Life and times of Gauri, victim of the rising tide of unreason (Book Review)

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Title: Illiberal India – Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason; Author: Chidanand Rajghatta; Publisher: Context by Westland; Pages: 242; Price: Rs 499

The brutal murder of veteran journalist-cum-activist Gauri Lankesh at her home in Bengaluru, 11 months ago on September 5, 2017, shocked the nation and stirred the people’s conscience on the safety of men and women of ideas in the country.

Gauri, 55, was Editor of “Gauri Lankesh Patrike”, a Kannada weekly tabloid launched by her late father and firebrand writer P. Lankesh in the 1980s in Bengaluru.

“Gauri took on directly and daringly all issues that disproportionately put women, dalits and minorities under pressure and in the crosshairs of upper caste orthodoxy,” say noted foreign correspondent and Gauri’s former husband Chidanand Rajghatta, aiming to provide an insight into her heart and mind.

Gauri’s murder evoked a fast spreading sense of sadness and anger across the country. Sporting headbands that read “I am Gauri”, hundreds of college students — including many who did not know Gauri or had read her prolific writings — joined activists, journalists and liberals in staging protest demonstrations, seeking justice for her by bringing the suspected killers to book.

Though they had lived as a couple for only five years (1985-90) in Bengaluru and New Delhi, Rajghatta recalls that Gauri was not so much of a public persona than a person with a quicksilver temper who took up the struggle in her socio-politico life as a liberal woman and a journalist-activist.

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In spite of divorcing in 1990 due to circumstances filled with “youthful carelessness” as he describes it in the book, they both remained friends for life.

Gauri inherited the magazine after the death of her father in 2000 and ran it with single-minded fastidiousness. According to Rajghatta, for her there were no half-measures and ambiguities, no ‘get both sides’ or ‘balancing of views’ in the traditional journalism matrix.

“To those critics (yes, me too) who argued that her paper and her stance, lacked nuance in reporting an incredibly complex country and society, she’d snap, ‘Save that homily for journalism schools’…” writes Chidanand. To many, her aim was to mould opinion against the rising tide of unreason which was engulfing the nation on many aspects.

A section of the hindutva followers considered Gauri to be “anti-right wing, radical and a Maoist sympathiser”. But many would extoll her for raising her voice for the marginalised and in support of dalit and minority rights. She was in favour of rehabilitating Maoists.

The author admits that he was not much aware of Gauri’s recent life and activities. On being prodded to write a book by publishers Rajghatta notes: “Although we remained in touch and spoke often or more frequently than divorced couples do, I did not have a complete awareness of her recent life. I was full of self-doubt, particularly after seeing the outpouring of emotions after her death.”

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In the political backdrop of the late 1970s when he met Gauri and till recent years, Rajghatta portrays an account of his relationship with her, what journalism meant to her and the duo’s disagreements over several aspects of politics, society and life at large.

Having met Gauri during under-graduation at National College in Bengaluru, where she studied journalism and history, Chidanand recounts their conversations as students, then as a couple and fellow journalists who loved a good argument on political, ideological and religious issues.

While reminiscing about his many conversations with Gauri — mostly through phone calls and e-mails — the journalist-writer delves into the history of the times they lived through post India’s Emergency (1975-77) till before her death.

The book features political past of not only Karnataka, from where they hailed, but also India and the thoughts and lives of their contemporaries and like-minded people, like Kannada rationalist M.M. Kalburgi, who was shot dead in August 2015 by unidentified men at his house in Karnataka’s Dharwad city.

The author explains why he chose “Illiberal India” for the title of the book pointing to instances of intolerance manifesting in the country, with vigilantes killing people for what they eat or speak.

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Gauri’s talks on Veerashaivas and Lingayats, sects who worship Hindu god Shiva and constitute the largest community in the southern state, and her opposition to the emergence of right-wing fundamentalism in Karnataka earned her more foes, the author notes.

While Lingayats, followers of the 12th century social reformer Basava, oppose idol worship and the caste structure, Veerashaivas follow the Hindu “peethas” (religious centres), Vedic texts and caste systems prescribed in them.

“A riled-up conservative gathering had shouted her down during a speech she was delivering on Lingayatism…which, she and few scholars argued, was a separate religion,” Rajghatta writes.

Recalling a conversation Gauri had with him on what Kalburgi, who also wrote on Lingayats being separate from Hindus, once told her, the author writes: “‘What you said is correct, don’t be afraid to voice your ideas.’ ‘He encouraged me’, Gauri would write later. What she didn’t know at that time was that voicing their ideas would cost them both their lives,” Rajghatta said.

“The fundamental message in Gauri’s life was that any disagreement should be agreeable; it is not worth taking anyone’s life over a difference of opinion, no matter how strongly held,” Rajghatta writes.

(Bhavana Akella can be contacted at [email protected])

–IANS

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