While progressive forces in the South Asian community were gearing up to celebrate the birth anniversary of Paash—a revolutionary Punjabi poet—on September 9, news of the assassination of journalist Gauri Lankesh shook everyone to the core.
Paash was a byproduct of the late 1960s radical communist campaign known as the "Naxalite" movement that united oppressed communities and the working class in India. He was at the forefront of many people's struggles and captured the literary landscape of Punjab due to his fiery poetry, which had a strong mass appeal because of its rebellious content.
Born on September 9, 1950, as Avtar Sandhu, Paash chose his pen name after Paasha (a.k.a. Pavel), the hero of The Mother, a famous novel by Maxim Gorky.
Paash challenged not only the Indian state through his poems, but also wrote against both Hindu and Sikh fundamentalism. The emergence of the Hindu right and Sikh fanaticism during the 1980s vitiated the social environment of Punjab. While Sikh extremists were seeking a separate homeland of Khalistan, an imaginary country to be carved out of India, Hindu fundamentalists terrorized Sikhs and other minority groups across India in order to establish a Hindu nation.
Sensing that this would lead to another religious partition of India—like in 1947 that resulted in separation of Muslim Pakistan and large-scale sectarian violence—Paash formed Anti 47 Front. He pulled no punches while condemning the reactionary forces of any stripe.
As a result, the Khalistan Commando Force (KCF), which was involved in an armed insurgency in Punjab, assassinated him in 1988.
The KCF took responsibility of murdering him and other communist activists in the state for their opposition to the movement for Khalistan. The organization justified the action by branding Paash as "anti Sikh".
Many supporters of Khalistan continue to malign him on social media and deny their hand in his murder. They claim that Paash might have been killed for personal and not political reasons.
It is pertinent to mention here that Hindu nationalists too have problem with the writings of Paash. The ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has tried to ban his poetry in educational institutions.
Now let's fastforward to 2017. On September 5, journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered in the southern state of Karnataka by unknown assailants.
Much like Paash, Lankesh was also a vocal critic of religious fanaticism. She consistently wrote against the growing threat of Hindu extremism under a right wing BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Lankesh had been receiving death threats and as soon as the news of her murder came, the supporters of Modi began celebrating her death on social media. Not only did some try to rationalize her killing but they also tried to prove that she might have been killed for nonpolitical reasons.
Apart from these two individuals, there were many more free thinkers and writers who have been killed in India over all these years. While there are many similarities between the killings of Paash and Lankesh and the reaction that followed, the Indian state handled the two situations very differently.
Khalistani extremists who claim to be the defenders of the minority Sikh community were frequently killed in staged police shootouts. The Indian authorities duly rewarded the police for eliminating them in the name of "national interest".
The killers of Paash and other writers like him in Punjab were punished by using extrajudicial means in the name of peace. But that has never been the case with the Hindu right extremists. Rather, those indulging in the killings and bombings in the name of a Hindu nation continue to enjoy the state's patronage.
Unsurprisingly under Modi government, they have become emboldened. So much so, some trolls on social media who've been using filthy language against Lankesh after her murder were being followed by Modi.
There seems to be a complete lack of political will to arrest such elements, let alone have them punished. A case in point is that of Lt. Col. Srikant Purohit, a serving army officer who was arrested for being a part of Hindu supremacist group that has been targeting Muslims through bomb blasts.
Only recently he was released on bail and was reinstated on the job even before the court could give its final verdict in the case.
This reflects badly on a state whose constitution guarantees equal treatment to all religious communities. If India is truly a pluralist and diverse nation then it must under all circumstances treat extremists of both the minority and the majority communities alike.
Those who keep boasting over the restoration of peace in Punjab and ending the Sikh militancy with an iron fist owe an explanation why the Hindu extremists are not being dealt with firmly when they too are posing a threat to the unity and diversity of the country. Such tendencies only show that India is increasingly becoming a Hindu theocracy in spite of its official mandate to remain secular.