In the last two weeks two Indian journalists have been brutally killed. A political reporter was beaten to death while covering political unrest in the North East on 21 September.
And just 2 weeks before that, fearless journalist, Gauri Lankesh, was murdered.
She was known for her critical stance against Hindu nationalists and the ruling establishment.
Bismillah Geelani reports, that many are blaming Hindu extremist groups for her murder.
At a public meeting in New Delhi, senior journalist Gauri Lankesh is expressing her concern about the shrinking space for dissent in her home state Karnataka, and in the country at large.
That was in March this year.
Lankesh remembered some rationalist thinkers who were recently been killed for their nonconformist views.
She had no idea she would be next.
Earlier this month, 55-year-old Gauri Lankesh was found lying in a pool of blood outside her home in the southern city of Bangaluru.
Sunil Kumar, Police Commissioner of Bangluru says a CCTV camera at Lankesh’s house captured the gruesome killing.
“The footage shows one individual firing at her when she was walking to her house and when she collapses after getting injured this fellow walks away,” Kumar related. “This person has been captured in camera but he is wearing a helmet covering his face totally.”
The news of Lankesh’s murder spread like wildfire. People took to the streets in several cities, condemning the killing and demanding accountability.
Thirty two-year-old journalist, Sandhia Chander joined the protest in New Delhi.
“It is a situation of fear the journalists are working and operating in, we are often being abused and attacked on social media but now the danger, the gunshots have come to our doorstep and it is high time that journalists in the country stand united and demand that the government provide us with the complete right to freedom of speech and expression and allow us to carry out our duty with complete protection,” Chander stated.
Gauri Lankesh was known for her outspoken, liberal and anti-establishment views.
She was a staunch critic of the Hindu nationalist politics and used her Kannad language weekly newspaper Gauri Lankesh Patrike to advocate the causes of Dalits and other marginalized groups.
Her scathing attacks on Hindu extremist groups and the BJP government won her many admirers and enemies alike.
As threats mounted, Lankesh’s friends, like KM Chetanya, tried to persuade her to tone down.
“In the last 3-4 years the attacks had become very vicious. But she said that she is not offending anyone, she is not advocating any kind of violence, she is just speaking her mind and she has a right to speak her mind.”
He continued, “so she said there is no way she’s going to hold back on what she thought was the truth.”
Police haven’t found any clues to Lankesh’s killers. But many people have their own suspicions.
Hindu extremists celebrated her murder on social media, abusing and insulting her even after death.
Senior journalist Siddharth Vardarajan says for many it seems an obvious connection.
“There is, at one level, the guilt of those who pull the trigger and organize the killing, and there is the guilt of those who would love to have seen her dead and these people are not hiding what they believe and their glee is all over the social media today,” he said.
“So it is not difficult for any reasonable person to connect the dots in the way people are connecting.”
The main opposition party says it comes from higher up. They’re blaming the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), both Hindu Nationalist groups.
“It’s a philosophy, anybody who speaks against the ideology of the BJP and the RSS, is pressured, beaten, attacked and even killed,” stated Rahul Gandhi, Vice President of opposition party, Indian National Congress.
“The idea is there should only be one voice in this country.”
But the BJP has hit back, holding the Kartnataka state government, headed by the Congress party, responsible.
“If she was a brave journalist and expressed her views fearlessly why didn’t the state government protect her? Why wasn’t she given security?” demanded Yogesh Verma, spokesperson for the BJP.
“This is simply an attempt to defame right wing groups and derail the investigation.”
Whoever killed Gauri Lankesh, the fact remains that India is among the most dangerous countries for journalists.
According to not-for-profit media watchdog, The Hoot, Indian journalists have been attacked 54 times in less than 2 years.
In the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, India ranked 136 out of 180 countries, that is, below neighboring Nepal and Afghanistan.
“As an Indian I feel embarrassed that even a war-torn Afghanistan has been ranked above us,” said political analyst, Javed Ansari.
“Journalists are safer in war-torn Afghanistan than in a democracy, in India. There cannot be a worse commentary on the state of affairs here.”
But senior journalist Siddharth Vardarajan believes, journalists themselves, at least partly, are responsible for the worsening situation of press freedom in India.
“You have a situation today where important sections of the media, big channels believe it’s more important for journalists to support whatever stuff the government puts out and to attack those who are criticizing the government,” he explained.
“If that’s going to be the media culture then I’m afraid people like Gauri Lankesh will stand out like a sore thumb and it will be easy for the enemies of democracy to pick them out and shoot them, which is what they did with her.”