“Iss muskaan mein aasha hai (There is hope in this smile),” said Kanhaiya Kumar of JNU, pointing to the cover of The Way I See It: A Gauri Lankesh Reader, “This book has been in my car for some days now. And while I’m a reluctant reader, I like to look at Gauri’s smiling face on the cover.”
A group of ‘anti-nationals’ gathered on 1 December 2017 to commemorate the launch of a collection of writings of late journalist Gauri Lankesh—to discuss the way she saw the world, and the way they saw her. The site of ‘resistance’ was the most befitting for the occasion, the Indian Women’s Press Corps. On this ‘occasion of joy’ (as lawyer Karuna Nundy observed), more people came than could be seated. So, they stood. For Gauri Lankesh.
Right at the start, Umar Khalid of JNU quipped on the larger-than-life nature of Gauri, “Itni badi zindagi ko ek kitaab mein laana bahut mushkil hai … lekin yeh humaari zimmedaari hai ki hum inki zindagi ko jaane, samjhe.” (It is very difficult to bring together such a large life within the confines of a book … but it is our responsibility to know her life, to understand it.) This book is an exercise in fulfilling such a responsibility. It is for us to voice our concern about the present state of the nation, just as Gauri did; to display, as Umar stated, ‘a strong commitment for and a strong commitment against’ certain ideals, just as Gauri did; to smile through it all, as Gauri did; so that there comes a time when nobody must die as Gauri did, for putting up a fight against what’s wrong. The killing of Gauri Lankesh was an act of terror. The challenge in front of us is not to get terrorised.
As the writer of this piece sat behind The Wire Hindi’s reporter Prashant Kanojia’s live streaming device, he bore witness to both sides—the celebration of Gauri’s life in the panel discussion, and the celebration of Gauri’s death in some of the comments of the live streaming link on Facebook. One comment read, “Gauri dogli thi aur yeh saale uske aulad hai mc.” (Gauri was a hypocrite, and these two are her sons.) This user was right about one thing. Umar and Kanhaiya are indeed Gauri’s sons—she called both of them her ‘beta’ and wrote that ‘the rest of the youth should strive to be like’ them—‘true patriots.’ Kanhaiya and Umar shared their most personal anecdotes of Gauri—how she would fund a poor scholar in JNU’s trip abroad, call a friend to donate money for a dalit girl’s education, how she made it a point to check up on them when they were receiving death threats, but never mentioned the threats to her own life.
“The same gun that took Kalburgi’s life took Gauri’s. The fear still persists,” Umar notes. “Tomorrow, someone could kill me or Kanhaiya, and there would be celebrations across the country.” Another Facebook comment turns up on Prashant’s screen at this time, ‘Rest in Peace,’ bearing out comedian Sanjay Rajoura’s lament that the pattern—of silencing voices—established by those in power is set to continue. It is the fear of being silenced that needs to be overcome. Gauri’s writings are a ready resource in this struggle. As Kanhaiya expressed it, “The ruling party knows that 31 per cent of the vote went its way and is probably secure there; but Gauri knew that the remaining 69 per cent could find synergy and speak out if they chose to do so. Gathered together in her memory, whether we regard ourselves liberal, Ambedkarite, Communist, feminist, or by another label, we reflect her effort to build such unity.”
Gauri’s openness helped her to make friends easily wherever she went, and she continues to make new friends today. The panellists who hadn’t had the chance to meet Gauri nonetheless had a lot to say about what she meant to them. The publisher S. Anand, who knew her a little, came to know her anew in the process of publishing this book and described the woman he was now rediscovering as a ‘quintessential liberal’ who ‘asserted her right to provoke’. Karuna Nundy ‘felt Gauri’s presence’ with her as she read her writings and ‘got to know her’ truly, shuttling with the book between court hearings and meetings. Gauri’s love of life and open embrace of people, her ability to put faces and personal histories to ideas, created this intimacy. Nundy spoke of how she cherishes whatever ‘slivers’ of connection she can find with the writer of these pieces; such as finding that they shared a friend. Manisha Sethi from Jamia Millia Islamia thought that ‘the book brings Gauri alive for the reader,’—her courage, her empathy, her great joy, her sense of community, and more importantly, ‘her irreverence about everything, more importantly, about herself.’ Gauri’s dauntless plain-speaking often led her to the truth before it gained public acknowledgement. Sethi recalled how Gauri was among the first to recognise and call out acts of Hindutva terror, at a time when most journalists fought shy of making the connection. She was anything but dogli. In life, Gauri brought everyone she knew closer through these attributes; as in death, she continues to bring people together, like today.
It is important for all of us to befriend Gauri—to get to know her, to understand what she stood for, and to stand with and for her. This book is a start.
(Navayana regrets that the footage of what Karuna Nundy and Manisha Sethi said on the occasion could not be made available via The Wire–Hindi which streamed the event live)