On the evening of 5 September, Gauri Lankesh, a senior journalist who edited and published a self-titled weekly, the Gauri Lankesh Patrike, was murdered outside her residence in Bengaluru. Lankesh was known for her criticism of the Hindutva politics in Karnataka through her activism and editorials, as well as her reporting on the dubious practices of powerful businesses and organisations in the state. Shortly after the news of Lankesh’s murder broke, many in the media began to note the similarity between her assassination and those of three noted rationalists—Narendra Dhabolkar in 2013; and Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi, in 2015. Dhabolkar was shot dead during a morning walk in Pune. Pansare, a member of the Communist Party of India, was shot near his residence in Kolhapur, and the writer Kalburgi was gunned down inside his home in Dharwad.
On 7 September, Kedar Nagarajan, a web reporter at The Caravan, met Narendra Nayak, the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Association—an apex body of rationalist organisations that promote scientific approaches and rational thought. Nayak worked closely with Kalburgi, Dhabolkar and Lankesh. During their conversations, which continued over the phone, Nayak spoke of his work with Lankesh, which included the pursuit for a resolution in the case of Vinayak Baliga, a right-to-information activist who was hacked to death near his house in Kodialbail in March 2016. He also discussed his views on the reasons behind the assassinations of rationalists and dissenters in the state of Karnataka, and across the country.
Kedar Nagarajan: When did you first meet Gauri Lankesh? Could you describe the work you did with her?
Narendra Nayak: We met in 1992. I knew her father [the poet-turned journalist P Lankesh, who also ran a self-titled tabloid called the Lankesh Patrike.] very well. He was a man who gave me the courage to be an activist. My college was trying to throw me out, he asked me how [much] they paid me, and at that time it was some thousand rupees or something. He asked me, “Don’t you think you can make that money without the college?” That is what motivated me. Both father and daughter would support a cause that they felt needed their backing and they would do it relentlessly. She was a very fearless media activist, and while we had disagreements, I have to say that she did what she did out of belief. She was an honest activist—she had a lot of courage and conviction.
Both of us exposed a person named Hanumantha Rai Appa, who claimed to have supernatural powers. This transpired in National College. Gauri supported us [FIRA] in most of the causes we took up, and in the last two years we became even closer as associates. The last two cases I can recall, in which we worked very much together, was this Vinayak Baliga [murder] case. From March  onwards, we have been working on all aspects of that case. Otherwise I used to call her when I believed a certain issue needed publicity of some kind. She would immediately send a reporter when I asked her for help. The other issue that we had taken up together is this Veerendra Heggade [the dharmadhikari, or hereditary administrator] of Dharmasthala [a widely known 800-year-old temple in southern Karnataka]—his name has come up in connection to so much crime, but nobody dares to write about him. The crimes went from land grabbing to rape and murder, and she was the one who would see to it that all the necessary information was published. For that case, I received full support from her.
Another thing I can recall—on the day after Dabholkar was murdered, it was Gauri and I who led the protests and demanded that an anti-superstition law be enacted for Karnataka. We have worked and supported each other’s causes on so many instances; I just can’t enumerate this sort of thing. The progressive forces in Karnataka are all together.
KN: You were a close associate of Dabholkar’s as well. Do you see any similarities in the murders?
NN: There is a similarity between her murder and that of Dabholkar, Kalburgi and Pansare. What I see is that the tools used are the same. There is a conspiracy of people—a sort of hit gang that is working towards eliminating progressive voices. I am also on so many hit lists. All these vested interests, people who are promoting a superstitious way of thinking, all go hand in hand with each other.
KN: Why do you think these similarities existed? What were these rationalists unearthing?
NN: It is not a single unearthing; it is a combination of circumstances that is causing all forces with vested interests to group together to eliminate us. If I take the case of Kalburgi, he was eliminated because of his depth of research on Lingayats and Veerashaivas. Through his research, he took a stand that the two groups are different. He opined that Veerashaivas are Hindus and they believe in the caste system, while Lingayats do not. Right now, it is a big controversy in the academic space. There were groups within these communities that wanted to finish him. You also have the mother of all these people, the Sanatan Sanstha, who, I believe, helps with the logistics for anyone who wants to commit such crimes. [According to its website, the Sanstha was established to “present Spirituality in a scientific language to those curious about Spirituality.” The day after Dabholkar’s murder, it published a statement by its founder Jayanath Athale, who wrote that “such a death for Dabholkar is a blessing of the Almighty.”]
If you take the murder of Gauri Lankesh, it can be directly attributed to the fact that she has taken on a lot of people with vested interests. For example, Dharmasthala is a place with a huge Hindu temple and [is worth] thousands of crores. She has always taken on the trust [established by Heggade] that runs the temple for all their misdeeds. Second, in the Vinayak Baliga case—the prime accused in the case is Naresh Shenoy, who allegedly has close links to the RSS—she supported all of us [who were fighting the case] fully. She had also written against Kashi Math at the time Baliga was murdered more boldly that anyone else [Kashi Math is a spiritual organisation followed by the Goud Saraswat Brahmin community, against whom Baliga had filed a case pertaining to illegal land transfers]. Therefore, it is a combination of all these factors that led to her murder. In the Vinayak Baliga case, the Congress was also tacitly supporting the perpetrators, who happened to have been the founder of the NaMo Brigade [a youth organisation that was set up in Karnataka, ahead of the 2014 general elections, to build support for Narendra Modi].
KN: Another similarity in these murders is that all the rationalists wrote in regional languages. Is there a reason behind that?
NN: Obviously, because they have a bigger reach in a restricted area. Not many people would have heard about Veerendra Heggade outside Dharmasthala, but they have a big mafia here [in Dharmasthala]. They will file defamation suits against people, they will intimidate the judiciary, and they will do so many things. These things hardly come to light by people writing in English.
KN: In all these cases—of Dhabolkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and Baliga—no one has yet been convicted. Do you believe that this will be any different in the case of Lankesh’s murder?
NN: I hope that the situation is not the same. As I said, the tacit support of the people at the top emboldens the ground-level workers of an organisation. This is what we have noticed. Every case you see has evidence being diluted, prosecutors asked to go slow, witnesses are intimidated and evidence is destroyed. In the Vinayak Baliga case, all the accused are out on bail. [Lankesh’s] brother, who is a BJP man, is now saying that communists have done it, just to throw a red herring.
KN: What in your opinion is the reason for the timing of her killing?
NN: Probably because chaos in the run-up to the elections helps them distract the public from a series of electoral issues that demand their attention. They can also use these murders to make it seem like the current state government is incapable of maintaining law and order. The police have also been telling me that they have to be more careful now that elections are coming and enhance my security.
KN: In any of these cases, have you had reason to believe that there would be police complicity?
NN: So far, I do not see anything like that. I do not think that the state police is that bad. They have got a little bit of sympathy for academics and people working towards social change.
KN: Do you think protection should be offered to academics, activists and rationalists who are dissenting against the current dispensation?
NN: I am under 24-hour police security when I am in Mangalore. I have also been asked not to announce my travel plans, so I do not do that either. When I land in Mangalore, my bodyguard will be with me. When I was taking about all these security concerns to Gauri, she laughed and said that all that would not work for her. Maybe she felt that they are an impediment to her free interactions with people. I had warned her though, because some Kannada newspaper in 2015—I do not remember the name—had put out a list of targets in which she was number three and I was number seven. She was very sure that she would not need the protection and that no one would kill her. I believe that that was a big mistake. Kalburgi was also given protection, which he later said he no longer required—a few months after which, they got him. Vinayak Baliga was not a rationalist, he was a BJP man. But, the BJP does not mind killing their own workers also if they dissent.
KN: Do you believe that the central government has displayed an increased sense of apathy in such cases?
NN: Yes, under this government there is most definitely increased apathy and an increased amount of protection to the perpetrators of such crimes. Her brother is saying order a CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation] inquiry, but we all know that the CBI is the parrot of the present government. The present government has also levelled such accusations against the CBI when they were in the opposition. Once these perpetrators go beyond the state borders, they will get protection there and there can be nothing done at that time. Even an SIT [Special Investigation Team] will not be able to do anything. This murder looks to have been professionally planned.
KN: Is this sense of apathy reflected in the response of the civil society as well?
NN: The civil society is very disturbed. Last August, we had a march of about 10,000 to 15,000 people in Dharvard, protesting against the lack of evidence and arrests in the Kalburgi case. In the murder of Gauri Lankesh, except the kattar right, all the rest are with us. They are all saying it should not be done.
KN: Three of the murders—of Kalburgi, Baliga, and now Lankesh—have taken place in Karnataka.
NN: If vested interests come together and conspire against people and there is support from the top for that, they will get away with it. Karavali Karnataka [the districts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada] is currently like a lab for these reactionary and Hindutva gangs. Yesterday, Nalin Kumar Kateel [a BJP member of parliament from Karnataka]—one such goon—was shouting at a police officer and telling him that he will call a bandh in the officer’s name. If all the power is in the hands of fellows like this, and those who run the [Kashi] Math. In Dharmasthala, there have been close to 400 unnatural deaths that have taken place. Most of them are women.
KN: By deaths, do you mean murders?
NN: I do not know exactly, but they will be called unnatural deaths by the police. They will say that they drowned in the Netravati river, which is conveniently close by.
KN: Many people, Lankesh included, were critical of the Karnataka government’s response to Left organisations in the state. She noted that the state has a history of acting against the press.
NN: All governments are against the press. They all look at vote bank—maybe the degree varies, that is all. All governments want a press that is favourable to them, which will keep publishing their achievements and criticise the opposition. The government under Manmohan Singh was a little more liberal, that is all I can say.
KN: During an earlier interview with The Caravan, you stated that “the support of the people at the top is emboldening such people to kill rationalists.” Do you still stand by that?
NN: People at the top give statements saying—“what can be done, she was like this,” or “what can be done, he had beef in the fridge,” or “what can be done, those who live by the sword die by the sword”—as if she was killing people. Utter nonsense. These statements will prima facie embolden these people and also there is tacit support for such kind of activity.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Correction: A line in the current version of this article has been changed to reflect that according to news reports, Veerendra Heggade’s name has come up in connection with several crimes. The Caravan regrets the error.
Kedar Nagarajan is a web reporter at The Caravan.