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Update on the Murder of Gauri Lankesh

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Gauri Lankesh

COMMENT: In FTR #990 [6], we highlighted the assassination of investigative reporter Gauri Lankesh. We also noted the irony [7] in Pierre Omidyar evolving into an icon of investigative reporting by virtue of his launching of The Intercept, when he helped elect Narendra Modi and helped to install the OUN/B successor organizations in power in Ukraine. Both regimes have manifested lethal hostility to investigative journalists and political activists.

In an update on Lankesh’s killing, we note that her murder occurs in the context of unprecedented pressure on, and itimidation of, the media by the Hindutva fascist regime of Narendra Modi. ” . . . . Since he took office in 2014, Modi has not held a single news conference in India. Among B.J.P. politicians, a popular term for journalists is “presstitutes.’ A dispatch on Indian journalism last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists described an unprecedented climate of self-censorship and fear, reporting, ‘The media is in the worst state India has ever seen.’ . . . . In these circumstances, Lankesh’s audacity and integrity were all the more notable. And her murder has deepened the chill. . . . Jignesh Mevani, a legislator and an activist from Gujarat, fears that if the B.J.P. is re-elected, its extremist supporters will be emboldened. ‘Every year they will kill 10 to 15 of our kind of people and put 10 to 15 of our kind of people in jail,’ he told me at a July meeting in Bangalore in Lankesh’s honor. ‘So by the time they are in power for a decade, the major faces of the progressive civil rights movements of this country will be gone.’ Lankesh’s murder seemed to fit what was by then an unmistakable pattern of assassinations of intellectuals who opposed the fundamentalist-Hindu ideology that animates the B.J.P., all of which remained unsolved. Between 2013 and 2015, three religiously freethinking Indian writers and activists were shot dead near their homes by assailants who escaped on motorcycles: the doctor Narendra Dabholkar, in Pune; the politician Govind Pansare, in Kolhapur; and the scholar M.M. Kalburgi, in Dharwad. After Kalburgi’s murder, scores of Indian writers returned their awards from the National Academy of Letters to protest both the lack of progress in the murder investigations and the B.J.P.’s silence over rising intolerance, to no effect. There was much anxious speculation over who might be the next writer to die. . . .”

(When we discussed Bernie Sanders ally Tulsi Gabbard, we noted that THIS is the sort of activity with which she has associated herself. She is very close to the Modi regime and helped arrange the details of Modi’s 2015 visit to the U.S. While traveling in India, she networked with the RSS milieu.)

After much delay, Hindutva fascists have been arrested in connection with Lankesh’s killing: ” . . . . in May, the Karnataka Police’s special investigation team filed a charge sheet against a Hindutva activist named K.T. Naveen Kumar, running to some 650 pages and accusing him of criminal conspiracy, among other things. Fifteen more suspects have been arrested and charged in the months since then . . . . According to the police, forensics indicated that the gun that killed Lankesh was potentially also used in two of the three other unsolved assassinations that seemed to fit the same pattern. The police suspect that the accused are part of an apparently nameless, multistate right-wing assassination network with at least 60 members. Many of the accused have connections with a small, secretive Hindutva group called the Sanatan Sanstha, members of which have previously been arrested as suspects in four separate bombings of public places. . . . Perhaps the most extraordinary discovery the police have made in their investigation of Lankesh’s murder is a detailed diary recovered from the home of a leading suspect. In it were two lists, ostensibly of people the conspirators wanted dead, reportedly including Veerabhadra Chennamalla, a liberal-minded Hindu priest, and K.S. Bhagavan, an outspokenly atheist Shakespeare scholar. First on one of the lists was Girish Karnad, who is perhaps the greatest living Kannada playwright. All have been particularly forthright in their criticism of Hindutva. Second on one list was Lankesh. In the months since she was shot, some of her friends and colleagues have grown more cautious about what they write and say and post to social media, even as this year’s unusually fraught and uncertain Election Day approaches. . . . .”

“Railing Against India’s Right-Wing Nationalism Was a Calling. It Was also a Death Sentence” by Rollo Romig; The New York Times Magazine; 3/17/2019. [8]

. . . . Political pressure on journalists is nothing new in India, but the current government is the first in many years to treat them as an ideological enemy. Since he took office in 2014, Modi has not held a single news conference in India. Among B.J.P. politicians, a popular term for journalists is “presstitutes.” A dispatch on Indian journalism last year by the Committee to Protect Journalists described an unprecedented climate of self-censorship and fear, reporting, “The media is in the worst state India has ever seen.”

In these circumstances, Lankesh’s audacity and integrity were all the more notable. And her murder has deepened the chill. The anonymous author of Humans of Hindutva, a popular Facebook page satirizing the religious right wing, abruptly shut it down twice in 2017 after posting about receiving death threats (though the page has since returned). “I have no desire to end up like Gauri Lankesh,” the author wrote. A young investigative reporter named Aruna Chandrasekhar told me that Lankesh’s example had been particularly inspiring to Indian women freelance journalists, and that when she found herself feeling vulnerable while reporting a story alone in an unfamiliar place, the thought of Lankesh’s fearlessness used to embolden her. “Gauri’s murder shook me,” she said. . . .

. . . . Jignesh Mevani, a legislator and an activist from Gujarat, fears that if the B.J.P. is re-elected, its extremist supporters will be emboldened. “Every year they will kill 10 to 15 of our kind of people and put 10 to 15 of our kind of people in jail,” he told me at a July meeting in Bangalore in Lankesh’s honor. “So by the time they are in power for a decade, the major faces of the progressive civil rights movements of this country will be gone.”

Lankesh’s murder seemed to fit what was by then an unmistakable pattern of assassinations of intellectuals who opposed the fundamentalist-Hindu ideology that animates the B.J.P., all of which remained unsolved. Between 2013 and 2015, three religiously freethinking Indian writers and activists were shot dead near their homes by assailants who escaped on motorcycles: the doctor Narendra Dabholkar, in Pune; the politician Govind Pansare, in Kolhapur; and the scholar M.M. Kalburgi, in Dharwad. After Kalburgi’s murder, scores of Indian writers returned their awards from the National Academy of Letters to protest both the lack of progress in the murder investigations and the B.J.P.’s silence over rising intolerance, to no effect. There was much anxious speculation over who might be the next writer to die. . . .

. . . . For nearly half a year after Lankesh’s murder, there were no arrests, and nearly everyone following the case seemed to be resigned to the fact that this would be just another unsolved assassination. But then, in May, the Karnataka Police’s special investigation team filed a charge sheet against a Hindutva activist named K.T. Naveen Kumar, running to some 650 pages and accusing him of criminal conspiracy, among other things. Fifteen more suspects have been arrested and charged in the months since then; all are in jail awaiting trial and are expected to plead not guilty. Police are still searching for two more.

The accused include a young utensil salesman named Parashuram Waghmare, who the police say confessed to pulling the trigger. The police also say that Waghmare wasn’t familiar with Lankesh when the conspirators asked him to kill her, so they showed him YouTube videos of her speeches to persuade him to commit the murder. They gave him 10,000 rupees, or around $150. Members of a Hindutva group called Sri Ram Sene started a Facebook fund-raising campaign to support his family. (The group’s leader, Pramod Muthalik, later denied any connection to Waghmare.)

According to the police, forensics indicated that the gun that killed Lankesh was potentially also used in two of the three other unsolved assassinations that seemed to fit the same pattern. The police suspect that the accused are part of an apparently nameless, multistate right-wing assassination network with at least 60 members. Many of the accused have connections with a small, secretive Hindutva group called the Sanatan Sanstha, members of which have previously been arrested as suspects in four separate bombings of public places. (The cases are ongoing; two Sanatan Sanstha members were convicted of one blast but are out on bail awaiting appeal.)

The more established Hindutva organizations, including the R.S.S. (the Hindu-nationalist paramilitary group) and B.J.P., have tried to distance themselves from such groups and have raised legal complaints against those who have tried to connect them to violence perpetrated by the Hindutva fringe. In February, a magistrate ruled that Rahul Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party, would stand trial for defamation for implying a link between the R.S.S. and Lankesh’s murder.

Late one night I met with N.P. Amruthesh, the lawyer for four of the accused men, who is himself a proud follower of the Sanatan Sanstha. An affable man, seemingly indifferent to appearances, he wore a worn orange dhoti and white shirt with a blue ink stain billowing out beneath the pocket. While we spoke, a news segment about Lankesh’s case appeared on his TV: The R.S.S., it was reported, had issued a statement saying that the latest man arrested, Mohan Nayak, who is not represented by Amruthesh, was not a member of the organization. Amruthesh laughed. “In my opinion, personal opinion, that is not correct,” he said. “When any person is working for Hindutva, it is your duty to give protection to that person. … They’re claiming that he’s not our member, but I came to know that he always goes to R.S.S. activities and everything. These organizations, they don’t want to take the responsibility.” Such disavowals, he said, were bad for morale.

Narendra Modi, meanwhile, has kept his silence. He has never publicly mentioned Lankesh’s name or referred to her case. “Why should Prime Minister Modi react?” Muthalik, the Sri Ram Sene leader, said in a public speech. “Do you expect Modi to respond every time a dog dies in Karnataka?”

Perhaps the most extraordinary discovery the police have made in their investigation of Lankesh’s murder is a detailed diary recovered from the home of a leading suspect. In it were two lists, ostensibly of people the conspirators wanted dead, reportedly including Veerabhadra Chennamalla, a liberal-minded Hindu priest, and K.S. Bhagavan, an outspokenly atheist Shakespeare scholar. First on one of the lists was Girish Karnad, who is perhaps the greatest living Kannada playwright. All have been particularly forthright in their criticism of Hindutva.

Second on one list was Lankesh. In the months since she was shot, some of her friends and colleagues have grown more cautious about what they write and say and post to social media, even as this year’s unusually fraught and uncertain Election Day approaches. . . . .