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Gauri Lankesh, fundamentally

September 12, 2017


IT is an easy explanation for her death at the hands of suspected Hindu extremists that Gauri Lankesh stood for secularism, gender equality and a host of human rights, which offended her foes. These are all laudable causes associated with Indian liberals who oppose Hindutva.

However, few from this club have truly targeted the right-wing quarry’s beating heart as Lankesh and her ideological soulmates did. And they did it by rejecting their Hindu identity. That is by far the bigger challenge for Hindutva — people disowning their Hindu identity. Muslim- and Christian-baiting is a means to dealing with this potentially insurmountable challenge. Lankesh and her fellow apostates, if that is the word, include, but are not confined to, social reformers in the Lingayat community of rationalists and Shiva mystics that are common in southern India.

Unlike many of her grieving supporters, Lankesh’s sympathy for causes she embraced was firmly aligned with her aloofness from Hinduism, which goes beyond the fact that she was buried and not cremated. Let us stay with the crucial point. Lalu Yadav, Sitaram Yechury, Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi are perceived as ideologically disparate politicians fighting Hindutva in their different ways. In their opposition to the extremists, they indeed reject Hindu majoritarianism as well. But they do not disown the popular perception (or reality) that they belong to the religious or cultural majority, which their Hindu identity constitutes.

Lankesh saw Hinduism not as a religion open to change but as a hidebound hierarchy ranged against women and the lower tiers of society.

They may see themselves as good, kindly, or even atheist and non-practising Hindus, followers of Nehru, perhaps, or Bertrand Russell or even Karl Marx. Yet, for better or worse they would perhaps struggle to denounce their Hindu identity, as Lankesh did, be it for political expediency or by cultural reasoning.

Communist cadres carrying Ganpati idols in Kerala in recent years offer as good an evidence as any that being overtly Hindu may have become a political requirement in this era of religious surge that shapes the new identity politics. Hindutva seems to have sent devout Marxists cartwheeling, grudgingly, hopefully, towards religion, a paradox of sorts.  Right-wing groupies may deride admirers of Lankesh as anti-Hindu but her liberal supporters do not, in their own reasoning, see the Hindu identity as problematic, which Ambedkar and Gauri Lankesh, among others, did.

Lankesh saw Hinduism not as a religion open to change but as a hidebound hierarchy ranged against women and the lower tiers of society. Which is more or less how her liberal admirers may also see it. The difference is that she underscored her non-Hindu minority identity in the battle with Hindutva. And, for rejecting that identity, from the perspective of her right-wing foes, she became an apostate worthy of matching retribution.

Consider this: The clarion call of Hindutva is: “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain.” (Own your Hindu identity with pride.) And what was Lankesh saying? “I am not a Hindu.”

Ideally, there should be no column for apostasy in a multifaceted system of beliefs that Hinduism has so far spawned. Apostasy is thus not a term that should lend itself to Hinduism.

To be sure, apostates have been a feature almost exclusively within Semitic religions in which there is one God, one Satan and one Book. I once unburdened on Shimon Peres my knowledge of Judaism, which I had picked up from The Ten Commandments, the movie about Moses. I asked him why Israel, which should follow the tenet ‘Though shalt not kill’, does just the opposite with the Palestinians. Peres, who was visiting Delhi as deputy prime minister of Israel, cleverly dodged the question, and said a brilliant mind like Einstein’s could be snuffed out with a bullet. And a brilliant mind needed to be protected, with force if necessary.

A less contrived answer would be that killing fellow humans is not entirely forbidden for Jews, regardless of a commandment they were handed. The Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah and the Christian Old Testament, decrees death for apostates though it may be no longer practised. “And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken perversion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…”

Accusations of apostasy and blasphemy, now routinely punishable by mob justice, have become a cottage industry in many Muslim countries. That’s what Fahmida Riaz was trying to alert her Indians friends about: “Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley/Ab tak kahaan chhupey thay bhai?” (You’ve turned out to be just like us [in troubled Pakistan]. Where were you hiding all this while, brother?)

The secular-communal binary, shared enthusiastically by Lankesh’s liberal admirers, was not her winning card, however. If recent history is anything to go by, we can see that the more vociferous the call for secularism the greater the victory graph of the communalists becomes. Ambedkar had warned against the trick. But he also gave the antidote, emphasising that Hinduism is constructed around self-absorbed castes that have little in common with each other except when there is anti-Muslim violence. Muslims provide traction to Hindutva and vanquishing an entire community may not necessarily be the chief aim of the extremists. The real objective, in Gauri Lankesh’s view, as I understood her, was her fear of the subjugation of the vast and potentially intractable majority of Hindus by the elite, splintered as they are into mutually exclusive castes. 

The impact of Lankesh’s ideas could go beyond the fact that she challenged Hinduism. A less consolidated Hindu identity was possible had Ambedkar won his battle with Gandhi’s notion of a benign Hindu-Muslim binary. It would then perhaps be a struggle to forge a hastily assembled counter identity of Indian Muslims. Had Lankesh been around to assist Ambedkar before partition she would have challenged Jinnah and Gandhi alike.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2017