I only occasionally ducked in and out of – where she was trolled relentlessly by abusive right-wing digerati who, with rare exceptions, invariably hid behind anonymous handles. But she was a tough cookie, returning fire each time.

In more formal interviews, she expressed her faith and belief in the Constitution, not some vague religious precepts.

‘I consider it my Constitutional duty to continue – in my own little way – the struggle of Basavanna and Dr Ambedkar towards establishing an egalitarian society,’ she said in one interview.

She questioned the basis of Hinduism by calling it ‘merely an arrangement of social structure’ and arguing, ‘They (the Sangh Parivar) claim to be protecting this dharma but we do not want this dharma; the Constitution is our dharma.’

Right-wing activists pounced on such remarks to harass her legally, arguing that she was ‘hurting the sentiments of Hindus’ with such ‘provocative’ statements.

Through our college years, we had joked about one particular religion being so insecure that the slightest questioning of its dogmas caused its followers to go batshit crazy. Now Hindutva extremists were taking Hinduism down the same road.

In fact, shortly before she was shot dead, she posted on social media an ‘offending’ speech she had made at an event organised by the Komu Souharda Vedike (Forum for Communal Harmony) in 2012, which had earned her yet another court appearance, on 15 September 2017.

‘I am facing a case because of this speech. I stand by every word I said,’ she wrote. She never made it to court, assassinated ten days before the scheduled appearance.

She had many cohorts in her fight, most of them branded as ‘sickularists’ and ‘libtards’ when they were not being called Naxals and terrorists. By early 2017, she had connected with Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Jignesh Mevani, three prominent young icons of leftist persuasion.

A few weeks before her death, in what was to be our last conversation, she phoned me on her way to Kempegowda Airport in Bangalore to tell me her adopted son was arriving on a flight that afternoon and she’d pick him up and bring him straight to my home (which was en route to the city), and that I had to meet him.

‘Who have you adopted now?’ I asked a little wearily. Her voice was bubby and cheerful. ‘Wait till you meet him. He’s amazing.’ As it turned out, Kanhaiya Kumar’s flight was late and she called me a little later saying they had to go directly to another scheduled meeting.

Gauri’s death and the debate that ensued on free speech provided no relief to public intellectuals from the right-wing rabble that was now emboldened by the silence of its leadership.

Among those who felt the heat was the historian Ramachandra Guha, an increasingly outspoken critic of saffron extremists, and indeed of extremists of any religion and colour.

Soon after Gauri’s killing, Guha had said, ‘It was likely that Gauri’s murderers came from the same Sangh Parivar from which the murderers of Pansare, Dabholkar and Kalburgi came. The ruling dispensation in Delhi has created a climate of hate and intolerance.’

Days later, the Karnataka BJP Yuva Morcha sent a legal notice to Guha asking him to apologise and withdraw his statement ‘where he had alleged that the RSS and BJP had a role in the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh’ – which was not what Guha had said.

‘We have begun criminal proceedings against Guha as he has not apologised and made unfounded accusations against us. We will ensure that an FIR is filed and he is taken to court,’ said Tejaswi Surya, spokesperson of the BJP and state president of Yuva Morcha.

It was very much how they harassed Gauri in all her years of confronting Hindutva.

Guha ignored the notice but took to social media to remind everyone that ‘Atal Bihari Vajpayee said the answer to a book or article can only be another book or article. But we no longer live in Vajpayee’s India.’

Independent writers and journalists are harassed, persecuted and even killed, but we shall not be silenced, he pledged, even as the international media and watchdogs began to take note of the decline and death (or murder) of dissent.

‘Indeed, times are tough for journalists in India, where many reporters and editors say it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do their jobs. Loyalists to the country’s powerful Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, have bullied editors into taking down critical stories, hushed government bureaucrats and shifted from the common practice of filing defamation cases to lodging more serious criminal complaints, which can mean jail time and take years in India’s overburdened court system,’ noted The Washington Post’s Annie Gowen, pointing out that India fell three spots on the World Press Freedom Index to 136 in 2017, below Afghanistan and Burma, because of growing self-censorship and the activities of Hindu nationalists trying to purge ‘anti-nationalist’ thought.

***

Remarkably, the political class, including the Congress, for which Gauri had little regard beyond a few individuals, rolled over, quietly returning to the ‘soft Hindutva’ option.

The pressure of Hindutva and the perfectly legitimate charge that Westernised Indians had increasingly become deracinated even got to Rahul Gandhi. By late 2017, this son of an Italian Roman Catholic mother and a father who was part Kashmiri Pandit and part Parsi, instead of taking pride in his composite heritage, was putting out word that he was a ‘Shivbhakt’, and a ‘janeu dhari’ (thread-wearing) Brahmin at that, to counter the right-wing propaganda that he was an ‘outsider’.

He might as well have rolled over and done a ‘urulu seva’ in front of the ‘purist’ Anantkumar Hegde.

In January 2018, having taken over the Congress Party leadership, Rahul returned to his constituency, Amethi, to begin a tour with a darshan at a local temple, wearing a red vermillion tilak, a throwback to his grandmother’s days when she frequented sundry sadhus and babas during stressful times, and made strategic visits to ‘places of worship’ ahead of elections wearing rudraksha beads.

She too had once started an election campaign in Gujarat by visiting the Ambaji temple, as had her daughter-in-law and Rahul’s mother, Sonia Gandhi. So why make a big deal of Rahul Gandhi visiting temples?

Well, because it didn’t stop at one temple, or one mosque, on one day or one week. It became an epidemic.

***

By February, with elections in Karnataka looming on the horizon, Rahul Gandhi had cranked up his temple yatra, prompting Yeddyurappa, not known for his sense of humour, to call him an ‘election Hindu’.

On one weekend, after launching the party’s election campaign at Bellary, he visited Goddess Huligamma temple in Koppal district; another weekend, it was the Gavi Siddeshwara Lingayat monastery; a third weekend, it was a Muslim dargah.

Pilloried for pandering to religious sentiments, he then turned an equal opportunity appeaser, visiting a temple, a mosque and a church on a single day in Mangalore on 20 March, prompting one news outlet to report that he was having an ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ day in Karnataka.

This seemed to be abject surrender to religious forces dressed up as equal respect for all faiths.

Even Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, once an avowed atheist who had proclaimed his lack of belief proudly and loudly in his younger days, was hurriedly reeling back the claims and discovering God.

‘I am not an atheist, because, even before I joined school, I was made to practice Veera Makkala Kunita (a traditional folk dance), so I had to perform in front of temple on all festivities. How can I be atheist then?’ he asked in one encounter with the media, maintaining that while he randomly went to temples, he didn’t go in search of specific temples for salvation.

In fact, Siddaramaiah’s reversal on matters of religion came as far back as April 2015, when the force of Hindutva began to assert itself across India.

When census enumerators turned up at his house for the socio-economic survey, he specifically declared himself a Hindu even though the survey included an atheist category.

In one particularly comical episode, the chief minister’s office changed his official car after a crow squatted on it and refused to move for several minutes, requiring it to be physically evicted.

The chief minister’s office denied that the crow was the reason for changing the car; there was already a proposal to buy a new car, it said. But the crow was not done with Siddaramaiah. Six months later, another of the species perched above Siddaramaiah at on open-air meeting deposited its poop on the chief minister’s spotless white dhoti that aides hurried to clean up.

It wasn’t just Siddaramaiah’s dhoti that that was sullied; India’s secular fabric itself was being befouled with the most ridiculous adherence to rites, rituals, superstitions and regressive social practices. Two decades into the twenty-first century, it appeared that India was sliding back into medievalism dressed up as Hindu revivalism.

***

Across India, particularly in the southern coastal belt, there is an atmosphere of intimidation. If you eat beef (fish and fowl are apparently kosher) or wear ‘revealing’ clothes (never mind that a saree can be far more revealing) or as much as appear with a woman who is not your wife or sister, you risk being attacked by Hindutva hoods claiming to be working to ‘protect’ Indian culture.

Gauri and I wondered when they would begin destroying the temples in Khajuraho and Konark like the Taliban yahoos had done with the Bamiyan Buddha. And it wasn’t just the saffron radicals – there were the green fundamentalists too.

As it turns out, the “love jihad” imbroglio is just a social manifestation of an increasingly deadly political blood feud in the coastal belt.

It extends down from North Kanara, or Uttara Kannnada (Anantkumar Hedge’s constituency), through South Kanara, all the way into Kerala, where the BJP and CPM have been fighting for ideological primacy for years.

Early in January 2018, a young man named Deepak Rao, said to be a Bajrang Dal activist, was hacked to death by unidentified persons in Katipalla, near Surathkal, a town known for its high literacy and educational institutions.

Within days, there were what seemed to be retaliatory killings of two Muslim activists in the region. These were among scores of political murders that took place in the communally charged coastal belt between Kannur and Kasargod, Mangalore and Manipal, areas of relatively improved social indices. The communal virus had now infected the entire coastal belt.

Gauri spotted the trend early. ‘When I meet friends from the coastal districts of Karnataka, I ask them, “So, how are things in that hell-hole you call home?” And I don’t mean it as a joke. Over the last decade, the communal situation in that region has become so heightened that threats, assaults and abuse have become a common feature of daily life. I am not talking about the attacks on boys and girls from different communities for daring to speak to one another; I am not even talking about attacks on churches and nuns. I am talking about the attacks on some of the leading activists, lecturers, writers and thinkers who dare to oppose the saffron brigade in those districts,” she wrote in a column.

She went on to detail and enumerate the victims: the first to publicly bear the brunt of the saffronites was Pattabhiram Somayaji, a lecturer in English at the University College in Mangalore. Somayaji had been taking up public causes for a long time and had called the Rama Sene, whose goons had attacked girls in a pub in the city in 2009, ‘Ravana Sene’.

For this and other challenges to the Hindutva radicals, he had been physically attacked and had cow dung smeared on his face. Similarly, Suresh Bhat Bakrabail, a retired engineer and district president of Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum (KCHF), who had protested the killing of Kabir, a cattle transporter, was attacked by Hindutva hoods.

Vidya Dinker, another social activist who had taken up various environmental causes, had attracted the ire of right-wing ruffians when she complained to the police about their efforts to obstruct the screening of Shah Rukh Khan’s Dilwale (objecting to movies on the basis of some perceived insult is the favourite pastime of the right-wing in India).

Bajrang Dal activists led by Puneet Kottari had abused her, asked her to go to Pakistan, and some had even suggested that she be raped and killed in order to teach her a lesson.

On a Facebook wall named ‘Veera Kesari’, Kottari, the co-convener of the Mangalore unit of the Bajrang Dal, posted a message calling Vidya a traitor to the nation and asked her to ‘remember that you are eating rice grown in India and not camel dung excreted in Pakistan’.

In her column, Gauri wrote, ‘On WhatsApp, a photo of Puneet proudly posing with a rifle is being circulated. It is so chilling that it is enough to not just fear for Vidya’s life but also for the sanity of our state.’

Such radical right-wing activism came to Karnataka pretty late.

In a January 2018 Lok Niti poll cited in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) that Gauri would have been dead chuffed to read if she were alive, half of the (mainly Hindu) Karnataka respondents reported having a Muslim as a close friend as compared to only one-third respondents in other states.

‘Fewer respondents in Karnataka than elsewhere believe that Hindus are more patriotic than minorities, or that Muslims are mostly violent,’ noted James Manor, a political scientist with expertise in Karnataka politics, whom both Gauri and I had met early in our careers when he was a frequent visitor to Bangalore.

The finding conformed to Gauri’s belief that communal harmony was an integral part of Karnataka’s ethos – probably much more than in other parts of India.

In northern India, meanwhile, communal and sectarian violence spread beyond Hindu–Muslim faultlines.

The physical intimidation of anyone who did not bow to the diktat and strong-arm tactics of hardliners, even within the Hindu community, was most evident in the so-called Padmavati protests, as was the abdication by the government of its responsibility to safeguard free speech and law and order with the specious excuse of communal sensitivity.

Much like the Congress had done with The Satanic Verses, this was more about vote-bank politics. The BJP governments in four states, mindful of Rajput votes, were all too eager to ban a film that apparently insulted the honour of an imaginary princess. Of what use governments if they cave under threats from a fiery mullah or a ferocious mahant with a few hundred followers?

In heroic declarations that did little credit to India’s famed ‘martial’ community, ‘Thakur’ Abhishek Som, national president of Akhil Bharatiya Kshatriya Yuva Mahasabha, bravely announced that ‘anyone who brings the head of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Deepika Padukone will be rewarded with Rs 5 crore’.

Not to be outdone, Surajpal Amu, the BJP’s chief media coordinator in Haryana, upped the bounty to Rs 10 crore while threatening to ‘break the legs’ of Ranveer Singh, who plays the role of Alauddin Khilji, the Delhi Sultan portrayed as being obsessed with the legendary thirteenth-century queen of Chittor. Why Singh’s head did not command a price was not clear.

While the rest of India held its nose at the spectacle and went about its business, the BJP muddled through the fracas, not wanting to upset hardliners in states where elections were due in 2019.

‘No protest is too absurd, no surrender too craven,’ the Economist noted, describing how ‘a film about heroism brings out the coward in India’s politicians’ and lamenting that ‘the lesson of the controversy is not that sanity prevailed. It is that India’s politicians are all too happy to pander to extremist sentiment, however silly it may be, so long as it flows in a useful direction.’

Playing with public sentiment was something successive governments in Karnataka had long mastered, and it disturbed Gauri a great deal.

Although she was opposed to Hegde, she was also leery of the mischief the Congress government of Siddaramaiah was up to by cranking up the TipuJayanti issue, ostensibly to pander to the Muslim vote bank, although few Muslims cared whether the government celebrated it or not.

She did not live to see, in the lead-up to the Karnataka Assembly elections in Mary 2018, Congress satraps pour some more gasoline on the raging fire by proposing a celebration of the Bahmani kings, mortal enemies of the Hindu Vijayanagar kingdom of the fifteenth century and a red rag to the hard-right Hindutvavadis.

***

On 19 March 2018, the Siddaramaiah cabinet cleared a proposal granting a separate religion status to Lingayats, forwarding its approval to grant the community a minority status.

Although the cabinet was acting on the recommendation of a committee it had instituted to study the issue, the manner in which the state government handled the issue and the timing of the announcement made it obvious that it was done with an eye on the state elections – which was announced just a week later.

Accepting the Siddaramaiah recommendation would possibly split the Lingayat–Veershaiva Hindutva vote bank that had sided with the BJP, with Lingayats moving to the Congress. Rejecting it could also miff the Lingayats and cause them to desert BJP.

On the other hand, both factions could end up resenting Congress efforts to split them and stay with BJP.

A welter of electoral calculations were being made as the Election Commission announced on 29 March that the state would go to the polls on 12 May. The BJP was gunning for the last major state held by the Congress. If it ousted the grand old party, it would be closer to its goal of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ than ever before.

The debate is now larger than just Lingayat v Veerashaiva, or whether Lingayatism merits a separate religion status. At the state level, the skirmish involves not just a power struggle but also a scrap over the lolly and lucre that comes from community-, caste- and religion-based educational institutions.

But beyond the Veerashaiva–Lingayat spat, the idea of India itself is being hashed out in Karnataka, a mini-India of multiple faiths, languages and communities, and one of the most diverse states in the Indian Union.

Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Muslim heritage and cultures have always thrived in Karnataka, which, aside from the native Kannada, is also home to other extant languages such as Tulu, Konkani, Kodava and Deccani Urdu. Marathi, Telugu and Tamil are also spoken extensively in its border districts.

A few weeks after Hedge’s outburst, Jaswant Yadav, a BJP minister in Rajasthan, was heard openly proclaiming at an election campaign that ‘if you are a Hindu, vote for me, and if you are a Muslim, vote for the Congress’. Of course, Yadav denied the remark (once the video of it surfaced on social media) saying, as usual, that his statement had been misconstrued and it was all the handiwork of the Congress Party.

Apparently, on an earlier occasion, his political rivals had got him into trouble with Narendra Modi by reporting that he had said Modi was a ‘bhrasht (corrupt) prime minister’ when he had actually said Modi was the ‘best prime minister’. It appears India has a big hearing problem.

Remember U.R. Ananthamurthy’s devvadakallu, devara-kallu confusion?

In fact, periodically, when their karyakartas are not denying various toxic utterances or complaining about being misquoted, right-wing leaderships tend to emerge as the voice of sweet reason.

On 12 October, with India on the boil over saffron excesses, the RSS leadership, in an unusual move, offered tributes to Gauri Lankesh and several others ‘for their work for the society’, Press Trust of India reported.

‘A gathering of RSS leaders drawn from across the country, including its chief Mohan Bhagwat, paid homage to Ms Lankesh, former ISRO Chairperson U.R. Rao and other eminent personalities from various walks of life at the Sangh’s annual “Diwali Baithak”,’ the report said.

‘There is a long list of people from various walks of life who were paid tributes at the RSS meeting. It also includes the name of Gauri Lankesh,’ RSS Prachar Pramukh Manmohan Vaidya told the news agency.

Given her views on the RSS, Gauri would have doubtless rolled over in her grave, chuckled, dusted herself off and emerged to challenge or reject their tribute.

She had seen enough in her life to not be taken in by mealy-mouthed homilies.

Her concern was the everyday struggle of minorities as they sought to mainstream themselves – a task made doubly difficult by fundamentalists from all sides, as illustrated by the case of young Suhana Sayed, who was trolled by a group called Mangalore Muslims because she sang a bhajan for Lord Balaji wearing a hijab.

At the other end, Hindutva fundamentalists, provoked by a French journalist, were questioning why the Bollywood actor Aamir Khan should be playing the role of Krishna in an onscreen adaptation of Mahabharata.

It was ugly India at its worst – not the India Gauri Lankesh and her ilk lived and died for.

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(Excerpted from Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of UnreasonContext, an imprint of Westland Books; pp 216, Rs 499; with the author’s permission)

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Also read: Narendra Modi‘s #Demonetisation had long killed Gauri

The difference between the Mahatma‘s killers and Gauri‘s

India’s brain-dead TV channels should get a quote from Saketh Rajan