Murder in My Backyard

Three evenings ago, at around 8 pm, Gauri Lankesh, a fearless journalist, was shot dead by unknown assailants, just as she was getting into her house in Bengaluru. In the last three days now, there have been protest across the country against the killing, against forces that silence those who are critical of bigotry, communalism, casteism and fundamentalism of various hues, against especially the politics of hate triggered by right wing nationalists.

Gauri was a courageous, energetic and warm-hearted person. She was highly opinionated, too, and raged against all forms of oppression and violence. Firing on all cylinders she worked relentlessly, taking on communal forces and interacting with and trying to knit together what she called ‘like-minded’ people who worked towards building a society free of caste, communal, religious and gender discrimination and oppression: a just and fair and free society. She was a dreamer and she was impatient.

The government has put in place a special investigation team to find the cause of her murder and catch the killers. Meanwhile, two strong theories are in circulation concerning the likely cause of her murder and identity of her killers. The social and visual medias are agog over these conspiracy theories.

  • One, she was punished by Naxalites for having lured some of its comrades into joining the mainstream, so she had to be stopped.
  • Two, she attacked and provoked right wing party members too often and too severely, so she had to be silenced.

The first one is most unlikely. But whatever the cause and whoever the killers we cannot hope to learn about them anytime soon. The murder cases of M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dhabolkar remain unsolved to this day. But one thing we know for sure and that is, Gauri, like Kalburgi and the two others, was a victim of ideology. She was a fierce ideologue herself, and was killed by opposing ideologues. Fighting against the politics of hate she became its victim. There is more than a mere irony played out here.

We have become creatures born of ideas. We breathe, eat and live ideas and kill for ideas. Over the centuries we have changed in many ways, but have never stopped killing. If we don’t kill for personal reasons, we kill, slaughter in loyalty to a jealous god, country, political and religious beliefs, what would otherwise be called as ‘transpersonal ideals’; the killing never stops.

When I heard that Gauri was shot dead, I felt I heard the sound of bullets in my backyard and it singed my heart. Killings, murders usually took place in far off places and the victims were known but were not friends. You raged against such killings and did what you could, but never felt this pain, this agony, this unbearable loss. It’s like a wound and it bleeds pain and fear. It’s in my backyard, this thing, that kills and destroys. It may sneak in through the backdoor, or come crashing through the front door. You never know.

No. It’s not as if you never knew or that you were so stupidly ignorant. You knew it all along, but when you see it, this poison tree, grown so huge and intimidating and toxic, you shudder. Just as I was finishing this line, William Blakes’s poem Poison Tree flashed in my mind. Strange, but in many ways the poem seems to summarise my dilemma and anxiety. Or, does it? I remember teaching the poem to Arts Degree students, years ago.

A couple of months back, Gauri was at our place. She wanted a break from her hectic schedule, but her phone kept ringing every now and then. She enjoyed the walk through the trees, though, with her sister and her nieces, climbed rocks, though, at times, she appeared like a little gazelle lost in woods.

Come evening, we sat on the lawns, chatting over a drink. The chat meandered through many different lanes and by lanes of politics and culture and that spilled over well into the middle of the night. She was, as usual, sharp and quick and exuded great confidence and energy. I was troubled by her strong, unforgiving positions with regard to the politics of caste and communalism. The political notion of ‘enemy’ is hugely problematic and so I tried to bring into the conversation the need for Gandhian approach to conflict resolution, along with Ambedkar’s revolutionary politics in the fight against the growing ‘fascist’ trends. When we stood up to go in for dinner, it was past midnight, and only now we felt the tremendous silence of the hills that lay about us like a dispassionate witness.

Her father, the late Lankesh, who was a famous Kannada writer and journalist, who is a house-hold name in Karnataka even today, was my teacher at the Bangalore University. He admired Gandhi, loved William Blake and was fond of D.H. Lawrence. Gauri was like her father in many ways: fearless, forthright, even rude but always truthful. How I wish we could carry on the conversation from where we had left that night, and at some point, discuss Blake yet again. I wonder what Gauri would have said of the poem A Poison Tree today.

I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,

Night & morning with my tears:

And I sunned it with smiles,

And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,

When the night had veiled the pole;

In the morning glad I see;

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.