Sunday Special | Karnataka

Gauri Lankesh murder suspect’s ‘hit list’ spikes threat perception to Karnataka’s Hindutva critics

Veerabhadra Chennamalla and K.S. Bhagavan. File   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

A plainclothes constable keeps watch on a road in Basavanagudi in Bengaluru, where Veerabhadra Chennamalla, pontiff of the Nidumamidi Math, resides. The constable, the pontiff’s Personal Security Officer (PSO), is alarmed by reports of a scooter without a number plate having passed by the building several times in the last three days.

The neighbourhood also houses the office of slain journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh. Since her murder, the police have stepped up security for other critics of Hindutva and proponents of the Anti-Superstition Bill. Given the foiled plot to kill K.S. Bhagavan, a professor from Mysuru, and the murders of Gauri and M.M. Kalburgi in Karnataka, and Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar in Maharashtra, the police will have to follow up on reports of the scooter.

Chilling evidence

That people are under threat from an unknown group aiming to silence critics of extreme right wing Hindutva is not a conspiracy theory but a proven fact, say police officials.

The Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the killing of Gauri recovered a diary from Amol Kale, believed to be the key handler of the group, containing a “hit list” of eight people from Karnataka. Gauri was on that list. Professor Bhagavan is also on that list, as is Veerabhadra Chennamalla.

The threat perception to the pontiff — at the forefront of several progressive movements, including an initiative to draft the Karnataka Anti-Superstition Bill — has increased.

“I am a sanyasi. The threats and the security have neither affected me nor brought any change,” he told The Hindu. But almost as an afterthought, he added that he was concentrating more on the Math’s work.

The pontiff’s remark points to a telling shift in public engagement. After Gauri was shot, the government provided security to 26 intellectuals, rationalists and activists, known to be critics of Hindutva.

In the days that followed the killing, the horror of the murder was masked by dark humour: “Are you on the list? Better watch out,” people would tell each other.

Subtle shift

But the recovery of Kale’s diary with chilling proof that such a list does exist, there is little room now for humour.

Though everyone is loath to confess to self-censorship, it is happening very subtly, said advocate-activist C.S. Dwarkanath, also on the alleged hit list. “Many intellectuals are watching their words, and some have gone silent,” he said.

Once a frequent ‘talking head’ on Kannada news television, Mr. Dwarkanath now steers clear of this space.

While Kale’s list named eight people, the police have not withdrawn security for the others. “Even though the others have not been named, despite the arrests so far, they are not safe. The larger conspirators are yet to be arraigned,” said a senior official with the SIT.

Prof. Bhagavan’s house in Mysuru was staked out by alleged assassins days before they were arrested in February 2018. Today, it is guarded by a posse of policemen and intelligence personnel. He feels compelled to turn down many invitations for public functions on the advice of the police. In several instances, the organisers themselves back out.

“This is not self-censorship or a complete withdrawal... I am continuing my work... It was during this period that I penned my thoughts and published a book Rama Mandira Yake Beda? (Why we don’t want a Ram Mandira?),” says Prof. Bhagavan.

After the plot to assassinate him was revealed, his wife in an interview said death was inevitable. The Professor draws courage from her stoic resilience.

Others are under pressure from friends and family to maintain a low profile. “Unlike me, others have anxious families to deal with and this had created an inner tussle between speaking out and watching their words at least for now,” said the seer Veerabhadra Chennamalla.

Neela Patil, wife of Prof. Chandrashekhar Patil, a vocal writer-activist, long time friend of M.M. Kalburgi and the first writer to return a State award after his friend’s death, and also on the hit-list, said she has become used to the threats. “He has been an activist from the ’70s and was jailed during Emergency. There have been many such threats. The family is not in a state of panic” she said, but was quick to add they have advised him “not to speak of religion and communalism since it unnecessarily complicates the situation.” 

Dwarkanath’s wife Komala Dwarkanath admits that recent revelations have left her and the family anxious. “The security cover is a sham with many loopholes. We have told him to cut down on speaking out,” she said.

The murder of journalist Shujaat Bhukari in Kashmir in which two of his armed PSOs were also killed weighs heavily on the minds of loved ones. Given the lack of certainty a few people have rejected the government’s offer of security. “It restricts freedom. Living under security is akin to a bird in a cage,” said a senior writer who asked that his name be withheld. 


(With inputs from R. Krishnakumar in Mysuru)

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 8:56:42 PM |

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