In September 2017, the journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead outside her home in Rajarajeshwari Nagar in Bengaluru. Her murder appeared similar to the killings of noted rationalists in the four preceding years—Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi, were all, like Lankesh, shot dead. Lankesh’s death, like the previous three murders, appeared motivated by a similar ideological conflict, and preliminary investigations indicated a similar modus operandi, including the use of a common weapon. Lankesh and Kalburgi in particular, who was shot dead at his home on 30 August 2015, shared a common ideological position, especially on the issue of the Lingayat religion. They were both outspoken critics of Hinduism and distinguished it from the Lingayat theology. Both drew the ire of Hindu groups for their vocal positions.
In his upcoming book, Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason, the senior journalist Chidanand Rajghatta examines the political landscape in India that formed the context to Lankesh’s murder. Rajghatta was married to Lankesh, and though they got divorced in 1990, he writes that they remained close friends until her death. In the following excerpt from the book, Rajghatta discusses an incident when Lankesh riled up a crowd while giving a speech on Lingayatism, and her serendipitous meeting with Kalburgi later that day.
Gauri herself clearly did not expect to be the target of an assassination bid, although physical menace and violence were occasionally in the air when she and the other rationalists spoke at public events. In a column she wrote for the tabloid Bangalore Mirror, Gauri described an incident at a Lingayat matha(monastery) some years earlier. A riled-up conservative gathering had shouted her down during a speech she was delivering on Lingayatism—a twelfth-century reformist movement that led to the birth of what she and a few scholars argued was a separate religion.
The incident took place, she said, in 2003 or 2004, in a small town called Malebennur where a few Lingayat youth had reportedly stripped and raped two women from a minority community “while gleefully chanting religious slogans.” I emphasise reportedly because much of the reporting in India on such matters is dodgy, and facts are never clear. Riots and looting had followed. The incident disturbed Gauri, because Malebennur was very close to her ancestral village on the maternal side; it was also a town where Hindus and Muslims had lived in harmony for generations.
Communal peace was an article of faith for Gauri Lankesh. She was one of the moving forces behind the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum, and had been warning for years that the state’s fabric of communal peace was fraying, mainly on account of inroads made by right-wing extremists.