Someone thought it was a good idea to hold a protest-vigil on Carter Road at 6 PM. It wasn’t—it was too nice. Carter Road is the best bit of seaside promenade in the near-suburbs of Bombay. At six the dissolving sun cast soft cherry light on the crowd, and the breeze came in over the waves and made it hard to hear slogans. It soothed away the pained amazement I had felt since I heard Gauri Lankesh was dead, shot down on her driveway in my hometown.
I couldn’t focus. Gauri was a journalist and tough old leftie from Bengaluru, the capital of the state of Karnataka in south India. The last time I had met her was two years earlier, at another protest-vigil for the scholar M. M. Kalburgi, after he’d been shot dead at his front door. It was like a curse-movie. Kalburgi killed, vigil, meet Gauri; Gauri killed, vigil, and here I was with these people. One of them would be dead in two years: Right? I asked the guy next to me, a writer of speculative fiction.
“No,” he said, “I think that means you’re next.”
On reflection, I didn’t think anyone here was next in line. It was the wrong gathering for that. Dozen of vigils were underway around India, and three in Bombay alone: Old-school hacks at the Press Club; leftist students at Vashi Station; and us on the Carter Road esplanade. As protests go, ours was tiny and pretty louche. Seasoned protesters chanted in a huddle, but making up the numbers were the near-suburbs Bombay set, web editors and filmmakers, stand-up comics, indie film-stars dressed down in prêt; a few fit boys and girls I recognized from Nike billboards. You could denigrate them as champagne-sipping liberals, and you’d be right. But the champagne would have to be free.
In gentler times, because of import controls, the joke was that Indians drank more scotch each year than was made in Scotland. Today, Indian liberals supposedly sip more champagne than is made in Champagne. Since Narendra Modi was elected prime minister in 2014, with 31 percent of the vote, liberals have been framed as the sole force still resisting him. Real India is all in, but we sip, conduct elite hypocrisies, and aid our civilizational enemies. Using entrenched influence, we undermine Modi in surprising ways. When militants attacked Indian soldiers in the snowy heights of Kashmir, primetime TV shows denounced us: “Why is the liberal league silent? Watch @thenewshour and tweet with #LiberalHypocisyExposed [sic].”
Other nights, we are denounced even more. “Deshdrohi,” or “traitor”—we hear that a lot. It’s enough to make you switch to scotch.
Inevitably, flaying the liberals caught on among liberals. At a shift in the wind we began falling upon one another. Today you’re fair game for anyone who ever stood to your right at the bar at the Jaipur Literature Festival. We are our own best accusers, and the charge is a slate of cultural failings: the champagne, knowing what asparagus is, liking Sufi music or speaking fancy English. These clichés have the power to sting—and to stick. Deracination becomes a crime worse than murder, provided murder is backed by the will of the people. And the election proved that liberals knew nothing about the will of the people.
Gauri Lankesh was no liberal anyway. She was editor of the Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a caustic leftist tabloid published in Kannada, the main language spoken in Karnataka. The paper grew out of a similar paper, Lankesh Patrike, created by her father, the poet P. Lankesh. Both had a readership that was middle- or lower-middle class, largely rural, and important to politicians. Gauri had worked in the English press, but moved back to Kannada to reach those readers. Her Patrike refused ads or any form of sponsorship and relied entirely on newsstand revenue. To run it, Gauri accepted for herself a life of genteel poverty. By the end she had stopped paying her insurance premiums. So much for champagne.
In person, she had an unfailing solidarity with people targeted by power, in Karnataka and at the far ends of India. The barbs of the Patrike had many targets, above all the Hindu right and extreme right, whose organizations are collectively known as “the Sangh,” or the Group. The BJP, Narendra Modi’s ruling party, is the formal political wing of the Sangh. Since forming the national government in 2014, it has with its allies also dominated the large Indian states. Only one large state is still governed by the old, shabby-centrist Congress Party: Karnataka.
Broadly speaking, ethnic competition in India does not take place between Hindus and Muslims, as the BJP would prefer. It is staged between regionally differing dominant castes. Muslims, tribal groups, and minority castes take part as auxiliaries. The dream of the Sangh, to politically consolidate Hindus without challenging the practice of caste, is not easy to bring about. And Karnataka is a particular challenge: The largest group here, the Lingayats (to which Gauri belonged) are not properly a caste at all, but a reformist sect originating in a 12th-century rebellion against the caste system. In the present, Lingayats are consumed by a debate over whether they are Hindus at all, as well as by managing a conservative fringe, the Veerashaivas, who are debating if they are Lingayats at all (but who are definitely Hindus).
In 2015, M. M. Kalburgi, a scholar of the verses at the foundation of Lingayat thought, was shot dead in his peaceful university town in northern Karnataka. I understood nothing of the doctrinal war taking place amidst the Lingayats, nor the implications for the political color of the region. Gauri explained: Kalburgi had insisted that Lingayats were not Hindus, and had to be recognized as a religious minority. (Gauri agreed.) The great Lingayat mathas, or seminaries, were deliberating over whether to follow suit. This was bad news for the local Sangh and the allied Veerashaiva hardcore, and well, now Kalburgi was dead, shot down with an improvised 7.65mm pistol.
If your eyes glazed over these last paragraphs, that’s okay: So did most Indians’. Point is, for the next two years, the state investigation of Kalburgi’s murder went nowhere, and Gauri did not cease from jabbing her finger at those forces she held culpable, including the saffron extremism gaining in the country at large. She did this in both Kannada and English papers (including for theWire.in, where I am an editor). State elections approached—and then she was dead, too. Three bullets, 7.65mm, improvised pistol.
Her body had barely hit the ground when Gauri Lankesh was raised up as a martyr of the liberal resistance. It was not always a compliment, but it also wasn’t true. As madly as they are denounced, liberals are not killed. Denunciation is a kind of publicity, and if liberals were the true threat to the Sangh, we would not receive it. The privilege of the true opposition is to be erased—from view, and then maybe physically.
Liberal-bashing works to intimidate elite critics of the regime, but its real aim is to make invisible the larger, rooted opposition to conservative Hindu hegemony. Yet murder, too, is a kind of publicity. In death, Gauri Lankesh was discovered outside of her language, and the vernacular left rediscovered with her: a thousand types that were once definitive of modern India, now meant to be forgotten. Liberal snobbery is real, and it’s worth dismantling, but real elitism is claiming that the vernacular radical, the secular laboring man, the socialist with military service, or the atheist with bad English cannot exist; as if those subjectivities can only be produced by Moet and a master’s degree.
It’s a classic, of course: The Flaying of the Elites just one more way to ignore anyone else. So we are damned, or damn ourselves, as the only class of people still at odds with the new consensus. But popular consensus from which only liberals and minorities dissent (there is a word for it in German, Volksgemeinschaft) was never anything but a sham. It is a scandal beforehand, when it is under construction; a weapon in the moment, while it stands; and an illusion in hindsight, a trap for sentimental historians. In Germany itself it never existed: In the 1920s, every third German was a part of the labor movement, a matter forcefully dealt with in the 1930s, and forgotten today. In India it is the same: the multiplicity of the vernacular left, in there among the 69 percent who didn’t vote BJP in 2014, is what still preserves our democracy. Their politics are usually more informed than any liberals’, by reading and by personal struggles. Kalburgi was one; Gauri another; the left student leaders Gauri “adopted,” after they were jailed for sedition in 2016, were others.
On TV they say the Indian liberals must die—not literally, but in spirit. Meaning they must exit from public life, to return as more compliant nationals, bowing to the country’s mood and the harsh measures it demands. I hear this daily, and the thought makes me sad, because I’m one of them. But it does not make me too worried. When the last liberal disappears, their champagne glass shattering on the tile, we will start to see the vernacular resistance, who had always outnumbered liberals by an order of magnitude, and politically outperformed them as well. Liberals must die—everyone says so—but we were never the ones worth killing.