When journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead in front of her house early last month, quite a few writers and social activists in India must have felt a chill down their spines as the country steadily becomes a dangerous place for intellectuals.
Gauri was a journalist turned social activist based in Bangalore, the technological capital of India. She was the fourth activist to be killed in that region in as many years, whose killers have not yet been apprehended despite the fact that the opposition Congress party leads the government in Karnataka state.
There have been a spate of killings of intellectuals and writers in the country in recent years. Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist activist, was killed in August 2013, after lobbying for social reform against superstitions such as black magic and child sacrifice. Govind Pansare, a left-wing politician and author of the best-selling book Shivaji Kon Hota, was killed in February 2015 after being an outspoken critic of communalism in society.
In the same year, Kannada scholar M M Kalburgi, winner of a national literary award, was killed after many court cases were filed against him by several Hindu groups for hurting their sentiments.
Apparently there were motives and patterns to these killings. But who could be the enemies and potential killers of writers and activists?
The strong suspects are people close to the ideology of Hindutva, for the simple reason that they have not kept their hatred of writers and activists a secret.
Kalburgi and Gauri had more than a dozen cases filed against them in different courts by Hindu fundamentalists of various names. Even in the aftermath of Gauri’s death the Karnataka state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) filed a defamation suit against the noted historian Ramachandra Guha for reasoning that Gauri’s murderers came from the Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar umbrella group. Social scientist Kancha Ilaiah has also received death threats and undergone physical attacks from groups sympathetic to the Hindu right.
This contempt for activists is corroborated by a statement by a BJP member of the Karnataka state legislature that if Gauri had not criticized Sangh Parivar member RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), she would still be alive.
Furthermore, individuals followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter condoned the murder of Gauri in abusive language on which, while the prime minister maintained silence, the BJP issued a statement clarifying a “principled” stand on why the supreme leader of the party continues to follow people who have been so vile in their conduct on social media. Modi follows 1,845 people on Twitter and is followed by 35 million.
Restricted by ideology
Ideologies, by definition and practice, restrict thought within bounds, so sometimes they tend to be highly irrational, for instance nationalism, fascism and communalism, to name a few. Hindutva too falls in that category. Its adherents have a fixed worldview rooted in myths and the Manusmriti, an ancient text similar to other religions’ treatises.
On the contrary, a writer does not adhere to the boundaries of ideologies. He is rooted in the present, he seeks truth, challenging, explaining and expressing social reality through the art of writing and speaking. In the words of famous Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, the writer creates “new values” for society.
Such new values and their creators are discomforting for the status quo and its forces. So when Kancha Illiah through his research argues that Hindutva promotes social smuggling, or Kalburgi, backed by scholarly evidence, reveals a disconnect between Lingayatism and Hinduism, Hindutva followers resort to intimidating, harassing and finally purging the intellectual.
Constitution under threat
When Jawaharlal Nehru wrote The Discovery of India in the 1940s, he underlined a set of new values on which the Indian constitution was later based, and it has been a shared ideology among Indians since the country became a republic and stands above any other affiliations.
Since independence, barring the Emergency of 1975-77, writers have been able, to borrow a phrase from Jean-Paul Sartre, to exist and express their freedom. They enjoyed freedom of conscience and fulfilled what he considered their “moral and ethical responsibilities of observing the social political moments, and to freely speak to their society”.
However, now writers in India are in double jeopardy. On one hand, society is so radicalized that as a social class they are perceived as a threat, and on the other, the constitution of the country is unable to protect them because those guiding its implementation do not fully believe in it. Addressing its lawyers’ wing last week, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat stressed that the constitution should be changed according to the ethos of the country.
While thinking about the state of writers in India, one is reminded of the Turkish Nobel laureate for literature, Orhan Pamuk. In 2006, he was charged with “insulting Turkishness” for referring to the Armenian genocide of 1915-17, which the nationalist government denies. Those were the early days of Recep Tayyip Erdogan rise to power.
Today, many writers and journalists have left Turkey, and many of those who remain are either in jail or awaiting trial. With the Erdogan regime holding nearly total control over the media and restricting the Internet, in the words of Pamuk, the writer of Istanbul, “so many crazy, unacceptable things are happening”.
Will India become like present-day Turkey? It is a depressing but relevant question.