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.