A newspaper is a strange phenomenon. It pretends to report news but what it actually instigates is a way of consuming news. Today’s citizen consumes news like fodder and lives on the mulch it creates. The way he consumes news can be disconcerting. One senses this deeply in the death of Gauri Lankesh. I only met a her a few times, with U.R. Ananthamurthy, who was fond of her as he quarrelled quietly with her father. At that time, news was more like a costume ball, a role she was struggling to come to terms with. As one saw her a few years later, at the sociologist Chandan Gowda’s house, one sensed a deeper confidence, a wider curiosity and control. She seemed to have transited from the ugly larva of a tabloid princess to a multi-layered activist. She conveyed the sense that she wrote news and made news. It was clear that ideas and issues mattered to her. As the cultural critic Manu Chakravarty told me, she played a brilliant role in allowing Naxalites to return to the mainstream. It was a courageous act of reconciliation which still remains woefully incomplete. Gauri was a set of unfinished projects on Dalits, on fighting communalism, on combining the vernacular and the cosmopolitan to create a new intellectual space in Bangalore, beyond the more indifferent fortresses of IT and science. She brought a vitality to news, a controversy which revealed her own dreams and foibles. In that sense, she was a contradiction, what activist Madhu Bhushan would call a dizzy mix of vulnerability and curiosity that people found intriguing.
Yet, death as reportage has been distinctly unfair to her.
She became a Rorschach for the city which played out its varieties of concern, hypochondria and hysteria with gusto. Gauri died a woman and she was transformed into a spectacle by a city that turned the truth of her struggle into a set of banalities and trivialities. It was almost as if each group wanted to capture her for their own intellectual turf, oblivious of the brutality of the crime. In fact, the trivialisation of Gauri takes place in several ways. The first of them is by the rationalists who seek to create a serial around Pansare, Kalburgi, Dhabolkar and Gauri. Gauri’s battle was a more multiverse one. To reduce her death to one more rationalist tragedy impoverishes her. She fought communalism, but as a heady mix other problems. Rationalists attempt to obsessively desiccate Gauri’s legacy instead of doing what she did by trying to create a deeper connectivity of issues. The sadder event was the way Siddaramiah turned the Gauri murder into a blatant act of vote bank politics. Following soon on the Ambedkar seminar as a public spectacle, it displayed a cynicism and a populism, a use of electoralism as a way of concern. Vote bank politics has banalised democracy and the great political struggles of our time. By providing protection to a bouquet of intellectuals, the Chief Minister added the right tenor of hysteria.
Intellectuals, instead of standing up with dignity, exuded hysteria, a sense of victimisation as importance that showed little concern for the myriads of small-town journalists murdered by the mafia and the politician. It was a VIP victimage that ignored the real dangers of everyday journalism, where hysteria substitutes for a real sense of the danger to journalists and whistle blowers today. In fact, if at one level there was hysteria as news, there was also a sense of indifference. Bangalore conversations resounded with the idea of Gauri as a radical and the radical as someone to be dispensed with. The very word sets the prospect of a future assassination. In fact, a sensitive observer of the elite told me that the technocracy is indifferent, almost emotionally dead when it comes to an event like this. Why is it that many scientists and engineers believe that Gauri’s world is not about them? It is something that takes place beyond the comfort zone of gated villages. Such sanitised gossip adds little to the understanding of real world politics, of which Gauri was such an integral part.
The hysterical reporting of events also reveals how the media turns the spotlight on Naxalites, mafia, rationalists, but says little about the huge growth of right- wing gangs that pervade politics today. The right has bluffed its responsibility out, trusting on the hysteria of the liberal left. What one misses is any kind of serious debate by civil society, any effort by PUCL/PUDR to investigate the events around her death. One misses an intellectual like U.R. Ananthamurthy who could differ with the Gauri effect and yet bond in a solidarity of struggle and debate, opening up conversation as a way of opening up minds. The storyteller and the social science analyst has gone underground as intellectual life becomes a mix of fear and hypochondria. It is time for a return to citizenship and its articulations. Gauri deserves that relish of debate and controversy, that sense that democratic forces rallied around her, not the factionalised gossip we are presenting as news today. It is almost as if Gauri’s death signals the impoverishment of democracy and debate in Bangalore. The second event would be the greatest insult to her memory and her struggles to make sense of the unruly politics of our time.
(The writer is professor, Jindal Global Law School, and director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University)