Outspoken Editor known for her criticism of far-right Hindu groups murdered at her residence in Bangalore.
Gauri Lankesh, an Indian journalist, publisher and outspoken critic of right-wing groups, was shot dead by unknown attackers in front of her home in the southern city of Bangalore on Tuesday. She was 55.
“The fact that she was so vocal made her a prime target,” Sudipto Mondal, a Bangalore-based journalist based in Bangalore, told Al Jazeera.
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“And I suppose that goes for a lot of people over here, which is why there are fears that other people might be in the line.”
The news of Lankesh’s killing met shock and outrage, with journalists, civil society members and students across the country sharply condemning the murder.
“Gauri Lankesh was a known critic of the central government on key issues and had fearlessly expressed her views in the newspaper she edited, as well as in other forums,” the Editors Guild of India said in a statement.
“Her killing is an ominous portent for dissent in democracy and a brutal assault on the freedom of the press.”
Several groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), demanded a thorough investigation into the killing.
“India needs to address the problem of impunity in journalist murders and ensure the press can work freely,” Steven Butler, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator, said from Washington, DC.
On Wednesday, people in several Indian cities held candlelight vigils to pay tribute to Lankesh, while hundreds of mourners, including Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, attended her state funeral in Bangalore, the hub of India’s IT industry.
A Special Investigating Team was tasked with probing Lankesh’s murder, which came more than two years after the killing of rationalist MM Kalburgi, a former vice chancellor of Hampi University, in a similar attack. The investigation into his death has still not been concluded.
“There have been attacks on writers and thinkers in the recent past, particularly since the ascendancy of Mr [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi. There has been murder of rationalist [Narendra] Dabholkar in Pune, [Govind] Pansare, a left party worker in south Maharashtra [state], Dr Kalburgi in Karnataka’s Dharwad, where I currently live,” Ganesh Devy, a prominent linguist and a novelist, told Al Jazeera by phone.
“These were people who objectively presented the picture of the society. They were eliminated because [the] right wing did not like their rationality and objectivity,” he added.
In Dharwad, about 400km north of Bangalore, some 3,000 young people staged a rally in Lankesh’s memory, while all colleges and universities remained closed, according to Devy.
“This has not happened before. The death of journalist has never received this kind of response,” he said.
Gauri was seen by many as intrepid and a sympathiser of marginalised communities – a trait that Indian media reported she inherited from her father, P Lankesh, a fearless editor and founder of the independent Kannada language newspaper Lankesh Patrike.
Hours before being killed, she had posted a message on her Facebook page condemning the planned deportation of Rohingya refugees by the Indian government.
Devy said she was “the most fearless and outspoken crusader for the marginal people”.
Shivamogga district on January 29, 1962, Gauri studied in Bangalore, capital of Karnataka state, and New Delhi. She initially wanted to become a doctor, but later on decided to follow in the footsteps of her father.
Lankeshstarted her journalistic career with English newspaper Times of India. She took over her father’s newspaper after his death in 2000 but started her own weekly publication, Gauri Lankesh Patrike (GLP) in 2005 following a feud with her brother.
The GLP did not accept advertisements and ran based on individual subscriptions.
Its anti-establishment views struck a chord with many readers, but also drew the ire of right-wing political forces, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the federal government.
“Let’s not forget she could have landed any job she wanted; she was that good of a journalist,” said Mondal.
“She could have been a senior editor at a mainstream English [language] newspaper. But she chose not to do that. She chose to work with a small Kannada publication. She taught herself how to write Kannada, as she did not start as a Kannada journalist.”
Those close to Lankesh said her views on caste structure, as well as her active support for minorities, had angered far-right Hindu groups.
“In the present atmosphere of intimidation of writers, threats received by them all the time on Twitter, Facebook and mobile [phones], she espoused the cause of full expression,” Devy said.
Last November, Lankesh was convicted in a defamation case brought by BJP leaders. She was granted bail the same day.
“I oppose the caste system of the ‘Hindu Dharma’, which is unfair, unjust and gender-biased,” she had said in an interview last year.
Lankesh’s death has raised fears over free speech and the right to dissent in India, where far-right Hindu groups have previously attacked people with secular views.
“These are times of great arguments over the idea of India. The Hindu right is on the one side and the forces who are opposed to the Hindu right are caught up in bitter acrimonious arguments,” Mondal, who knew Gauri since 2004, said.
“She was like a glue who would have been able to bring different factions together. And with her gone, the task of fighting the right-wing has become that much more difficult.”
The killing also sent a shockwave through the journalism industry in the world’s largest democracy, where media has been accused of “self-censorship”.
“Definitely, it is a blow to freedom of press. I do not think Gauri Lankesh should be confused with regular mainstream press, which is pliant and tends to self-censure,” said Mondal.
“Journalists like her are often dismissed as activists, which is unfortunate. These are people, who take an open political stand.”
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