NEW YORK – Even as India celebrated the elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman, only the second woman ever to hold the Indian Defence ministry portfolio after the late prime minister Indira Gandhi, it’s been shocked by the murder of a woman journalist, Gauri Lankesh.
The murder of the Bengaluru-based Lankesh, with the suspect(s) still at large, has brought international shame upon the country, close to the annual United Nations General Assembly session in New York, where no doubt detractors will gouge out growing egregious human rights violations in India.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 27 journalists have been killed in India since 1992. Only one of the killers has been convicted. According to the World Press Freedom Index, India fell three points in 2017, ranking 136 out of 180 countries.
Protests have begun to spread outside of India, too, in disgust at the murder of Lankesh, a vocal critic of the ruling BJP government.
BBC reported some members of the Indian diaspora gathered outside the Indian High Commission in London, on Friday, to protest against the murder of Lankesh, who edited a popular Kannadiga tabloid called Gauri Lankesh Patrike.
Members of Indian Workers Association (IWA) and Southall Black Sisters held portraits of Lankesh, who was shot dead outside her home in Bengaluru earlier this week.
“Our key message is one of solidarity and an end to the intolerance that is on the rise: the killing of people and the attempts to prevent the battle of ideas … But no form of extremism can stop the march of ideas and democracy,” said Harsev Bains of the IWA, which submitted a letter to the High Commissioner.
The Indian Journalist Association of Europe expressed concern about the recent murders of 11 journalists in India in the past 39 months.
“Freedom of expression which includes the right of newspersons to discharge their duties without fear, is sacrosanct in the Constitution. We call upon all concerned in India to bring to book perpetrators of such crimes and to prevent these incidents,” said IJAE president Ashis Ray.
The media in the US came down hard on the Narendra Modi government, for its silence on the issue.
The New York Times Editorial Board called the murder as “hallmarks of a hit job.”
The Times also wrote about other high-profile murders of Indian activists in the recent past: Narendra Dabholkar, whose campaigns against superstitious practices angered many Hindu religious activists, was shot to death near his home in Pune in 2013. Two years ago, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, a former vice chancellor of Kannada University who spent decades debunking peddlers of superstition, was fatally shot in his home in Dharwad.
“If Mr. Modi doesn’t condemn her murder forcefully and denounce the harassment and threats that critics of Hindu militancy face daily, more critics will live in fear of deadly reprisal and Indian democracy will see dark days,” wrote the Times Editorial Board.
The Washington Post quoted Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of online news outlet the Wire, as saying: “I think there should be no doubt in our mind that she has been killed because of her work as a journalist.”
Varadarajan said that police officers did not properly investigate the other deaths and that the failure encouraged those who killed Lankesh.
The U.S. Embassy in India made its position clear by issuing 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.”
Mari Marcel Thekaekara, a human rights activist and writer based in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu, writing in the Guardian, raked up also the ongoing atrocities against Muslims in India, narrating the murder of Junaid, a 16-year-old Muslim youth recently stabbed more than 30 times on a public train when he had gone out to buy festive clothes for Eid.
Thekaekara had hope that India will not let the murder of Lankesh go in vain.
“India’s supreme court has just ordered all states and union territories to appoint police officers in every district to track down and prosecute cow vigilante groups. Perhaps sanity will be restored. Perhaps peace will return to this beleaguered nation again. Perhaps Lankesh and the martyrs who preceded her will not have died in vain,” she wrote.
The press in India has come out strongly against the murder of Lankesh, promised to keep her legacy alive.
“They want us to be intimidated,” Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, former editor of the academic journal Economic and Political Weekly, said, speaking at the Press Club, reported The Washington Post. “I hope that a thousand Gauri Lankeshes will be born and will rise among us.”
The atrocities against minorities and the marginalized in India have been churned up by Arundhati Roy in her novel, ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,’ which for long stretches reads more like a chilling non-fiction account of mob rule, rampant Hindutva and riots in India.
The killing of Lankesh is yet another blemish for India, which may, however not go away easily.
It’s turning out to be a bad year for the BJP government, with news of growing unemployment, a stagnant economy, and tragic incidents piling up, including the terrible deaths of children at a hospital in Gorakhpur for lack of Oxygen, and train accidents.
If Modi is not careful, the Lankesh murder may well become a clarion call for change in India. Political, or otherwise. There is only that much voters can take.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)