Dissent under attack

The brutal murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh has yet again brought into sharp focus the issue of intolerance in Indian society. Lankesh, in her fifties, was the editor of the Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada weekly published in Bengaluru, and was known for taking on right-wing Hindu fundamentalists with her sharp and stinging pieces. She had been receiving threats and online abuse for a while now with her paper being labelled “anti-Establishment”, and she was seen as an anti-Hindu and Maoist sympathiser. While there is no clear evidence to suggest who killed her, it is being widely suspected that right-wing fundamentalists were possibly behind the murder because of the recent history of her being harassed by them. Another reason for such apprehensions is the manner in which she was killed — it was very similar to the cold-blooded murders of at least three other rationalist thinkers, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi, over the past few years.

There are three very worrisome aspects about the Lankesh murder. The cases of the killings of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi still remain unsolved. This is all the more mystifying since all the three cases had many similarities — for instance, the same gun was used in two of the murders. Speedy action on prosecuting the assassins would not only have deterred such an episode but also bolstered the confidence of the common man in the police. To be sure, no political party can be singled out for blame. The two main parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have been in power at the Centre and the state and yet there is little to show as result. In this regard, the state police should now move expeditiously to solve this murder and restore some semblance of order.

The second aspect relates to the state of journalism, especially in regional papers. There have been several episodes where journalists working away from the metros and often working in language publications are harassed and abused by local power interests. The death of the journalist of Pura Sach, who exposed the Dera Sacha Sauda chief, and the abuse of journalists in Chhattisgarh, who reported the excesses of the security forces, present a sobering picture about the status of free speech and the robustness of the free press. The last, and possibly most challenging, aspect of this episode is the growing strain of intolerance in the country. This is particularly true about religious intolerance. Even though the investigations are still on, there were many in the social media who claimed that Lankesh deserved this end for her anti-Hindu views. Such comments are deplorable for a person who lost her life for a cause that mattered the most to her — individual freedom, liberty and secularism. It goes without saying that a liberal society that values dissent and free speech is an essential component of a vibrant democracy.

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