Assassins of discourse

Filmmaker Kavitha Lankesh, who recently won the ‘Best Human Rights’ film at the Toronto Women’s Film Festival 2022 for Gauri, speaks to CE about the rising attacks on India’s press
Assassins of discourse

BENGALURU: Remember, remember the fifth of September’ might have been the opening line to that iconic Guy Fawkes rhyme (it starts as ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November’) if it was based on events that unfolded in Bengaluru in the new millennium. Unlike the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, a failed assassination attempt of British King James VI, the assassins in India succeeded in brutally killing renowned journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh outside her Bengaluru home on September 5, 2017.

Religious extremism played a major role behind the attempt on King James VI, and as we learn more about the motivations of Lankesh’s killers, it seems to be the case once again. Lankesh was a known critic of right-wing Hindu extremism, sexism, and castebased oppression. Recently, Gauri’s sister, director Kavitha Lankesh was honoured with the ‘Best Human Rights’ film at the Toronto Women’s Film Festival 2022 for her documentary Gauri.

While the film centres around the life and times of Gauri Lankesh, it reveals a diabolical statistic: the rise in the number of attacks on India’s journalists for reporting on caste and religionbased discrimination and similar topics. Almost 121 Indian journalists/ media houses have been targeted this year alone, out of which at least six journalists were killed, according to the 2021 India Press Freedom Report by Rights and Risks Analysis Group.

The hit list isn’t limited to journalists; prominent activists, including M. M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar, and Govind Pansare, have all been assassinated for exercising their right to freedom of speech. Our democratic country sits in the 150th position (out of 180) on the global press freedom index, it’s lowest position ever since the first report published in 2002. “Since Gauri’s murder, the state of press freedom in this country has gone progressively worse.

In fact, half the press is sold out and acts as pamphlets for the government now. Most independent media are getting sued left, right, and center, any time they make an exposé. I admire journalists who are surviving through such times,” says Kavitha, who feels that nowadays, journalists are being watched like a hawk when it should be the other way around.

The making of this film, which took two years, took an emotional toll on Kavitha. “When I gave the film’s proposal, it was one of the four that was selected out of some 400 worldwide projects. So, even when we were having meetings with the concerned team in Amsterdam, I was still very hesitant. One of the reasons for it being I did not want to censor myself as Gauri had always been vehemently against selfcensorship. I had to explain what she stood for, and emotionally it was a very tiring journey,” shares Kavitha and mentions that many Indian universities have been requesting to show the film to their students. For now, the film is being screened at international film festivals, but she would like to see it in Indian theatres.

The filmmaker feels it is very important to portray the ground realities of India to the outside world. “It is important for people, to know of the acts of hatred happening in India. I am not pointing fingers at a particular government , these problems have existed for a while now. Basic issues like the rising unemployment rate are not being addressed properly. Some people speak so strongly that everything else, including logic, gets deafened.

There are multiple cases of communal violence happening. Dalits are being raped almost daily. How is all of this happening if we are supposedly a communally harmonious nation?” questions Kavitha. She feels the problems within the Indian society are coming to a head now than ever. “Recently, we held a memorial for Gauri on her death anniversary, and a prominent author said that the polarisation and divide in the Indian community didn’t start with the British. I agree with that. Casteism predates the East India Company’s arrival in our lands by multiple centuries.

This happens even in the urban cities, with boards saying ‘only Brahmins allowed’ or ‘non-vegetarians not allowed’ at certain places. Earlier it wasn’t this blatantly done,” she says adding that she expects some backlash for Gauri when it eventually screens in India. Should India be braver? “I think more than braver, India should be calmer,” laughs Kavitha, “Journalists should be able to write critical pieces. But on the whole, as citizens, we should be more loving and calm. That’s the only way we can stop destroying this place. At the end of it all, with casteism and communal problems, there’s too much going on. So, how much do you divide?”

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The New Indian Express