The Mother Tongue Murders


The Mother Tongue Murders

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Like the ticking of the world’s most distressing clock, journalists, rationalists, and dissenters regularly wind up dead in India and we’ve come to accept this now with a certain deadening numbness. It isn’t the sudden, concussive numbness that accompanies shocking news; it is the dead, unresponsive numbness of a callus formed over long periods of rough work.

The question we are left asking after the numbness has given way to outrage, which in turn gives way to a tortured acceptance is — who is next? We like to claim superiority over Pakistan and Bangladesh in the field of freedom of expression, but recent events have left me asking, which man or woman will pose a threat to the institution? Whose name is on the next bullet? In whose name will we organise yet another #NotInMyName protest?

The answer to this, one must understand lies in understanding what made the likes of Gauri Lankesh, and others like her, MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, and Govind Pansare, so dangerous. And that’s an answer you won’t find in Reddit forums and Facebook posts. It lies scattered across rural and small-town India, the real battleground for the ideological war taking place within this nation. Its expression, unlike the four per cent that can read and write English, reaches the millions that form the limbs of India’s massive voting public.

Gauri Lankesh Patrike, the publication that Lankesh was editor of, had a network across Karnataka and was printed in Kannada. Pansare, murdered for “exposing” the truth about Shivaji (he was tolerant towards Muslims and even employed them in his army), had published his book in Marathi. Dabholkar spent many years involved at the grassroots level, travelling through villages in Maharashtra, spreading his message of rational thinking in the face of superstitious beliefs and exploitative practices. Kalburgi, himself a member of the Kannada Lingayat community, antagonised them with his progressive ideas about community practices and rejection of idolatry. Their murderers did not fear the short-lived flare-up of outrage that followed their deaths. What they truly feared was the work they were doing while they were alive.

Lankesh, Kalburgi, Pansare, and Dabholkar are only the tip of a very bleak iceberg. A little digging into the topic shakes us out of the complacency with which we sniff at Pakistan and Bangladesh, which we comfortably brand rogue states for journalists. But the truth is, freedom of expression in India has been in a sustained state of jeopardy since the Emergency. A nexus of politicians, tycoons, and local mafia pose an ever-present threat to journalists, and regional journalists are more vulnerable than the very vocal, very visible darlings of the English media.

These men and women often operate without the protection of national outcry. In Chattisgarh, journalists are routinely subject to threats and intimidation. Take the story of freelance journalist Santosh Yadav, who was jailed for over a year before being granted bail. Yadav reported on human rights violations, which led the authorities to label him a naxal and a terrorist, and then try him as one. Another journalist from Madhya Pradesh, Rajesh Mishra, was assaulted after reporting on corruption in the local school system. Unlike Yadav, Mishra did not survive the attack.

As history has taught us, free thinking and vote bank politics do not make a compatible pair.

Consider the situation in the subcontinent for comparison. In both Pakistan and Bangladesh, regional journalists run the gauntlet of violence and intimidation. Janullah Hashimzada worked for a Pashto-language news channel, and his stance against the Taliban got him killed by gun-wielding militants. Meanwhile in Bangladesh,  Gautam Das a senior reporter for the Bengali-language newspaper Dainik Samakal was found strangled in his office. He reported on crime and corruption. The impunity with which these attacks were carried out makes them eerily similar to the ones we’ve witnessed in India.

Ironically, it is the power that regional journalists wield, that makes them vulnerable. Regional journalists do what the English media can’t – connect with and influence the decisions of the millions of Indians living in smaller towns and rural areas across the country. Historically, regional languages have always been the lingua franca of resistance. Well over two-and-a-half thousand years ago, the local languages of Prakrit and Pali became the vehicles which carried Buddhist and Jain teachings and reform to poorer communities marginalised by a Sanskrit-speaking Hindu majority.

As it was then, so too is it today. Regional languages have the power to spark awareness and free thinking among political vote banks, unlike English, the modern equivalent of Sanskrit. As history has taught us, free thinking and vote bank politics do not make a compatible pair.

We’re at a point now in our public discourse, where it’s convenient to describe the ideological schism in India as one between urban elites and the rest of India. But then, how does one account for the ultra-nationalist Republic TV? Therein lies the real danger for forces trying to depict the ongoing conflict as a battle between “real India” and those “aping the West”. People like Lankesh disrupt that narrative and raise too many uncomfortable questions for those invested in turning the country into a majoritarian state. It’s for that reason, not for the way the liberal echo chamber celebrates them, that they become a thorn in the regime’s side.

History has proven time and again that you can kill an individual, but you can never kill an idea. While Twitter trolls may claim the murder of Gauri Lankesh as a victory, her work has already been done. My numbed reaction to her death doesn’t matter. What matters is what her readers across Karnataka feel. They forged a kinship with Lankesh through her work, as did those who came into contact with Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi, and a distressingly long list of others who did not receive the same national coverage — the seed of an idea once planted, never dies. Dissent will continue to spread even beyond the bubble of Lutyens media, whether the radicals wish it or not.

The country needs it, now more than ever.