By Taruni Kumar
Just a week ago, a video from Uttarakhand went viral of a Sikh policeman saving a young Muslim man from a Hindu mob who wanted to thrash the young man for having the audacity of meeting his Hindu girlfriend at a temple. While some lauded the policeman for his actions treating it like the anomaly that it has been in recent times, others pointed out that regardless of religion, all police personnel should be protecting people in danger because it’s kind of their job. Alongside these voices were those like that of Uttar Pradesh Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Rajkumar Thukral, whose response was to ask what the Muslim man was doing in the temple in the first place.
This is the socio-political context in which Washington DC-based foreign opinion columnist for The Times of India and Gauri Lankesh’s ex-husband Chidanand Rajghatta’s second book Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason has released. The title seems to accurately describe the India in which journalist and activist Lankesh lived and in which, on 5 September 2017, she was murdered outside her home in Bangalore.
Rajghatta intertwines the story of his own life with Lankesh, from meeting in the 1970s to marriage to their deep friendship after the divorce and all the way till 2018 when the first man accused of her murder was arrested, with the story of India in their youth and how it changed, becoming more intolerant, as they grew older.
After her murder, Lankesh became a symbol of resistance for critics of Hindutva. Her face was placed on posters and memorials and nationwide protests held in her honour demanding justice. In this memoir, however, Rajghatta writes of a private, more intimate side of Lankesh. “This ‘legend’ was hardly the Gauri I knew. My memories were personal, of a private person; I had little idea of her public persona,” he writes. He describes Lankesh as a disputatious person yet good-natured, large-hearted and fair-minded. It does seem a little strange, however, to read a description about her that focuses on her “slender but supple physique honed by yoga in her youth and dissipated later.” But aside from this slightly specific and perhaps a bit sexual description, Rajghatta paints the picture of a fiery woman who spoke her mind about her political beliefs but was also conscious of her own ability to hurt another in her personal life and was careful about avoiding such a situation.
The book makes references to the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the current obsession with the idea of ‘love jihad’, his own short-lived experience of seeing Sathya Sai Baba in Puttaparthi amidst several other stories of intolerance and blind faith. He presents Lankesh’s rationalist views and opinions, as well as his own, interspersed with a narration of various religious beliefs and mythological stories. He mentions the various versions of the Ramayana, including Muslim renditions of the Ramayana, the existence of which, he points out, infuriate both Hindu and Muslim extremists alike. This lies in the brilliantly titled chapter, “Lankesh, Ravana and the Ramayana.”
A chargesheet filed by the Special Investigation Team in Karnataka on 30 May has quoted 37-year-old KT Naveen Kumar, one of the accused in Lankesh’s murder case, as having said that she was murdered for her “anti-Hindu views” and “criticism of Hindu Gods.” Lankesh’s murder led to refocused attention on the murder of Kannada rationalist and scholar MM Kalburgi in 2015, of Maharashtrian rationalist Narendra Dabholkar in 2013 and CPI leader Govind Pansare in 2015. Rajghatta points out that Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi all shared similar rationalist views that were considered ‘anti-Hindu’. They were all critical of the right-wing and were said to have had several run-ins with Hindutva groups. In fact, during the course of the investigation it was discovered that the weapons used to kill all four were similar and the same weapon may have been used to murder Kalburgi and Lankesh.
As the book points out, Gauri Lankesh was a strong proponent of communal peace and was deeply involved in the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum. She blamed right wing forces for the rip in the fabric of communal harmony in the state. Lankesh’s public life and outspokenness against blind faith had irked many and she was not one to mince words. Rajghatta mentions an incident that took place in 2003 or 2004 in a small town in the Davanagere district of Karnataka called Malebennur, where two women had been reportedly raped by a few Lingayat youth. Apparently, this happened as the men “gleefully” chanted religious slogans, according to the book. Lankesh gave a talk at the Malebennur matha during which she asked the gathering why, if they claimed to be Lingayats, they were supporting the right-wing Sangh Parivar, which has plans to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya? The audience was not pleased with this obvious jab as the founder of Lingayatism, Basaveshwara, had sought to do away with rituals like idol worship. Lankesh fought blind faith and communal disharmony by going back to the roots of religious worship.
On 28 May, the body of Kevin P Joseph, a 23-year-old Dalit Christian was found in a canal in Kerala’s Kollam district. He was the victim of an ‘honour killing’ for marrying 21-year-old Neenu Chacko against the wishes of her affluent Christian family. On 20 May, a 35-year-old Dalit man was beaten to death in Gujarat after accusations of theft. On 2 May, a Muslim man was killed by a Hindu woman’s family in Bikaner because he had a relationship with her and in Delhi, a Muslim woman’s family killed her Hindu boyfriend, Ankit Saxena, on 1 February. There is very little reason, tolerance or liberal thought in these incidents. Only blind faith in religion and the privilege gained from being higher up in the made-up hierarchies of caste.
Even as MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh fought against these irrational and illiberal attitudes in a country with increasing unreason, they ran into each other. Kalburgi heard Lankesh’s fiery speech in Malebennur and endorsed her views, writes Rajghatta.
“What you said is correct, don’t be afraid to voice your ideas,” he encouraged me,’ Gauri would write later. What she didn’t know at that time was that voicing their ideas would cost them both their lives.”
Co-published with Firstpost.