There are several things about Gauri Lankesh and her murder – or more aptly, assassination – that we know for sure. One, that she was a powerful opinion leader and an intrepid rationalist in the sharp Left-liberal space. Second, that she had the courage to speak her mind, not deterred by threats routinely thrown at her. Third, as it invariably happens with those clearly positioned in a sharply polarised debate, those that agreed with her did so passionately. Those who disagreed complemented this fully from the other side of the fence, or ideological akhara. As is the norm for a decade now, some of these critics imputed motives to her actions. Some said vile, threatening things.
The next thing we can say with reasonable certainty is that it was a political assassination. We are neither social media Clouseaus or so politically bigoted as to blame our favored usual suspects and move on. That has risks, especially when, as often happens with political killings, the issue goes into politically-loaded police-court “orbit”, tilting with changing regimes. Witness the orchestrated turn in the Samjhauta Express, Malegaon, Aseemanand, Sadhvi Pragya cases.
The central point is a very simple one. That people are entitled to hold opinions, campaign for them, use whatever methods of activism, persuasion and protest a democracy offers, as long as they aren’t indulging in or inciting violence. Similarly, those who disagree can only do so peacefully, however loudly. Nobody has any right to inflict violence on anybody for her opinions or beliefs. No civilised society can accept the idea that a citizen “deserves” to die for her views.
To justify taking a life for somebody’s views will shift us back from a civilised, constitutional national entity to some awful place we’d rather not go. So a good central point, to begin with, is, nobody must be harmed for their views.
A decade back, when social media just appeared in our lives, many of us old-fashioned types ridiculed it and dismissed it as a passing fad. Not today when heads of the world’s largest democracies enjoy followings of tens of millions and use it as a means of direct communication with the people. It follows that a “hijack” of due process and incitement to violence through media — conventional and social — is a crime too.
Beginning with Mahatma Gandhi, India has built an unsavory record in political assassination – out of power rivalries or to settle scores (Partap Singh Kairon, Lalit Narain Mishra, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi) and for ideas. In ideologically polarised zones, especially West Bengal and Bihar, both the Left and Right have killed to silence the other. In Andhra, Chandrababu Naidu survived a Naxal ambush and late chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s father was killed by political rivals in a bomb attack on his car. In 1978-94 Punjab, tens of thousands were killed and scores specifically for their ideas. Prominent among these was the founder of Hindi-Urdu-Punjabi publishing power house Punjab Kesari group Lala Jagat Narain, then his son and successor Ramesh Chander and many journalists, hawkers and vendors working for them.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s method was simple and effective. He held court at the Golden Temple, had somebody stand up and accuse a politician or intellectual of deceit or blasphemy. What should be their punishment, he asked, and left it there. Enough justification for somebody with a gun to do the rest. He put out a similar “sanction” on one nationally respected intellectual because somebody gave him a loaded translation of his articles on the Khalistani campaign. “How can you target a budhijeevi (intellectual) for speaking his mind,” I asked Bhindranwale, hoping he’ll see reason. “What would you do, Shekharji, if somebody called your guru, a shahi lutera?” On a re-reading, I found that the writer had quoted from a widely acknowledged history of the Sikhs titled Robber Noblemen and somebody had mischievously transliterated that for him. He was only waiting to hand out death sentences for blasphemy. It took several rounds of explaining and calming by many well-meaning people including moderate Sikh scholars to make him rethink. It was scary.
Then, as now, it is “talk” that provides justification for a targeted assassination. The eye-witness experience I bring from the past is a man speaking from the highest spiritual and temporal seat of his faith. That pulpit today is social media and you don’t even have to be a sadhu or baba, a sant or maulana to be able to use it. Once you set up a tweet-storm of vilification, naming individuals anti-nationals, traitors, blasphemous, foreign agents, and you are creating justification for somebody with a gun to kill, or for a mob to lynch.
Once an individual or a group is armed with moral justification to take a life, they will find a gun. They will also be hoping that afterwards politics would take over and send the legal process into a spin. Rivals will then fight over the politics of a crime and you might just get away with murder. As seems to be the case with the Malegaon and Samjhauta blasts now. And in fairness, even at the risk of finding asymmetric equivalence, the infamous Pandey friends who hijacked an Indian Airlines plane from Lucknow to Delhi in 1978 to protest Indira Gandhi’s arrest by the Janata government. The prosecution case simply vapourised as Indira returned to power in 1980. Those committing political crimes thrive on a quick politicisation of their acts not just saving their necks but also bringing them rewards.
There are simple and sobering lessons to be drawn from Gauri Lankesh’s killing. First, that the investigations and legal process should remain immunised from politics. Hasty demands to hand this over to CBI or NIA or some such acronym, caged or not, should be dismissed. Ideally, a court would take this under its direct supervision. Our courts have set enough precedents now for doing so.
This political assassination is significant enough for such an intervention. Or it will be trapped between commando-comic channels and inspired social media handles creating new mythologies fronted by her obviously estranged brother, or a Karnataka chief minister exploiting the death by offering a ridiculous colonial symbolism that Gauri Lankesh might have resented and ridiculed – a 21-gun salute. Siddaramaiah has to answer why his Congress government is unable to protect Karnataka’s rationalists or catch their killers.
The next lesson is that in her death, Gauri Lankesh may have closed the debate on the need for responsible use of social media. There is no room for the usual on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand whataboutery. Law should apply equally to hate-speech on social media as on conventional one and incitement to violence prosecuted as a serious crime. The political class will also have to give up the temptation of employing social media lynch-mobs and there can be no justification that the other side also does so. Their purpose is to shut their critics up with abusive shock-and-awe. But physical violence can follow in their wake. This lead has to be taken by the prime minister. The argument that following somebody is not an endorsement doesn’t wash unless the other person is a public figure, even rival. To follow those who abuse in your name is an endorsement. I also speak with the credentials of somebody routinely abused by all, Right, Left, and AAP.
And finally, the lesson for us in the media, and those with liberal claims: freedom of speech and ideas is common to all, irrespective of where we draw the fence. To have any chance of winning in angrily polarised times, our defense of these freedoms has to be unqualified and unequivocal, not selective. Liberalism means engaging with the “other”, listening to them, not dismissing them as stupid or immoral. Then, we might have a chance of bringing the current discourse back from violence and abuse into bounds of civility.