'Your deeds always come back to haunt you they say,' gloated one Indian television anchor on Twitter, on news of the murder of Gauri Lankesh © Reuters
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I have been haunted since last week by an image that I wish I had never seen. It is a photo of a petite female writer, with close cropped grey hair and clad in a red and blue salwar-kameez, splayed on the ground after assassins shot her to death last Tuesday on the front porch of her home in the southern Indian city of Bangalore.

And then there is a second image, almost as disturbing. It is of a glamorous young Indian television anchor gloating on Twitter that Gauri Lankesh, the feisty 55-year-old writer and activist, had been stilled by assassin’s bullets. “So, Commy Gauri Lankesh has been murdered mercilessly. Your deeds always come back to haunt you they say. Amen,” Jagrati Shukla wrote in a tweet liked and shared more than 2,000 times. 

This diptych is a disturbing reflection of contemporary India, where space for civil debate and public dissent is shrinking rapidly. Soli Sorabjee, a Supreme Court lawyer and India’s attorney-general from 1998 until 2004, called last week’s slaying “the murder of democracy”. 

India has long been a risky place for journalists, especially small-town reporters digging into the improprieties of local power brokers, including politicians, businessmen or even spiritual leaders. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 41 reporters have been killed in India since 1992, nearly all in small towns or conflict zones like Kashmir. 

But Lankesh’s slaying is different. The editor of a muckraking Kannada-language weekly, Lankesh, a staunch rationalist, was a fierce critic of the rightwing Hindu nationalist ideology at the heart of prime minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party. 

While the official investigation has just begun, many of India’s most prominent journalists, writers and intellectuals believe Lankesh was murdered for the vociferous expression of her political beliefs. The hitman-style assassination — mirroring the killings of three other like-minded activists — is seen as a clear warning to others of the price to be paid for strident dissent. 

As Lankesh spent years working for prestigious English-language publications and maintained warm ties with many former colleagues, the bullets found their mark. “The murder is the message,” P Sainath, an award-winning journalist, wrote. “The use of the same modus operandi is part of that message. ‘Yes, it’s us. We did it again. And will, yet again. Let this be a warning to all of you.’” 

Mr Modi has made little secret of his disdain for India’s media. As prime minister, he has given few interviews, instead communicating directly to voters through rallies, tweets and a monthly radio programme. There is a Narendra Modi app — now being installed on all new phones on the Reliance Jio network — for users to get news about him and send in suggestions. 

General VK Singh, the minister of state for external affairs, has been more explicit in his contempt for journalists, publicly denouncing them as “presstitutes”. The tag stuck and is now routinely used on Twitter to intimidate and dehumanise Indian journalists, especially those who question the government’s official narrative. 

The assassination of Lankesh was met with online celebration from rightwing Hindu nationalists. One BJP minister denounced those “expressing happiness on the dastardly murder”, while others have questioned why the prime minister follows the social media accounts of individuals spewing venom. “He must know that he lends enormous weight to the voices of those he singles out for attention in his busy schedule and that they in turn can claim to speak for him,” the Indian Express wrote in an editorial last week. 

India’s gladiatorial television news debates mirror the growing vitriol in public discourse. Guests hardly listen to fellow panellists, or attempt to engage in a civil manner. Instead, India’s top rated channels and their highly partisan anchors encourage guests to shout down and drown out alternative points of view. 

Public debate in India now largely consists in verbal violence and intimidation. It is this degeneration that paved the way for Lankesh’s assassination, which many fear is a harbinger of more to come.

amy.kazmin@ft.com

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