The cold-blooded murder of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru unleashed outrage across the country on Wednesday even as the Karnataka government quickly set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the killing.
As the media fraternity and members of civil society reacted with horror and staged protests in Bengaluru, Delhi and several other cities, leaders cutting across party lines condemned the murder. However, top leaders of the Congress and the BJP were locked in a spat over the killing in Bengaluru on Tuesday night.
"Her killing is an ominous portent for dissent in democracy and a brutal assault on freedom of press," the Editors Guild of India said in a statement.
In an audacious attack, unidentified motorcycle-borne assailants pumped bullets into 55-year-old Gauri, known for her left-leaning outlook and forthright views against Hindutva politics, as she left her car after reaching her home.
As the killing in poll-bound Karnataka sent shock waves, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah announced a SIT probe headed by an Inspector General-level officer immediately, saying his government had an "open mind" to an investigation by CBI, which the slain journalist's family has demanded. He said the murder of the senior journalist was an "organised crime."
The chief minister also instructed the police to identify and give protection to free thinkers and those involved in the Left movement.
Briefing reporters after chairing a meeting of senior police officials with Home Minister Ramalinga Reddy to take stock of the investigation, Siddaramaiah said he had told the police that the case should be taken "very seriously."
No deadline has been fixed for the SIT, but they have been asked to take up the work immediately, he said.
Investigators pinned their hopes on the CCTV footage to get some clues about the identity of the killers.
When asked about the evidence gathered so far, Siddaramaiah said there were four CCTV cameras installed at Gauri's house, and one of them had caught the image of a person wearing a helmet entering the gate and firing at her after which she collapsed two to three feet away.
Scores of journalists gathered at the Press Club of India in the national capital and demanded justice amid calls for standing up to "forces" trying to "muzzle" the voices of dissent.
Author and senior journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta termed the killing as "a defining moment" in the history of Indian media.
Journalists took out a march from the Press Club in Bengaluru to the Vidhana Soudha, the state secretariat, and submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah seeking immediate action to bring the culprits to book.
"We strongly believe that such silencing methods are an attempt of divisive forces in a democratic system to stifle the media," the memorandum said.
Press Club of Bengaluru president Sadashiva Shenoy, who was closely associated with Gauri, said, "divisive forces cannot muzzle the liberal voices by resorting to killing."
"We demand that a judicial committee should be constituted headed by a sitting high court judge to probe the brutal killing," Shenoy said.
The Union Home Ministry also sought a report from the Karnataka government over the incident.
Gauri's murder comes just days after the second anniversary of the killing of noted Kannada writer and rationalist Dr M M Kalburgi (77), who fell to bullets fired by two unidentified men at his residence at Dharwad in north Karnataka on August 30, 2015.
Asked whether there was any similarity between the killings of Gauri and Kalburgi, Siddaramaiah said, "investigation is in the preliminary stage. It is true that it is an organised crime, let police look into it."
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi said the "series of killings" of rationalists, free thinkers and journalists in the country has created an atmosphere that dissent, ideological differences and divergence of views can endanger our lives.
Echoing her views, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi asserted that anybody who speaks against the ideology of BJP and RSS, is "pressured, beaten, attacked and even killed."
Union Minister and senior BJP leader Nitin Gadkari hit back, terming as "irresponsible, baseless and false" the Congress allegation seeking to link the killing of Gauri to the BJP or people following its ideology.
Slamming the statements of Sonia and Rahul, he said levelling "untrue" allegations against the BJP is injustice to his party and detrimental to democracy.
"The present government, the BJP or any of its organisations have no connection with the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh," Gadkari told reporters. Another BJP leader GVL Narasimha Rao accused Rahul of trying to seek "political capital" out of the murder,.
After being in the mainstream media, working with The Times of India at its Bengaluru edition, 'Sunday' magazine and a Telugu T V channel, Gauri took over the mantle from her father P Lankesh, a progressive writer, to run "Lankesh Patrike". A family feud led her to start her own tabloid "Gauri Lankesh Patrike" in 2005.
With Left leanings, Gauri, an outspoken activist, was also actively involved in bringing Naxals into the mainstream and often came in conflict with rightwing outfits.