How Gauri changed from party-hopper to grassroots activist

How Gauri changed from party-hopper to grassroots activist

I knew Gauri for three decades. I watched her transform from a happy-go-lucky, party-hopping girl to a firebrand journalist and social activist.

Gauri began her career working for English-language newspapers and magazines. Saketh Rajan, the Naxal leader on whose behalf she fought and earned the title of ‘Naxalite sympathiser,’ was her classmate in Delhi. She hardly knew him then.

Her father P Lankesh’s death in 2000 made her return from Delhi to Bangalore and take up Kannada journalism. She had no experience of writing in Kannada. Her intention was to keep alive the journalistic legacy of Lankesh, whom she admired and loved beyond all measure.

In her office in Basavangudi, she had placed her desk and chair next to his, and never ever sat in his chair. The picture of the young Gouri with a portrait of her father overlooking her seat created an aura around her.  She had to hone her Kannada skills, and she did managed this well.

The dispute over Bababudan Giri, a well-known Sufi shrine, changed her ideologically. When the Hindu right-wing declared they would turn it into another Ayodhya and Karnataka into another Gujarat, she could take it no longer.

She had inherited her secular spirit from Lankesh, who had written a moving piece about the movement to destroy the Babri Masjid. She sprang into action, gathered writers such as Girish Karnad, K Marulasiddappa and G K Govinda Rao, and went on a fact-finding tour to the hill shrine in Chikmagalur district. I was a part of this mission. She joined others fighting to protect the secular spirit of the shrine. The campaign led to a protest march, and she was jailed for two days. The experience strengthened her resolve.

She then became the voice of Karnataka Souharda Vedike (Communal Harmony Forum), and her editorials began to reflect her new-found conviction.

Another big turn came when she led a team of journalists and human rights activists to the interiors of Malnad to meet Naxalites and report on their demands. There she met Saketh Rajan again, and discovered they shared the same ideals, though they had traversed different paths. She was never convinced about the need for armed conflict.

She began thinking of a space to bring the Naxals and the government to the negotiating table. The Naxal struggle, she believed, should not be seen as a resistance to deep-rooted socio-economic inequality, and not just as a law and order problem. In the process, she learnt some hard lessons about the links between communalism and globalisation, and the advances of a Fascist agenda in the guise of neo-liberalism.

In this respect, she saw beyond her father’s vision. Her activism endeared her to many resistance groups whose existence she had been ignorant about.

The activist in her did not alienate her from her old friends. She could easily move between the different worlds of activist groups and apolitical friends. She spared no politician, and few she criticised took it personally. She could phone anyone in the administration and make them see her point. They listened to her because she never sought personal favours.

Amidst her activism and journalism, she always made time for Esha, her sister’s daughter, whom she loved as her own. In her tweets and public debates, she may have come across as tough and opinionated, but she was sweet in person, and maternal in her interaction with young activists.

Perhaps 2005 was the toughest year of her life. On the one hand, the Sangh Parivar was deriding her as a Naxal sympathiser and screaming for her arrest, while on the other, her brother Indrajit had removed her from her job and even pointed a gun at her.

They parted ways, and he kept Lankesh Patrike, the paper their father had founded. She launched a weekly in her own name, Gauri Lankesh Patrike. All this made her tough but not heartless. When Indrajit was in serious trouble, she bailed him out. She never severed her relations with his wife and children.

When she referred to Kanhaiya Kumar, student leader at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Jignesh Melwani, Dalit leader from Gujarat, as her foster sons, she meant it to the core. She kept in touch with them and showered them with gifts. Amidst all this, she was active on social media, laughing at the hate mail she received; nothing could dampen her spirit.

On Tuesday, when I saw her shrunken body lying in a pool of blood, I wondered how such a thin frame could have taken so many bullets. It takes a long time to shape a personality like hers. And how little time it took to sniff it out!  But can her fighting spirit be ever silenced?

Had Gauri been just a career journalist, we might not have seen such an outpouring of grief. The world seems to recognise and respect the values she stood for.

There is a great lesson in her death: commit ourselves to a greater good, no matter what. We shall be Gauris.

What about the Naxal angle?
Journalists of 'the nation wants to know' variety are suggesting Naxals are behind her murder. They are also hinting at personal motives.

Both conjectures are meaningless. Gauri openly supported the Naxalite cause of social justice and equity, but rejected their philosophy of armed conflict. She is not alone in this. In fact, almost all human rights organisations take this position.

Naxals have killed ‘class enemies,' but they have never killed anyone opposing their methods while supporting their cause.

When Naxals kill, they always own up. At a time when their strength and influence is waning, it is unrealistic to believe they would do something that would result in so much negative publicity.

(The author is a human rights activist and former professor of English. He is associated with the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum)

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