A Just India Wouldn’t Be Afraid of Gauri Lankesh

Social Commentary

A Just India Wouldn’t Be Afraid of Gauri Lankesh

Illustration: Akshita Monga

In the 1983 film Ardh Satya, a diffident Om Puri recites the Dilip Chitre poem of the same name:

चक्रव्यूह में घुसने के बाद
मेरे और चक्रव्यूह के बीच
सिर्फ एक जानलेवा निकट’ता थी
इसका मुझे पता ही न चलेगा

It is roughly translated into English as, “After I entered the maze/I never realised that/There would be a life-threatening proximity between the enemy and I.” These lines feel prescient for they convey the mix of fear and presumption felt by anyone trying to question authority or speak truth to power these days. Presumption, because as hard as it is to guess the distance your throat is from the blade in someone else’s mind, it has become a way of life for those seeking the right to dissent.

Three years since the death of Gauri Lankesh, the stakes of this unconventionally dreadful exercise have only risen.

Lankesh’s breed even has a new name now – Urban Naxal. Who really is an Urban Naxal? Is he or she the person who wants to break the country, cut through its ideal of nationhood or throttle India at the altar of its own leap into internationally approved modernism? Not really. The noise – and it does erupt from both sides – has drowned a particularly nuanced version of this debate that needs to be held. Who really are the Urban Naxals (let us agree on that term for the moment) against?

A good indicator of how stilted the view of those in power can be, one only needs to study the way it treats offence.

Large fractions of the media, politicians on either side of the divide will have you believe it is the country, India per se. But it isn’t. It is merely against those who govern the country – or as is evidenced regularly, don’t – because of rampant corruption and policymaking that is unjust and unequal. What is nationalism if not seeking a just, equitable version of your own nation?

Let us look at it this way, a just India, a just system, a just bureaucracy, and a just parliament would have no need for human rights activists, rationalists, or non-conforming journalists. It would be its own critic, its own check and its own harness. But even though institutions supposedly exist to portray these roles, the levels of accountability and transparency that a democracy should offer have barely been achieved in India. Though we assume the country to be constitutionally just and bipartisan, we are aware that it is heavily driven by political agendas and motivations, regardless of who holds power. 2018’s arrests of activists and rationalists from different corners of the country aren’t isolated incidents, and to understand why their existence matters, it is crucial to acknowledge the fact that they do not speak against the idea of India, but against the people who have run it into a muddled hole of graft, bias, and lawlessness.

As far as political vendettas go, it is worth noting that the recently arrested activists have in the past also been arrested during the Congress regime, proving that they haven’t suddenly surfaced or become active in response to the current ruling party. Gauri Lankesh wrote equally critically against successive governments, only that she perturbed one section to the point of having to pay for it with her life.

A good indicator of how stilted the view of those in power can be, one only needs to study the way it treats offence.

In what version of a just world does an outfit like the Karni Sena or the numerous lynching gangs that have claimed victims over the last couple of years get away with mob violence, incitement, rioting and in some cases even murder, but those who write, speak, or question are jailed, punished and even unlawfully eliminated. Most activists are often accused of “alleged” links with Maoists or are projected as harbouring the intent to disturb peace and integrity in a place. But while paper-trails and soft communiqués are sufficient for them to be chased and castigated by the authorities, records of violence and visual proof has proven to be inadequate in putting goons and murderers behind bars.

A form of governance that fails to rise above the myopia of pushing politics ahead of policies deserves its fair share of activist’s stare.

Gauri Lankesh, though she’d have anticipated aggression, probably had no idea how big of a threat she had become to those she spoke against. And therein lies the paranoia, the chilling reality of today that haunts those who wish to speak freely. Do those who do not wish to conform or wish to stand by a minority perspective not even deserve their chance to express? Has freedom, like governance, become a function of political ideology – or will this fear end before it ceases to feel unnatural?