Late on the fifth of September noted journalist and human rights’ activist, Gauri Lankesh was shot dead at her residence by unidentified assailants in Bengaluru. Lankesh was the editor of her weekly tabloid, ‘Gauri Lankesh Patrike’ which stood strongly against the right wing communal politics and also ferociously critiqued the Hindutva politics in Bengaluru. Her strong writings, both in English and Kannada, against casteism and communalism have brought her under attack by the right-wing forces. It is known that in the year 2016, Lankesh was harassed for alleging two BJP MPs for corruption charges and was put behind bars under the charges of defamation. Because the charges against her were deemed baseless, she was granted bail within a day. Gauri was always aware of being under the radar of the Sangh for her stand but nothing desist her from writing. Her murder has brought an alarming concern amongst activist circles to discuss the need for securing freedom of speech as a fundamental right of every citizen to dissent and also the growing efforts of the state to gag the freedom of press. Her assassination is yet another indication of the vulnerabilities of the social and political activists who challenge fundamentalism and obscurantism.
Violating the democratic spirit, repeated efforts have been made by the state and its associates to attack political citizens who strongly challenge its authority. On the 18th of July, veteran journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta stepped down as the editor of well reputed Left-leaning journal, Economic and Political Weekly after publishing an article on the mis-appropriation of funds by Adani titled, ‘Modi Government’s Rs. 500 Crore Bonanza to Adani Group Company’. The resignation came after the journal was slapped with defamation and the board was pressured to take down the article on the industrial conglomerate and its nexus with the state. NDTV India, a rather liberal and corporatized news channel was also to be blacked-out for a day by the Information and the Broadcasting Ministry for allegedly reveling ‘strategically sensitive information’ while reporting about theu controversial Pathankot anti-terrorism oppression in January. The larger discourse pointed at the sweeping powers held by the government to penalize news agencies by taking harsh punitive measures against them. Because of the corporate backing of the media house and its popularity, the news channel received a lot of solidarity on social media by some liberal voices which prompted the I&B Ministry to withdraw the black-out. The freedom of press, in the history of ‘independent’ India has seen such an attack only once before during the Emergency in the reign of Indira Gandhi.
Unfortunately, many local journalists who do not have the agency and are writing in more conflicted regions like Kashmir and Chhattisgarh are haggard and encounter a constant looming danger. The journalists in these areas have faced constant death threats, intimidation and experienced censorship of the most brutal forms. In an article on the English web-portal Wire, ‘Being a Journalist in Kashmir is fraught with risk and danger’ the writer and journalist cites the constant intimidation and hostility journalists of the valley espy. In the article he presents various incidences and anecdotes of the roughing up of journalists by the state and military forces.
Struck down like dominos
An early morning in the month of August 2013, founder and conveyor of Andhshraddha Nirmolan Samiti was slumped to the ground after two unidentified assailants shot Narendra Dhabolkar point blank while he was on one of his early morning walks. Dhabolkar indefatigably resisted the fundamentalist ideologues of the Sangh and was lauded for his work to uproot superstitious practices and rituals that engulfed the rationality of a thinking mind. A year and a half later, well known communist leader and rationalist, Com. Govind Pansare was also shot dead in a similar fashion by unknown assailants near his residence in Kolhapur. Pansare has been an influential public figure who was also a writer of a bestselling Marathi novel, ‘Shivaji Kon Hota’ (Who was Shivaji?). His interpretation of the glorified ruler Shivaji, in his book had antagonized the conservatives in Maharashtra. The left-leaning stance of the political leader and his staunch critique of the fundamentalist right wing facets of the RSS, had brought him rigid opposition from the Hindutva forces especially the ‘Sanathan Sanstha’ which was very much in discussion after the killing of Dhabolkar. Pansare received continuous death threats from the militant right wing organization before he was plunged to death with bullets. Soon within a few months, Vice Chancellor of Kannda University, Kalburgi was similarly shot dead after having irked the Hindu fundamentalist forces for his persistent critique of the communal politics.
Human rights’ activists, rationalists, political leaders, varsity chancellors have been shot down by the fundamentalist Hindutva groups after having drawn ire for their public anti-right, anti-communal and anti-caste dispositions. The public figures, who were assassinated by diabolical right-wingers, have been vociferously resisting communal politics and have also been in constant conflict with the authoritarian state. The assassination of Lankesh has drawn attention back to the assassination of Dhabolkar, Pansare and Kalburgi and can be seen as a continuation of the hindutva assault on anyone who believes in opposing the reactionary state. The common thread amongst the four has been their fearless public confrontation with the Hindutva reactionary forces. The killings of these public dissenters must be seen as strong signal sent to those who have a scathing criticism against fundamentalism.
Universities: The battlegrounds to defend our freedom of speech
On the 9th of February in 2016, a few students of the esteemed Jawaharlal Nehru University organized an event to protest the hanging of 2001 Parliament terror attack accused Afzal Guru. The event was organized by students titled, ‘The judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhatt and in solidarity with the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination’. The event was interrupted by ABVP a student wing of the RSS and foot soldiers of the BJP on campuses. An attempt was made by the students of the ABVP to frame a few students for organizing the event. The students were accused of raising ‘anti-India’ slogans. Apparently, academic discussions of extreme human rights violations and the fundamental right to self-determination were perceived as anti-Indian. The JNU row led to the incarceration of three students including the then SU president, Kanhiya Kumar, ex-DSU (now BASO) members Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya who were then slapped with sedition charges. Repeated efforts are being made to demonize the students of the university as abuses are hurled at the students by the sanghi media for their political will to challenge the atrocities of the state.
After the JNU row, consistent efforts are being made to confine the spaces of dissent in varsities and educational institutions. The Ramjas college’ literary society, on the 21st of February organized an event titled, ‘Cultures of Protest’. The college’s student union dominated by the ABVP, once again insinuated the event for inviting Umar Khalid as one of the speakers. The event organized had to be withdrawn due to the violence instigated by the ABVP. The following day, students of the Left organizations organized a protest rally in condemnation of the violence unleashed by the ABVP. Even at the site of a peaceful protest march, the students from the Left were roughed up and beaten up with lathis by the police that assisted the march without any due provocation. Besides these, many talks and seminars organized by progressive students are more often than not disrupted by the ABVP goons on campus.
Saving the spaces of Dissent
Journalists, writers, human rights activists, students, political leaders, are increasingly penalized for their radical discord with fundamentalism. A hostile and violent reaction to dissent is enjoying state’s structural support and ones insinuating violence are exercising complete impunity. The constricting spaces of dissent and growing chocking of voices has only ever weakened a democracy. The fascists today have come to power through the means of democracy but the only way to challenge the fascist trends is by confronting them head on with rage, humor, anger, with songs of dissent and words powerful enough to overthrow tyranny. In these difficult times of violence and a growing arch of silence I resort to the words of Faiz
“Bol ki lab āzād haiñ tere
Bol zabāñ ab tak terī hai
Terā sutvāñ jism hai terā
Bol ki jaañ ab tak terī ha”
Aabha J is a second year MA student studying Dalit and Tribal Studies and Action in Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She may be reached at email@example.com