NEW DELHI — Gauri Lankesh, one of India’s most outspoken journalists, was walking into her house on Tuesday night.
It was around 8. The night was warm. She was alone.
As she stepped through her gate, just feet from her front door, several gunshots rang out.
She was killed instantly in what political opposition officials say appears to be yet another assassination of an intellectual who publicly criticized India’s governing party and the Hindu agenda it has pursued. In recent years, at least three other anti-establishment activists have been silenced by bullets.
Ms. Lankesh’s death, which monopolized television news coverage on Wednesday, set off protests across India, a country increasingly polarized by supporters of the Hindu nationalist governing party and its detractors.
ome of Mrs. Lankesh’s friends say they have no idea who killed her. But among government opponents, the circumstances of the shooting fueled suspicions that governing party backers, emboldened by their leaders to wipe out their enemies, were behind it.
“Anybody who speaks against the RSS/BJP is attacked & even killed,’’ Rahul Gandhi, an opposition leader, said in a Twitter message. (R.S.S. is a Hindu organization that is closely connected to India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party.) “They want to impose only one ideology which is against the nature of India.”
Nitin Gadkari, a cabinet minister, said the accusation was “baseless” and “false.” The governing party and its affiliates, he said, had “no relation to the murder of Gauri Lankesh.”
Ms. Lankesh, 55, would rarely back down from a fight, but was also known for her humorous touch.
Rana Ayyub, a friend and fellow writer, said that the last time they spoke, about a month ago, Ms. Lankesh was furiously flipping through a dictionary, trying to figure out the proper pronunciation of “nincompoop.” (She planned to use the word against her critics.)
“She was fighting a very unpopular battle with the right wing of India,’’ Ms. Ayyub said, “but she had this ability to convert everything into satire.”
Many people, though, did not find it funny. Ms. Ayyub said Ms. Lankesh had received death threats every day, far too many to count, from different sides of the political equation. Those, too, she did not take seriously, Ms. Ayyub said.
“She didn’t have the faintest idea that somebody could pop bullets into her,’’ Ms. Ayyub said.
Ms. Lankesh, who lived by herself in Bengaluru, in southern India, was known as a “rationalist’’ — a term in India for people who stand against superstition and the use of religion in politics.
Lately, the rationalists have been pretty busy. Some followers of India’s governing party have attacked Muslims and pushed a hard-line Hindu agenda. But many Indians don’t share this outlook and have tried to fight back, arguing that India is losing its multicultural identity and becoming more of a one-party, Hindu state.
The three other activists killed in a somewhat similar manner in the past four years had also opposed the rise of hard-line Hinduism.
The daughter of a celebrated poet, Ms. Lankesh was the editor of a self-named weekly magazine. She wore her silver hair short and favored long shirts and jeans. She specialized in feminist politics and literature, and lashed out at politicians of all stripes. She was sometimes criticized for showing some sympathy to Maoist rebels who have operated in India for years and destabilized large parts of the center of the country.
Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party had been annoyed with Ms. Lankesh for years and sued her for defamation. The first court to hear the case convicted her and sentenced her to six months in prison last year, but she was granted bail while the case was on appeal.
S. N. Sinha, president of India’s 28,000-member journalist union and a member of a news oversight council, said the council had gotten many complaints about Ms. Lankesh. “She used to write very strongly,” Mr. Sinha said. “We warned her she has to be a little careful in her writing. It wasn’t the content; it was her language.”
On Monday, the day before she was killed, she shared a post on her Facebook page that was written by someone else. “The RSS is the terrorist organization,” it read.
But Mr. Sinha was not among Ms. Lankesh’s critics. A free press is taken very seriously in India, especially now, he said.
“It’s getting very stressful,” Mr. Sinha said. “The followers of the ruling class don’t accept any questioning. They just want you to say what they do is good. If you question them, they don’t accept that.”
Police officials have released little information about Ms. Lankesh’s killing. They say she was shot at point-blank range with a high-caliber pistol as she entered her yard in Bengaluru. Neighbors found her dead from several gunshots to the head and chest, lying on the ground between the front gate and her veranda. Some witnesses reported hearing the sound of a motorcycle or scooter right after the shots.
In an interview on television, her brother said the authorities had told him that security cameras had captured images of the killer riding up on a motorcycle and firing. The killer’s face was obscured by a motorcycle helmet.
On Wednesday, as Ms. Lankesh was given a state funeral, journalists, activists and students poured into the streets of Bengaluru, Kolkata, Hyderabad, New Delhi and other cities to express their outrage.
Some people shook their fists and chanted slogans. Others marched quietly, with candles, holding up large pictures of Ms. Lankesh.