Two years after killing of Gauri Lankesh: ‘Her voice is still here. She has not been forgotten’

Amrita Dutta
A sibling remembers Kavitha Lankesh at her home.

Has the investigation into Gauri Lankesh s death and the arrests of 16 people brought a sense of closure?

I think the Karnataka Special Investigation Team has done an excellent job. In the initial months, we didn t have any hope at all. But after the first arrest, it moved quite fast. From this investigation, we also have a lead for the Kalburgi murder (According to the police, Ganesh Miskin, the man who drove Lankesh s killer to her house on September 5, 2017, also shot Lingayat scholar MM Kalburgi on August 30, 2015). Now we have to push the public prosecutor. If they do not argue well at the trial, it can reach a dead end. I still can t say we have got justice. We won t get my sister back. But if the killers are punished, they will know that they can t getaway.

The investigation has revealed a far-right conspiracy to target those against Hinduism. Were you surprised by it?

That somebody could kill because of Hinduism was shocking. First of all, I hadn t heard of the Sanatan Sanstha or the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti before. Those involved come from lower-middle class families, not very educated. But their minds were poisoned. They were made to think it was patriotic (to kill), that they were saving Hindus. Apparently, Parashuram Waghmore, who shot her, didn t even know she was a journalist. He was made to see a video on loop, in which she criticises Hindutva ideology, and speaks of Dalit-Muslim unity and their empowerment. That made him angry enough to kill her. She was an easy target. She lived alone, in a quiet place. They took six months to plan. But to do that would have taken a lot of money. The two masterminds, who brainwashed the men and funded the killing, are still at large. I keep telling the police that your job is still not done.

How aware was Gauri about the threats of communalism?

She was very aware. She would tell us, but then we would all tell her to shut up about politics (laughs). We didn t know it was that dangerous. We didn t think she was that big a person. She was an activist and journalist. But why would she be killed? And we come from Lankesh s (writer and newspaper editor P Lankesh) family. He brought down governments through his writing. But there was no enmity, no threat. Now, my daughter and friends tell me, Don t say anything on social media. Anyone who is against the BJP and RSS is called anti-national now. People are openly making pisive speeches without any fear. Someone like (Bhopal MP) Pragya Thakur, what happened to the promise of taking action against her?

Have you changed a lot in two years?

Yes, absolutely. Otherwise, I wouldn t have known who Pragya Thakur was (laughs). The first few weeks, I didn t open the newspapers or watch TV because they kept showing those violent images. After sometime, people started inviting me to speak. I spoke more about Gauri the person. But I slowly started becoming more political. I am still not an activist. Sometimes, I wish I was as ignorant as before. It is very disheartening, very upsetting. To see the religious bigotry, to see the silencing of people who speak up. Before, I was known as a filmmaker. Now, they call me Gauri Lankesh s sister.

Has your family become more fearful?

In the first six months, somebody would park a bike next to the house, and my heart would miss a beat.

Looking back, why do you think Gauri was a threat to her killers?

Earlier, when my father protested for the farmers or the Khadi industry, everyone would turn up filmmakers, artists, theatre persons, writers. Now, each one is fighting her own battle. It doesn t become a larger battle.
Gauri was, perhaps, a threat because she connected a lot of people; she brought Dalits, Christians and Muslims together. She tried to convince the Naxalites to join the mainstream, to fight without arms. In urban India, people think Naxalism is terrorism. They say, Oh she supported Naxalites But do they know what many Naxalites are fighting for? For land rights, for equality. Nothing they know.

Tell me about growing up together.

Gauri was the first rebel in the house, and so she paved the way for me. She went against arranged marriage, or the idea that you could become only doctors or engineers. We always read a lot. My father would not buy us clothes, but he would give us a blank cheque to buy books. We would read and go to sleep every night, whether it was (PG) Wodehouse or Somerset Maugham. She was always a fighter, even when we were children. But she was also a peacemaker. My mom and I used to have many differences. She was the only one who could handle us together. Now, my daughter has taken that place. People would often confuse us because we looked similar. I would go to a function and they would describe me as an activist. They would ask her what her next movie is about. When she died, many newspapers carried my pictures. It s been an intertwined life; we were more like twins. She would visit us every weekend, to meet my daughter. She was home till Sunday, two days before her death. I would drop off some food for her because she lived alone. The day she was killed, that food was in her car. As someone from English journalism, how difficult was it for her when she came back to Bengaluru from Delhi to keep the paper going?
She d write in English and then it would be translated into Kannada. But then, in two years, her Kannada was good enough for her to proof the proofreader. It was difficult but she found immense joy in it. Because she was reaching out to the grassroots. She would come back from her movements, and tell us the funny stories. How she sneaked in booze to the Chikmagalur jail during the Baba Budangiri movement; how she had gone prepared, with bedsheets for everybody to spend the night in the police station.

What would she have thought of you today?

She would tell me to come to the umpteen Town Hall protests she attended and which I had no time for. But finally, because of her, I got arrested (chuckles). Three months after her death, our team staged a protest to pressure the government. Suddenly, the police rounded us off in buses, and dropped us off to a police station for a while. We drank tea, sang songs and they let us go. She must have been happy that I have finally done something of value. If she were around, maybe we would have had more discussions. I would have allowed her to speak.

How have you coped in the last two years?

There is a personal loss. An emptiness which strikes you at odd times, many times in a day. But, at the same time, now that I am attending these events; it is as if her voice is still there. Like you, every week someone comes to interview me about her. It makes me feel as if she is still there, at least in spirit. She has not been forgotten. That doesn t lessen the pain, but lessens the loss in a certain way.

What were her views on religion?

She read the Quran, read about Buddhism, Hinduism, and the vachanas. She was more of an atheist. She was not against any religion. But she hated the imposition of one religion, the crushing of persity. She was happy if the RSS was angered by her advocacy of rights. In 2006, she was attacked at a literary meet at Shimoga in Karnataka. She was proud of it. I don t think she wanted to go with a whimper.

How do you wish to remember her?

As someone full of life. The investigation team told me that your sister is a great soul, because her death stopped so many other people on that hitlist being killed. That makes you feel her death didn t go in vain.

What do you think of the ideology that killed her?

It is nothing but Hindutva terrorism. The politicians have brought this hate into our lives. There was a lot of anger against the killers, but also some kind of pity. They are so misguided. I haven t been able to attend the trial, though. I am not sure I can face them.