LIVING WITH THE DEATH THREAT
Does life change for India’s free thinkers under continuous threat when one of their own is murdered in cold blood?
COME take a ride on India’s bullet train” reads the caption of a photograph that was posted on the evening of September 14, on the Facebook page of Humans of Hindutva. The page that parodies the right wing has over 95K ‘likes’, and has helped Indians in the last five months, find humour in a violent environment. The said bullet has on it photographs of MM Kalburgi (the rationalist who was killed outside his Dharwad residence in August 2015), Narendra Dabholkar (killed in Pune in August 2013), Govind Pansare (killed in February 2015 in Mumbai), Mahatma Gandhi (shot dead by Nathuram Godse in November 1949) and Gauri Lankesh.
Lankesh, a Bangalore journalist who edited Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada weekly, was shot to death by unknown assailants outside her home in Rajarajeshwari Nagar on September 5. At the time of her death, Gauri was known for being a critic of right-wing Hindu extremism.
But, the HOH post itself was a surprise. After all, only on September 9, five days after Lankesh’s murder, the admin of the page (who has remained anonymous) announced that it was time to call it quits.
He wrote: It was a good run but ultimately I realised that you guys are not worth a bullet in my f ***** g head. Some of my favourite writers were as prolific...only they didn’t have someone call them a “ma ****** d” every 5 minutes. I thank you guys for reading through my random thoughts. But now it’s come to the point where I have to argue with people who I thought were on the same side as me. I’m tired of explaining the intention behind my words again and again and again.” That was at 7.41 am. At 10.58 pm, he returned with another snarky post and faux farewell speech.
In an exchange with mid-day over FB messenger, the admin says, “I really did want to quit, but came back when I saw the reaction of the right wing, who thought I really was scared of the bullet. Their sick celebration over my genuine worry, made me reconsider.” He says he receives threats and abuses on a daily basis, but can’t report it as that would end up revealing his identity.
If the Humans of Hindutva admin did reveal his identity, he’d probably join the long list of thinkers who have been offered police protection by their state governments.
The names mentioned on the bullet are only of those who have taken the bullet. Many live under the shadow of one every day.
‘My ideas get more traction’
Early last week, the Congress-led Karnataka government said it had provided security to 21 “intellectuals, progressive thinkers and activists who have been given police protection” in the wake of Lankesh’s killing.
Among them is rationalist KS Bhagwan, 72, a retired English professor at the University of Mysore.
Bhagwan, who has in the past translated the works of Shakespeare into Kannada, in 1982 wrote a book titled Shankaracharya and his reactionary philosophy. Here, he criticized the philosophy of eighth century philosopher and theologian Adi Shankaracharya — credited with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism. Bhagwan says that in his tenets, Shankaracharya says that Sudras have no right to knowledge or school. That they are born to serve Brahmins. “He also called women, sinners. With this he has condemned 95 per cent of Indians. I wanted to put light on and fight this discrimination,” Bhagwan says.
He expected criticism. “After 1,200 years, someone was questioning the philosophy of Adi Shankaracharya, but after Kalburgi was shot dead, I began receiving similar threats.”
The day after Kalburgi’s murder however, Bhagwan says, two police officers appointed by the state government landed at his door, offering full-time protection. They follow him everywhere. It’s not a hindrance to his daily life. “Though I didn’t want it, I welcome it.”
The threats have waned but not stopped. Sometimes, they come via letters, at other times, via texts on his cell phone. They range from “you are not the son of your father” to “you will not breathe tomorrow”. Complaining about them no longer means running to the police station. With the officers around, he simply writes a letter detailing the text and the number he has received it from. The officers submit it to the local police, who then trace the sender and hand them a warning.
Doesn’t his family worry? “If my wife had got upset, I would have been shaken. But, she tells me that what I do is for the good of the country. Let
‘I really did want to quit, but came back when I saw the reaction of the right wing, who thought I really was scared of the bullet. Their sick celebration over my genuine worry, made me reconsider’ Admin, Humans of Hindutva ‘If my wife had got upset, I would have been shaken. But, she tells me that what I do is for the good of the country. Let the life go. They can kill me, not my ideas’ Rationalist K S Bhagwan
the life go. They can kill me, not my ideas.” If anything, he says, the fundamentalists aiming threats at him only means that more people are reading him and about him. His 1982 book is now in its 19th edition and has been translated across several languages.
Some barks, some bites
The admin of the Humans of Hindutva page says of the threats, “They are mostly all bark and no bite. When I threaten to take action, they run away and don’t bother me again.”
While the threats to him come via social media, others get them via snail mail. KP Ramanunni, 61, is an award-winning novelist who was under attack for a six-piece editorial he wrote in July in the Malayalam daily Madhyamam, urging Hindus and Muslims to drop their hostilities against each other.
Ramanunni, was raised in Ponnani, a village in Malabar, Kerala, and did his masters in English from Mysore University. After taking voluntary retirement from the State Bank of India, he now works as the administrator of Thunchan Memorial Research Centre in Tirur. His first novel, Sufi Paranja Katha, about the life of a Hindu girl who marries a Muslim boy, won two prestigious awards — the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award and the Edassery award. And so, he finds the security he has had to ask for since the editorial, a bit cumbersome.
The first set of criticisms that came his way, hurt. Even today, he believes, much of the hatred that comes his way is either from the “north” (because Kerala has a tradition of mutual respect and love between religions, he claims) or Hindu fundamentalists (trying to show Muslims in bad light). “Some letters come on post cards, so that everyone can read them. This one, however, was closed.”
This, is the letter that had him complain to the police, resulting in full-time protection. The writer, preferring to stay anonymous, says: “We have read your article published in Madhyamam daily advising both Hindus and Muslims. In that you are pretending to be impartial and trying to lock the two together. Hindu religion worships stones, cows, rats, everything. Islam worships only the Almighty god and that’s the message given by Prophet Mohammed. You have tried on many occasion to show that you are on the side of Muslim beliefs. But we know that it is only pretense on your part which we are intelligent enough to understand. Through those articles you are trying to pass on as being friendly to Muslims. Reading between the lines, one can understand that you are blaming Islam.”
The writer then abuses Ramanunni calling him a b ***** d, a worm, and threatens him with consequences similar to those of TJ Joseph, the professor whose right hand was cut off in 2010 after he included a paragraph, that allegedly insulted the Prophet in an exam he was giving to BCom students of Newman College, Thodupuzha, where he taught Malayalam. Ramanunni was told to convert to Islam within six months.
Now, everywhere Ramanunni goes, the police goes too. “I can’t even travel to Trivandrum without informing them in advance. Because, if I move cities, the local police will come and provide me protection, so they need notice. It’s boring sometimes. If I attend a programme, I have to tell them who is organising it and work according to the Special Branch’s methodology.”
Downward spiral after 2014
But, not all believe that police protection will help.
Mumbai journalist Nikhil Wagle is no stranger to threats. He has been receiving them since before cell phones existed, when he’d get calls on his landline in the late hours, callers threatening harm to his then infant son. Today, he treats them as routine.
The journalist who has written against major political parties — having even faced physical attacks from Shiv Sena members — says though he has been offered police protection, he has always rejected it. “They will not be able to save me,” he adds.
He says that a cop once told him a political party was easier to deal with than the likes of the Sanatan Sanstha, the Goa-based Hindutva organisation, which has been linked to the murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Lankesh. “Sena is just a political organisation, the Sanstha is a cult,” Wagle says the officer told him.
A September 2015 article by scroll.in reported that the Sanstha has been on Wagle’s trail since he, as then editor of the Marathi channel IBN-Lokmat, anchored a programme on rationalism and the need for an anti-superstition law. The Sanstha representative had walked out of the discussion.
The report says, “The next thing Wagle knew, his mobile number was being circulated widely, he was receiving abusive calls, threatened with death, and the organisation’s publication, Sanatan Prabhat, had published articles denouncing him. His photograph was put up with a cross over it, just as the organisation had done with photographs of rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar and rationalist-Leftist Govind Pansare.”
Speaking to mid-day, Wagle says that while he has often received flak from political parties and their supporters for his stories, the abuse online has got out of hand since 2014. “The atmosphere is much more intolerant now.”
Activists at a protest against the government for not stepping up investigation in the murder of rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholakar, at Azad Maidan, in 2013
Rationalist KS Bhagwan with a police officer. Bhagwan, who has criticised the writings of Adi Shankaracharya in his books, was provided security by the Karnataka government after Kalburgi was killed.
Theater personality Girish Karnad with social activist Medha Patkar at a public rally by the Forum Against the Assassination of Gauri Lankesh at Central College Ground on September 12 in Bangalore. Karnad is one of 21 intellectuals in Karnataka who has been provided security. Left: A protest in New Delhi after Lankesh’s murder.
A September 10 post on the Humans of Hindutva page with this picture reads: “And then I was all like ‘Don’t fall prey to social media propaganda’ when everyone and their dog knows that we spread propaganda on social media faster than a Chetan Bhagat novel spreads illiteracy.” “Ha ha next time you should tell them that women should be respected and minorities should have the same rights as Hindus.”
Malayali author KP Ramanunni has faced threat after a series of editorials he wrote for the daily Madhyamam, urging Hindus and Muslims to drop hostility against each other