An arrest, but few answers, in the murder of Gauri Lankesh

March 13, 2018
Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

On March 3, almost six months after Gauri Lankesh, the editor and publisher of a Bangalore-based weekly, was shot dead outside her home, the police charged a 37-year-old man for involvement in the murder. The suspect, K. Naveen Kumar, had been arrested earlier, on February 18 after he was found selling live cartridges at a bus stand. Bearing a close resemblance to a man captured on security cameras surveying Lankesh’s house a few hours before her killing, he was taken into custody. The police of Karnataka—the southern Indian state of which Bangalore is the capital—when presenting Kumar to the court as an accused in the murder of Lankesh, provided a sealed, signed confession from him as well as “voluntary statements given by some of Kumar’s friends about his links to the…murder.”

Given the ease with which the police in India extract “signed,” “voluntary,” statements from suspects and witnesses, there is no way to know whether any of this evidence will prove to be genuine. Nor is it possible to tell if it will move us any closer to discovering who exactly decided that Lankesh, a fierce critic of the violent, right-wing Hindu nationalism rampant in India today—called Hindutva—should be killed.

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The circumstantial evidence around Kumar does seem to point to the possibility of his involvement. The 15 bullets found in his possession were 7.65 mm, the same type as the bullets used to kill Lankesh. He is also associated with a local right-wing organization called the Hindu Yuva Sena, and may also be involved with the Sanatan Sanstha and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti—two, affiliated right-wing organizations especially active in the neighboring states of Goa and Maharashtra. The Sanatan Sanstha in particular, a cult-like outfit headquartered in Goa, is suspected, through linked weapons, of being connected to the killing of not just Lankesh but also of three other public figures (a writer, an activist, and a trade unionist) critical of Hindu nationalism.

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Little progress has been made in these other assassinations, the oldest of which dates back to August 2013; police agencies have been unable to track down two Sanatan Sanstha members suspected of carrying out two of the killings. New information after the arrest of Kumar, meanwhile, suggests that the cycle of violence was meant to go on, with the next target being K.S. Bhagwan, a writer and scholar based in the city of Mysore who has been outspoken in his criticism of Hinduism and its hierarchies of caste and gender. The police are now trying to trace someone who made frequent calls to Kumar from public telephones, and who they believe might have been functioning as his “handler”—an intermediary between Kumar and the group planning the killings.

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None of this—the secrecy of the operatives or the targeted killing of dissenters—will be surprising to those who have followed the violent rise of Hindutva in India over the past two decades, including the ascent to power of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Modi’s henchman, the home minister Amit Shah, are accused of stoking a climate of terror in Gujarat. When Modi was chief minister of the state, a series of violent incidents occurred, ranging from the massacre of nearly a thousand Muslims in 2002 and a series of extra-judicial executions to the murder of Haren Pandya, a BJP rival of Modi’s, killed in 2003 soon after testifying to a judicial commission about Modi’s alleged complicity in the 2002 riots.

A police official speaking to journalist Sankarshan Thakur of Pandya’s murder called it “a cutout murder, a murder in which you may know the murderer but not the man who got him to do it; the motivator is cut out of the crime.” The same could be easily said of the killing of Lankesh: The prime motivators have been cut out of the lines of evidence. The Hindu Yuva Sena, the Sanatan Sanstha, the BJP, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Organization (RSS)—the paramilitary organization of which the BJP is a political wing—are all links in this chain of intolerance and violence.

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The votaries of Hindutva have a long history of stoking sectarian violence and carrying out political assassinations. When Nathuram Godse killed Gandhi in 1948, the RSS distanced itself from the incident by arguing that Godse had left the RSS before he carried out the assassination. RSS members, however, distributed sweets to celebrate Gandhi’s death and the organization was banned by the government for a brief period. But Hindutva’s habit of secrecy and plausible deniability had been established, a forerunner to its current preference for handlers and cutouts.

D.R. Goyal, a former member of the RSS who went on to write a book about the organization, compared its secrecy to that of the mafia and religious cults; it kept no written records of the funds it raised, Goyal wrote, and came up with a written constitution only in 1949, as a condition for lifting the government’s ban.

What makes Hindu nationalism remarkable today is that it is present at so many levels, cagily subterranean and yet also aggressive and visible. It is both state and deep state, lawmaker and criminal. Its investigative bodies are headed by individuals chosen for their unquestioning adherence to Modi, Shah, and Hindu nationalism, even while India’s cities and villages seem to be filled with Hindutva terror cells that operate much like Al Qaeda units.

Lankesh, of course, was acutely aware of the manner in which Hindutva has brought violence to every facet of Indian society, managing to produce both national leaders trailed by suspicions of murder as well as gunmen guided by anonymous callers. The police in Karnataka may have found one link in this chain of murderous violence, and they may even find the handler behind the assassin. But who will ever, in this republic of fear, find the handler’s handler?

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Siddhartha Deb is a novelist, journalist, and essayist. He received the PEN Open Book Award for his 2012 book The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, which was published in India without its first chapter because of a lawsuit.