Fearless journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh was assassinated on September 5, 2017. But long before she was gunned down at her doorstep, she had faced multiple threats. Gauri Lankesh, who would have turned 60 on January 29, 2022, was one of the biggest examples of the State’s failure to take violent threats against journalists and activists seriously. Today, the threats have only grown more vicious and more frequent.
There is a massive surge in threats to journalists and activists online, particularly those who are Muslim women. While repeated anti-Muslim genocidal calls are given, most of the hate mongers get away with it. ‘Hate as a State Project’, a webinar organised by the Gauri Memorial Trust (GMT) and Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) to mark Gauri Lankesh’s 60th birth anniversary had the country’s leading journalists and activists illustrate how vilification was being supported by inaction.
Literary critic and cultural activist Ganesh Devy delivered the opening remarks detailing the theme and introducing the participants. The Gauri Memorial Lectures were delivered by Prof. A Narayana, Dept of Political Philosophy, Azim Premji University, and Teesta Setalvad, who apart from being journalist, human rights defender, educationist and secretary of CJP… was and is a close friend of Gauri Lankesh.
The widely attended panel discussion was moderated by by author and senior journalist Saba Naqvi ,who has herself found herself in the regime’s crosshairs on various occasions, and included Ismat Ara (Journalist, The Wire), Noor Mahvish (Law student), RJ Sayema (Radio Presenter, Artist ), and Safoora Zargar (Scholar and Activist). Each of the women have been targeted, time and again, for their rationalism and fearlessness. And then made to face a system that delays action against the hate offenders. Yet all of them bravely continue to raise their voices, inspired by women like Gauri Lankesh whose legacy of speaking out continues to be celebrated.
“What happens online can happen to you offline. What happened to Gauri Lankesh? It did start with threats,” student activist Safoora Zargar, recalled history to prove that online targeting and threats cannot be ignored as just being in the virtual world. Journalist Ismat Ara, said there was a “whole structure that is functioning” to fuel the online targeting of minorities and women, particularly Muslim women which is now at its worse for Muslim women activists and journalists, “We need to pull in all our forces and focus on a larger constructive outcome of our rage,” she said about being an ally.
“What started as intolerance of minorities and dissenters, has now grown into hate and open calls for violence and genocide. Those who use violence to exhort and mobilise people, will eventually face a day when language fails to do the trick and actual violence may be inevitable,” asserted academic A. Narayana. Journalist, activist, educationist Teesta Setalvad, who is chairperson, Gauri Memorial Trust, secretary of the CJP, added that Lankesh’s journalism exposed how hate had turned into a State project and she was herself a target of hate as both political and state project. Lankesh was killed allegedly by those inspired by teachings of a fanatic Hindutva organisation as she was considered “anti-Hindu”, police investigation claims.
Narayana, said any regime that comes to power on the plank of political mobilisation, will be forced to implement Hate as its policy, but there was a need to pause and reflect, “I am personally disappointed at how the legislature and political opposition has responded to an array of hate crimes from Sulli deals to the Haridwar Dharma Sansad,” however, he added that the bureaucracy’s role needs to be studied as well.
Setalvad added that “there has been a Stony, Rigid Silence again from the top political leadership of this country in power,” and asked if there had been enough voices of protest, of solidarity, of resistance rising? “Hate is today a State project in the country where the political formation in power, its vigilante organisations and brown shirts are mentally and physically armed through hate propaganda to harm the minorities, women and Dalits,” she said.
“I was an intern in 2017 when journalist Gauri Lankesh was assassinated, [and I] covered the protest against the killing. I asked myself if I was endangering myself too. It is difficult to be in the field today… Now when I have to talk to someone I just say I am calling from Delhi to ask for a quote. Try not giving my name,” said Ismat Ara on the many challenges a Muslim journalist faces. “When you’re a journalist and you have to talk to people, there is a chance that they might have seen those pictures of you. If there’s even a 0.01% chance of someone harassing me or attacking me in real life, then it’s not just online, it is very real,” added Ara.
Safoora Zargar, activist and scholar, pointed out that similar incidents had occurred preceding Gauri’s assassination. “Her harassment started with online threats, letters, emails and interactions. In fact, her last op-ed warns us of how a regime manufactures not misinformation, but intentional disinformation,” she said. Zargar said it was not just online trolling but normalising such things that come under the hate crime, “Threats of rape, calling of names and sharing of indecent pictures are done.”
Noor Mahvish recalled the uphill task of even reporting the threats she was subjected to. “It took multiple visits and reminders to file an FIR in Kolkata,” she recalled. Noor Mahvish further said, “They tell us that hijab is oppression or women are forced, but that is not a fact. I love wearing my hijab and no one has forced me. When I approached Kolkata police, they took a month to file an FIR, but online they are incredibly active.”
Gauri Lankesh’s assasination was a turning point for many activists and journalists across the country. “When Gauri Lankesh was killed, is when I realised things have gone out of hand,” recalled Radio jockey Sayema Rahman who has been raising the issues of targeted vilification vociferously online too, “We are not learning from History. Now the narrative has shifted, women have come out and are fighting the bigger battles of the state demonising the Muslim women in many ways. Our battle is being reduced to second class citizens.”
“There is no limit” said Zargar as she recalls the horror of how she was vilified during her arrest in the anti-CAA movement her subsequent release on bail, and the threats to rape that followed adding that she “refuses to be quiet about it. I have been vocal about what I have been going through. I refuse to normalise it. I am glad to see women outrage when S**li Deals Bu** B*it happened.”
“The task of a journalist, speaking truth to power invites trolling, hate. There is organised hate, genocide calls at the same time I too had to confront the objectifcaion of women,” said Naqvi who too was targeted by the anti Muslim hate campaigns and apps.
“All of us as civil society need to stand by the victims of hate,” said Setalvad, adding, “We need to understand the absence of institutional memory in the country. There are findings of many fact finding reports, but they were not acted on by the government.” She explained how hate slogans, hate speech by political leaders, Right Wing mobs have gone unpunished and public utterances of hate speech have grown, “For some decades before today, we have lived with Hate as Political Tool as shakha (branch) and party were used to sow seeds of division among Indians, on vicious religious lines. The othering took place at many levels, infantile story-telling, choked historical narratives shorn of rationality or nuance, masochist male superiority and caste pride all coalesced into creating cadres whose perverse lifestyles that encompassed a vision suited to promote, at all costs, a militarised theocratic state. This project is close to a century old.”
She added that now the galvanisation of hate, use and manipulation of media and social media by the State is also ominous, “There have been seminal studies done on this by Cambridge Analytica, Oxford and some Investigations by Wall Street Journal too. These display the manipulation of political attitudes and choices by Parties and Corporations in power through the Misuse of Privacy and Data.” She cited multiple examples of complaints made, and continued inaction by social media platforms such as Facebook, “Hate is a huge project for corporations. These links need to be factored in when we protest against hate.”
“The changing face of the Indian state is visible in its entirety now. For those of us who witnessed at close hand the Gujarat genocidal pogrom of 2002, February 2020 perfected the perversions of state inaction even more. Fortuitously the lives lost were less but the extent of the state’s abdication of constitutional duty was, in a sense, worse,” said Setalvad warning that the four stages prior to Genocide have already been breached. On some people being apprehended in cases related to the anti Muslim women apps, Ara said, “It is incredibly frustrating and angering. Catching five people and closing the case is not sustainable when it is a growing movement.”
The landmark webinar: Hate As A State Project may be viewed here: