With these impassioned words, Indian journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh would lash the editors in Delhi over the telephone. Based in Bangalore in the Southern Indian state of Karnataka, Lankesh was overseeing a weekly edition of a Kannada-language magazine. She had a firmly established reputation for challenging the ruling government, as well as injustice whenever and wherever she saw it. She was anything but timid.
But on 5 September, 2017, just three weeks ago, three gunmen attacked just as she came into her house in Bangalore. As one obituary read, “Gauri Lankesh spoke truth to all forms of power–religious, political, caste-driven and communal. She was unafraid of making enemies, and she made them with regularity.” The article goes on to say,”Colleagues say that Lankesh was fearless, reckless, and driven by injustice.” Indeed in her own words, “I am against fascist and communal politics….I oppose the caste-system which is unfair, unjust and gender-biased.”
The investigation into her murder continues, with theories abounding but no clear evidence, and to my knowledge her killers not yet apprehended or identified. Sadly it continues a trend in South Asia where journalists, bloggers and public intellectuals have been murdered. In Bangladesh, several bloggers have been killed in daylight in the streets of the capital Dhaka.
Speaking truth to power has never been easy or cost-free. Recently I wrote a blog post on being a “whistleblower”. (See What is the Cost of Denial? Of Speaking Truth to Power?). From Ancient Greece, the quote of Socrates fits rather well here: “The true champion of justice, if he intends to survive even for a short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone.” It is so much easier to do that, to try and ignore what is happening around us and not speak out when we should.
But of course it is more complicated than that. I must confess to my own timidity so many times. I want to be a “true champion of justice” yet so often I’m afraid. The challenge, however, is to make sure that we are also addressing our own inner areas of injustice and lack of integrity, and speaking out on issues that are also closer to home right around us. It is not an either-or, but a both-and. It is not that first we must address our own issues, and then we will be able to speak truth to power. It is not that simple. Some of the greatest campaigners for moral change, like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and so many others in history, were people who had great flaws and inner contradictions. These did not keep them from speaking out for change in their world, perhaps in fact it strengthened their voice.
But each of these above were remarkably self-aware, they knew well their own vulnerabilities and needs. Yet, as Argentine writer Alberto Manguel so beautifully writes, their goal was not only “to seek public victory or praise by merely a private victory over oneself, an honorable role in the intimate sphere”, but also by “vanquishing the cowardly impulse to close one’s eyes to injustice and to remain silent about society’s wrongdoings.”
The thing is, speaking truth to power can get you killed. Yes, that is true. But there are countless other times in our daily lives where we are needing to speak truth to ourselves, and to speak truth into the situations of life that we find ourselves. Again, it is not that as we do that regularly, we will then be ready for the big public battles in society. Sometimes we have to do it all at the same time. There is not often an easy sequence, as is sometimes presented in books and one-dimensional movies. Life is not that easy. It is complex, it is messy. We muddle along doing our best, seeking to be a “true champion of justice” in our world but often feeling like we have made an even bigger mess.
I honor today the memory of Gauri Lankesh. She was only 55 when she was murdered. Yes, I am one of the timid ones she would have rebuked. But people like her give me courage, to not give up my own struggle with myself, with my context, and with my larger world.