Here be Dementors

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, and they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them. … Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory, will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself – soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

 

Last night, a journalist was shot dead in cold blood.

She was entering her home – the one place where each of us is entitled to feel we are safe from the pressures and cares of the workaday world. She was gunned down right there, at the threshold of her safe place. By persons who are as yet unknown, for motives that are as yet unclear.

And I sat up all night, because my own safe space – the mind – did not feel so safe anymore. It was filled with thoughts and feelings, with hurt and with anger, and none of it seemed to make sense any more.

Gauri Lankesh was a journalist, one of a select few whose work I have followed with admiration since I was a baby journalist seeking stars to plot my own course by. I’ve met her only twice, both times by happenstance, both times briefly – but that doesn’t dull the intensity of the grief I feel, and the rage, for she is her words, and it is through her words that I knew her, and her words were strong, and brave, and passionate. Now there is a black hole where a star used to be, and it has become just that bit harder to plot my own course.

Among the dozens who left comments on my Twitter feed last night, there was one who suggested that my reaction was so intense only because it happened to be a fellow journalist who had died, but what about Kerala? I blocked that person, as I blocked a couple of dozen others, because I wasn’t in the mood for whataboutism, for pointless point-scoring.

But afterwards, I found myself thinking about his words, wondering if there was truth to them. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” John Donne wrote, and that is fine and lofty if you are a poet, a philosopher. I am neither. My father passed away 21 years ago; my mother, four years ago; my aunt, the person who was a second mother to me when my own was off earning the means to put me through school and college, 10 months ago. Those wounds are fresh, those hurts cut deep, far deeper than any feelings caused by the many senseless deaths that have marked any 24-hour period in the months and years since. So maybe it is true; maybe you feel more intensely when the person cut down in her prime is one of your own – a family member, a professional peer, a friend you’ve broken bread with. And maybe that is just an integral part of being human.

But this morning the same question, seen through bleary eyes and a weary mind, produces a different answer. It is not that Gauri was a journalist, as I am; it is not that we were, to use the word loosely, peers. This dull ache, this directionless anger stems not from who she was, but what she was.

Gauri was a thinking, caring, reasoning individual, immersed in a world far larger than the one contained by the compound in which she was gunned down. She was a citizen of that larger world; its concerns were her concerns; its hurts and its angers were hers. Its faults and its fault-lines were her life-long preoccupations; the antidotes her constant area of study and introspection.

I read her writings; I agreed with some of her thoughts and disagreed with others. But even when I disagreed most vehemently, I could not help noting, and being inspired by, the courage of her convictions and her willingness to speak out, to put herself out there without fear.

Every civilization worth its place in the history books has been founded on the bedrock of speech, of debate and discussion, of disagreement, even. Just as every totalitarian regime confined to the dust heap of history has been characterized by the negation of that basic right, that ineluctable duty: free speech.

That is what Gauri was, in her essence – the principle of free, open, forthright words, made flesh. And that is what was gunned down last night – her words, and with them our freedom to fashion our own opinions, to frame our own thoughts, to articulate them without fear of reprisal.

There is a pattern playing out in our world today that is coldly calculated to stifle speech – and it is not restricted to India. Anyone who dares ask a question that inconveniences the powers that be, anyone who voices an opinion that differs from the echo chamber, is lit up with ruthless efficiency: fundamentalist, libtard, sickular, commie, pseudo-intellectual… The vocabulary of gaslighting is limitless, and vicious, and relentless.

For the establishment – the government and all its arms, for business houses intent on the bottom-line and the devil take the rest, and for their cheerleaders in the media — it is a calculated, cynical ploy. When a Donald Trump for instance talks of fake news, of this ‘failing’ newspaper and that ‘fake’ website, he seeks to distract from his inefficiencies, his failings, his serial lies and chicaneries. It is a well-thumbed playbook, even here at home, and its tactics have been systematically used by various governments down the years; what has changed in recent times is that practice has made perfect.

The danger stems from them, the pyromaniacs who seek to douse thought and light up those who dare speak. The dangerously incendiary rhetoric of those in power is amplified by the legions of the disaffected – the followers who, systematically desensitized by this ceaseless flow of vitriol, believe they are serving the cause of their ‘leaders’ and of the country itself when they lynch, and burn, and pump bullets into those who dare differ. That is the key to the strategy – by blurring the distinction between country and leader, a mindset is created wherein defending the leader becomes a patriotic duty.

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, an exasperated Henry II once asked in the midst of his conflict with Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was rhetoric, but it resulted in four of his courtiers murdering Beckett.

Today’s kings have surrounded themselves with equally amoral courtiers, willing to interpret every frown as a prompt for direct action. There is only one difference: King Henry later said he had never ordered Beckett’s death, but took the moral responsibility for it; today’s kings toss red meat to their base, then stand back and watch the deadly developments with a calculated, studied indifference.

And so a Narendra Dhabolkar is gunned down on his morning walk by two killers on a motorcycle. A Malleshappa Kalburgi opens the door to a knock – and is gunned down by two killers who flee on a motorcycle. A Gauri Lankesh is shot dead, outside her home, by murderers on motorcycles. A Ram Chander Chattrapati, who had the courage to take up the case of two women against a rapist masquerading as a godman when neither the government nor society would stand for them, is gunned down outside his house – by assassins on motorcycles.

Once, in words Ian Fleming put in the mouth of his most famous creation, is happenstance; twice is coincidence, thrice is enemy action. But who is the enemy? When Gauri was shot, fingers were pointed at the right wing, at the extreme left wing, at the BJP/RSS, at the Congress government in power in Karnataka, at Gauri’s brother…

Time will tell. But time already tells us one thing: The enemy is anyone who finds truth inconvenient; anyone who has anything to lose when truth outs. That is the world we have created for ourselves. Not so long ago, telling the truth about official malfeasance resulted in outrage and ended with the perpetrators being held accountable (Remember that the single reason for the Congress defeat in the 2014 election, to cite the most recent example, was corruption). Today, telling the truth results in whataboutery by armies of trolls paid to, with no sense of irony, attack ‘paid media’; in a numb indifference by the majority, and finally, in bullets pumped into the heart of that truth.

A brilliant teenager I know once said of the Harry Potter books that she saw them as more than fantasy; it is, she said, the lens through which she understands the world she lives in. Last night, as I re-read Azkaban, I finally understood what she meant – the Dementors of Rowling’s fiction are the demented who run riot today, the ones sucking out every good feeling and turning us, without our knowing, into replicas of themselves.

That same book also describes the antidote, the Patronus that we can summon if we are sensitive to the danger that threatens us. As I write this, people are gathering at various parts of the country to protest the killing of Gauri Lankesh, to demand justice. Protests are useful as an indicator that an atrocity has touched us, that we feel and we mourn and we seek justice. But they only go so far. We protest; our overlords look away; their foot-soldiers mock and ask, “ But where were you…?” and then we all go away.

There is only one true, lasting antidote. If the killings are intended to silence, then speech is the answer. Free, fearless, relentless speech, intended to hold power to account for its actions and inactions. If a Gauri Lankesh is gunned down because she spoke out, then the answer is for all of us to be Gauri Lankesh incarnate. To speak out – because silence is, ultimately, consent

RIP, Gauri. We will try not to let you down.

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30 thoughts on “Here be Dementors

  1. Enraged ,outraged and numb.
    In 2013 my friend had asked me why i was so firmly opposed to NaMo in spite of his excellent administrative record .My answer was two fold – firstly I didn’t want a modern day Macbeth ascend the throne- and secondly I was sure this man will, with his soul in captivity of his masters, will polarise this nation.The latter seems to be ominously coming true !

    • We’ll see, Shirish. I have more to say about polarisation, and intend that to be one of my forthcoming themes. But there is this: today there is an extreme left, and an extreme right, and these respective positions have hardened. But I believe that they are still the minorities — there is a vast middle, a section of people who want to live in peace, the best they can, who want to work hard and do well and live out their lives without disturbance. There are growing signs that this large section, the middle, is now increasingly disturbed by how events are shaping up. And every single time, it is when the middle loses its quiet apathy/indifference and becomes engaged, enraged, is when change happens. We’ll see, I guess. Meanwhile, thanks for reading; do come back once in a while as going forward, I will have a lot to say, and I hope to get feedback, questions, comments, suggestions. Thank you and be well.

  2. I read and then reread Prem Panicker’s thought-provoking tribute to Gauri Lankesh, and his reply to the first comment on it.

    I couldn’t agree more with the writer considering the reams and reams of virtual space (it couldn’t happen in print) being used to either spew venom or score points.

    One doesn’t need to be too discerning to see they have no genuine interest in the discourse they pretend to be critiquing. And often one also suspects that many of them have not even understood the matter in hand.

    This is why I now only skim through the so-called “reactions”, be they on my work or of others, and then only to make sure that I am not being targeted. Yes one can’t be too sure these days with the dementors lurking at every other corner, and whom one ignores only at one’s peril, at times even risking life and limb.

    Here I am reminded of a report about an old man who dared to question the wisdom of demonetization and for his trouble got dragged out of the queue and viciously roughed up by “Bhakts”. The message as often as not is, “Shut up, or else…”

    This then being increasingly a matter of life and death, means must quickly be devised to track them down, shame them publicly and ensure that the penalties are stiff and set longtime precedents.

    • Amiya, one of the few positive signs I see now is that increasingly, people are willing to take the legal option to deal with this, where earlier we dismissed it as “the lunatic fringe”. For instance, someone — who is “proud to be followed by Narendra Modi” — who used this as a peg to say that the same fate awaits Barkha, and Sagarika, Rana, and a half dozen other journalists, is now facing police action. I think the answer to what is going on is a mix of both — zero tolerance for abuse, and an increasing willingness to speak out about the issues of the day. Silence is no longer a viable option. I hope you will come back, since I intend to write regularly going forward; I hope you will participate in the discussion I hope to kick start here. Be well, take care.

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  5. A brilliant piece Prem. I did not know her at all but am filled with rage and a sense of impotence… No one should be allowed to forget this.

    • Thanks, Navaz (and hello, it’s been a long time). There are some signs that people are finally waking up to the need for speech. Gauri will, wherever she is, like that. I certainly intend to speak, more often, on this platform. Be well.

  6. Está faltando Deus. Pessoas ignoram e rejeitam o Criador e Mantenedor, ficam à mercê dos anjos caídos e sofrem as consequências. Existe um espaço no coração que só Deus preenche, se vc opta por manter Deus longe, Ele é cavalheiro e respeitará o livre arbítrio. Então não chore quando os anjos do dragão, Lúcifer, diabo, serpente, brincar com vc. Ele fere o coração de Deus qdo machuca um ser humano. Pessoas fazem escolhas: está com Deus ou com Satanás, não existe meio termo. Nessa luta( há uma luta pelo coração humano) vc está com Deus ou não, caso não, então vc está com Satanás. Ele odeia o ser humano, Deus nos ama, pois nos criou. É simples assim. Faça a sua escolha, caso não a faça, a resposta é certa. Não estando com Deus…

  7. In the end justice will prevail. Evil elements will perish, a society that does not stand against injustice will only decay. Nothing lasts forever all these terms may sound clichéd but time and again history has proved that what you sow you will reap. What you do unto others will come back to you. Gauri Lankesh’s death is proof of what is happening today. May justice prevail, her assassins bought to court. She has set a fine example may she find peace and help many in their calling be honest to their calling.

    • I hope so, Sunita. I very sincerely hope so. Because time is running out for all of us, and I dread what is at the end of this slippery slope we find ourselves on. Be well.

    • I intend this as the start of a dialogue, a discussion, of the many issues plaguing us today. I hope you will come back to read (I hope to be regular, as in an essay at least once every week) starting next week. And not only read, but voice your views, engage in the discussion, pull me up when I commit any fallacies, logical or otherwise. Thank you.

  8. I feel the evil taking action and the good being too good to play dirty killed Gauri and her likes. How did BJP ever win? The party that once murdered Gandhiji, the father of the nation. India was never a Hindu nation, the adivasis aren’t Hindu, and Jews lived in India before Jesus. So how did the king get elected? because people wanted to see change, no one wanted to be the change.

    • I would suggest you to get your facts right. BJP was founded on 6 April 1980. How can you say BJP murdered Gandhiji? Please do a favour to yourself by reading about Hinduism (Sanatam Dharma) before saying adivasis are not Hindu and India was never a Hindu nation.

    • When someone without the courage to use his identity, but hides behind a pseudonym and a fake address to question other people’s “manliness”, his words are his own best reply. So I will leave you with your own venom. As for Kerala, yeah, I WILL be writing about Kerala, soon, and I am guessing you won’t like it, but hey. Also, please be aware that any further abuse on here will result in the comment being deleted.

  9. Good police work in this murder investigation is absolutely necessary. A thorough search, apprehending, legal punishing has never been as important as now. Dangers to truth speakers in the future aside, a lady has lost her life, shot cruelly by haters. Nothing can return life, but the three or four masked men need to know they are going to be punished for this. I m not sure for the sanity of ideologies that have gotten this desperate – these ideologies will die in due course. But the only justice I want is those three-four men behind bars. Does India have capable cops left? Take your time, be meticulous, but don’t stop looking till you ve found her killers.

  10. That violence cannot be the answer should go unsaid.But hasn’t everything become partisan? Even deaths and rapes. I agree with what you have written but I have some questions.
    1)As you have written protests say a lot, so over the course of next few days you will see you this is confined to a few media outlets. My bet is Hindi and most language media other than Kannada will stay clear of it(evident today itself in the space given to the news in comparison to english papers).what does that say about protests? I feel they are justified.Especially as a bihari where journalists are continuously killed but no support comes,how can sympathies be extended?I have to ask why were alarm bells not raised when rajdev ranjan was murdered last year?
    2) I ask this sincerely, why is threats to freedom of press associated with only one party by the media?At the same time there is sympathetic view taken of lalu and mulayam?All the journalists who start shouting emergency and fascism at the slightest pretext never raised the alarm in the last decade on bihar and UP. Under such circumstances, how can the media expect support from people?
    3)Why should I not believe that the alarm has been raised ( rightly so) because the victim had a particular world view.That it will be absent when a lalu yadav or his son beat up a media person at the airport?( happened very recently and I did not hear a noise from the usual suspects, rather, they rejoiced).

    Finally, I think too many assumptions have been passed as facts since last evening and matter has already been made about you vs me?It is also surprising how little anyone has talked about law and order and police since yesterday?
    I hope justice is done quickly so that it acts as a deterrent.

    • 1. It is not an ideal situation, I agree. I can only say that it is humanly impossible for everyone to feel angry about, or sad about, every single thing, no matter how heinous. I had a sense of who Gauri was, so I could write about it and make some sense. I did not know Kalburgi or Pansare or Chatrapathi, so I didn’t write about those deaths, or about Ranjan, who you mention here. I can only hope that just as people who know Kalburgi wrote of him, or as people who knew Gauri wrote of her, no death will go unremarked and unmourned, and collectively, our testimonies will together become part of a larger whole, a bigger conversation.

      2. I have made this point before and I will make it again — I do not speak for “the media”, which in any case is not a singular entity controlled by a central secretariat. I have questioned the Congress when it has banned books, or when people have been killed on its watch, and now I question whoever the government is. I do however disagree with your point that no one has raised alarms over UP and Bihar and the rest of it — at various times, various sections of the media have. Which is how you actually know there is something wrong there, because it was reported somewhere or the other. And again, why sections of the media talk only of one party is not a question I can answer, any more than I can answer why every time something happens, another section of the media tries to equate it with what the Congress did in 1984 or whatever. I will answer — I CAN answer — only for myself, and my work.

      3. What you believe is entirely up to you. If that is what you believe after having seen and read whatever you have, why would I deny you that? Or oppose it? However, sorry, I did not see the media rejoice when someone beat up a journalist. Those journalists who I know and acknowledge as my peers will never do that.

      Frankly, too much of your questions are generalisations on the lines of “everyone said this” or “no one said that”, and I have never seen the profit in responding to such. Or, in fact, of assuming that I have the right to speak for a mass.

      Be well.

  11. Sir, don’t know what to make of her death as i never followed her work but as John Donne said “Any man’s death diminishes me”. But in a rationale sense for which I believe even Gauri fought, we should not prejudge and form opinions. It may be a case of personal enmity, theft or even motivated murder, what we should as general public be fighting for is proper investigation and justice. We should keep our vigil for a quick justice rather than blaming ideology or a group. But the kind of reaction, the blame-game doesn’t ensure her justice but political one upmanship. It’s just my opinion, will love to hear what you think about it.

    • “She was gunned down right there, at the threshold of her safe place. By persons who are as yet unknown, for motives that are as yet unclear.” — that is, quite literally, the third line I wrote. And at no point have I blamed one particular ideology, in fact I have made it very clear that to my mind, everyone is complicit. Thanks.

      • You have spent most of your words describing Modis reign as is customarily described by his opponents. The king. Nationalism. Red meat. Trolls. And on and on.

        And you put this right next to this unfortunate murder. And then you claim – oh no – nothing implied here.

        Sir – you seem to know dog whistling every bit as well as the man you hate so much for it. Maybe grab a mirror sometime.

        • The same media also wrote about deatha of RTI activists five years ago when the UPA was in power. They also wrote about the corruption under the Congress government. In fact, everybody talked about it and at that point, it was perfectly fine to speak out against the government. Today, anybody speaking out against the hatemongering happening in India gets viciously trolled, attacked and sometimes, even killed. Why is it suddenly not okay to hold an opinion against the government? The government is not an underdog who needs protection, after all!

          • Dear Vasundhara – I am not sure whether this was really directed at me (seems orthogonal to my comment).

            ‘Why’ is always a good question. Let me try anyway:

            – you call anyone with an opposing pov a troll. if a lot of people have a pov different from yours and express it – you are upset.

            i hope you realize the irony. that in a forum to lament the death of free speech – you lament the free speech of others. just because it doesn’t agree with your pov. you expect the majority opinion to not drown you in their noise. how exactly? should those with an opposing viewpoint shutup because they are the majority? let’s ask twitter and facebook to give a quota to political views? (this country anyway has a glorious tradition of using quotas as a solution to everything).

            – you wonder why no one stood up for the Congress – but so many ‘trolls’ (of course – savages them) – stand up for the BJP.

            maybe you should try a non-conspiratorial answer to this question. that the Congress was Black and the BJP is grey. that the Congress’ misdeeds were held up by judiciary and there was practically nothing redeeming about the ending years of the UPA. But that while the BJP has indeed a large number of problems – there’s a sense of Governance (which maybe ‘mal’-governance for you) and an intent (however misdirected at times) to fix some of the intractable problems this country has faced. As partisan a person as Ramachandra Guha admitted in an article that one cannot avoid the fact that, like Indira Gandhi, Modi has a vision for what he wants India to become.

            you may not like that vision. you may rather that there not be a government worth noticing. but you cannot shutdown the pov of people who prefer the opposite – and hence stand up for this govt.

            – you may also try to think that your accusations ring both false and hypocritical. No one of my generation (I am 43 – so that’s a huge majority of the Indian population) and younger seems to know Gauri. No one read her. No one cared. we learnt after her death that she was already convicted in a defamation lawsuit by the BJP. The Karnataka Naxal movement that thrust her into limelight is dead.

            She was today, no disrespect to her, just one of the millions of people who vomit on Modi everyday regurgiating true and false cliches alike (please visit her Facebook page). To go further – there are much more bitter and worthwhile critics of Modi. Those with more followers. And with more bite in their words.

            So when you ask why people who oppose Modi are getting killed – I am like the bearded guy in the Cinthol shaving cream ad. Really? Why her?

            and it’s hypocritical because you will never ever stand up for the ones killed or imprisoned for holding views opposed to your own. let’s try a puzzle – ever heard of Sharath Madiwala? Ever asked why he died? Ever asked why he was killed for holding, peacefully, a viewpoint different from your own?

            so dear fellow citizen – I have to ask. Is your concern truly for freedom of speech and thought – or is it a concern that *your* ideas seem to be in a minority today? do you simply use the murder of a journalist for political ends? Is Mr. Lankesh’s death the proverbial Shikhandi that is useful to shoot political arrows behind from? After all – who cannot commiserate with her? Who can condone this horrible crime? One wonders that is it because you cannot defeat the Bhisma in the court of people’s opinion – that you shoot from behind Shikhandi to put him down?

            and you wonder – that when you shoot such arrows – that why do Bhisma’s fans get further enraged? Why don’t they just lie down and die like in the Epic? Why does your Good not win over their Evil?

            Religion is indeed bogus. And real life doesn’t follow mythology. Let us leave with the irony that this should be a lesson for those who oppose the religious bigots.

        • I have not once mentioned Modi. Nor have I mentioned a particular party or political grouping. Demagoguery is not confined to any one political group. The RJD, the Samajwadi Party, Mamta Bannerjee’s version of Congress, the CPM, the two major Tamil parties — all are led by demagogues, all throw red meat to their bases, all stir things up when it suits them, all act like satraps in their domains, all are cut from the exact same cloth. I find it interesting though that you promptly identified Modi, and only Modi, in reference to those comments. If the cap fit, it is in your mind, not in my words. I WILL be writing about Modi, and when I do, I WILL name him. Sorry, but this is not it — here, my intent is to merely point to a pervasive climate that is shrouding the country. Thank you for reading, even if what you read is not what I wrote.

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