NEW DELHI – The killing of a prominent journalist and government critic outside her home in Bangalore prompted protests in major Indian cities Wednesday and a national uproar about the shrinking space for free speech in the world’s most populous democracy.
Gauri Lankesh, 55, was shot in the head and chest Tuesday on her doorstep by motorcycle-riding gunmen. Police have said it is too early to comment on a possible motive for the killing.
The activist was given a state funeral in Bangalore, where her body was displayed in a glass case adorned with marigolds.
Activists gathered at the Press Club in New Delhi and in cities across India holding signs that read “#IamGauri,” and “Who is next?” They shouted the slogan: “May Gauri Lankesh remain immortal.”
The murder was condemned by organizations such as Amnesty International. The U.S. Embassy in India said in a statement: “The U.S. Mission in India joins advocates of press freedom in India and worldwide in condemning the murder of respected journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore. We offer our sincere condolences to the family, friends, and colleagues of Ms. Lankesh.”
Though police have not yet identified any suspects, Lankesh’s death is widely being attributed to her work as a journalist and activist.
“They want us to be intimidated,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, former editor of academic journal Economic and Political Weekly, speaking at the Press Club. “I hope that a thousand Gauri Lankeshs will be born and will rise among us.”
Lankesh was a vocal critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the rising far-right Hindu nationalism associated with his party. Her death is reminiscent of a string of recent killings that targeted leftist academics and scholars, activists said. They compared Lankesh with Malleshappa Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar, both noted rationalist thinkers who were killed recently.
Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of online news portal The Wire, said, “I think there should be no doubt in our mind that she has been killed because of her work as a journalist.” He said the police failed to properly investigate the deaths of Kalburgi and Dabholkar and that the failure encouraged those who killed Lankesh.
According to the World Press Freedom Index, India fell three points in 2017, ranking 136 out of 180 countries. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 27 journalists have been murdered since 1992.
Lankesh’s killing is the most high profile in recent years. She edited a popular regional tabloid called Gauri Lankesh Patrike, known for its irreverence toward politicians and its coverage of issues that affected the most marginalized sections of society.
“She was very respected and well-known,” said Ramesh Aroli, who teaches journalism at Kamala Nehru College at the University of Delhi and who is writing a doctoral thesis on Lankesh Patrike. “People used to call her office to complain about corrupt politicians.”
Lankesh Patrike was started by Gauri’s father, P. Lankesh, a poet and literary giant in Karnataka. When it first came out in the 1980s, the publication dramatically altered the regional media scene, poking fun at politicians and spotlighting issues that mattered to the rural and semi-urban populations of the state, rather than catering to city dwellers.
Lankesh inherited the paper in 2000 when her father died. But differences with her brother resulted in a split, and in 2005 Lankesh started her own publication. This week’s issue carried a cover story about a former chief minister of Karnataka, B.S. Yeddyurappa, who had previously been arrested for a corruption scandal, with a headline that read, “Once again, the fear of jail.”
Lankesh’s recalcitrant stories had prompted death threats and abuses on social media and on the phone, friends said. In November 2016, she was convicted of defamation, a criminal charge in India, after she ran a story alleging that leaders of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party were involved in a scam to cheat a local jeweler.
“She was not an intellectual like her father per se,” said Umapathy, a journalist and friend of Lankesh’s, who only goes by one name. “But she was a firebrand activist, much more so than her father was.”
At the press club in New Delhi, people paid tributes to Lankesh’s work on behalf of people historically underrepresented in India: women, those in low castes and the poor. A student activist recalled how Lankesh had donated her own money to help a struggling fellow student to pay for his studies abroad.
Close friends of Lankesh’s expressed disbelief at the news of her death. “I wish it was a dream,” said Bharathi Gowda, who knew Lankesh for three decades. “Her family is in shock.”