Senior Communist Party of India (CPI) leader and rationalist Govind Pansare, 82, died in Mumbai on February 20, five days after he was shot at in Kolhapur. He and his wife, Uma, were out on a walk in the morning when they were shot at, near their Kolhapur home. The exact details of the incident are unclear because of a lack of credible witnesses, but some say there were two attackers on a motorcycle who shot at the couple. Another version says the attackers dismounted and spoke to the couple before shooting them. Though the forensic report is still not available, the nature of the gunshots seems to indicate that the couple were shot at from a close range. One bullet hit Pansare on his neck and tore right through, emerging on the other side. The other entered through the armpit and lodged in the lung. The bullet that hit his wife went through her skull and grazed her brain. Splinters of the skull pierced the brain and though these were surgically removed, the region that controls movement has been affected. The prognosis for her is that it will be a slow recovery.
Pansare seemed to initially respond to treatment and to the surgery in which the bullets were removed, but he soon had to be air-lifted to Mumbai for more intensive treatment. He died after severe bleeding in the bullet-damaged lung. Though he had basic communication with his doctors, he was unable to speak because of heavy sedation and severe soft tissue damage to his throat. He died without speaking.
Pansare’s life was one of activism. He had been associated with social movements that essentially involved the unorganised sectors. He was also involved in the Goa liberation movement. Born in Kolhar in Ahmednagar district on November 26, 1933, Pansare saw economic injustice at first hand when his family lost its farm to moneylenders. His associates say his life’s work was to help the oppressed and the marginalised and to fight the saffronisation of society.
Through his career he had ruffled many feathers and so there is no dearth of suspects for his murder. His most recent and consistent campaigns were battling toll tax on road users in Kolhapur, breaking down myths about Nathuram Godse that were being perpetuated by right-wing forces, and revealing what he believed was the truth about the killing of Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare. All these crusades earned him enemies, and over the years he had received threats in various forms. It is understood that the police are investigating a threatening letter.
In December 2014, Pansare organised a function at a public hall in Kolhapur to discuss the book Who killed Karkare?. Written by the retired police officer S.M. Mushrif, the book speaks of the possibility of Karkare being killed by Indian agencies because he arrested Hindu nationalists in connection with the 2008 Malegaon blasts. There were attempts to stop the event, but Pansare went ahead with it.
Dr Uday Narkar, Kolhapur district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who had worked closely with Pansare, said, “He was a trenchant critic of the Hindu Right and he had the courage to confront people intellectually. He exposed them ideologically, and of late, he had been directing his fire at the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and the role of Godse in Gandhi’s assassination.” Pansare relied on a book by the journalist Jagan Phadnis called Mahatmyachi Akher (The End of Mahatma), in which he argues that Gandhi was murdered because his politics differed deeply from the beliefs of the RSS. Pansare used the data from this book in his talks and writings, much to the ire of saffron outfits.
In 1984, Pansare wrote a book called Shivaji Kon Hota (Who was Shivaji). It sold over 1,50,000 copies and was translated into numerous Indian languages. Narkar, who translated the book into English, said, “He showed Shivaji as a secular leader who held all religions in esteem.” The image of Shivaji created by the Hindu Right is of a Muslim-baiter and a Hindu king. “He used Mahatma Phule’s interpretation of Shivaji as a peasants’ king and this has greatly angered the Right,” said Narkar.
Throwback to Dabholkar murder
Pansare’s murder was uncannily similar to the August 2013 murder of the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar in Pune. Dabholkar was also shot while out on a walk in the morning by two men on a motorcycle. Dabholkar and Pansare were friends and associates in the fight against blind faith, superstition and other beliefs that they saw as irrational and exploitative. After Dabholkar was killed, Pansare had stepped up the agitation demanding that the government pass the Anti-Superstition Bill. Narkar said that some years ago, a yagna for world peace was to be performed in Kolhapur by one of the Shankaracharyas. It would have meant the usual burning of ghee and grains. Pansare protested successfully against it, “once again upsetting the orthodox element”.
After he died, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis tweeted: “Maharashtra has lost a progressive leader. The State will always remember his contribution for giving justice to the poor and depressed classes.”
The tweet served as a reminder that Maharashtra’s boast of being a progressive State had taken a hit yet again. Narkar said, “Comrade Pansare had recently been saying, let us stop calling Kolhapur progressive. We have repeatedly returned a Sena MLA. In fact, he said, let us stop calling Maharashtra a progressive State. At one level it remains an ideological memory and it still resonates, but at the social level and at the level of the peasants’ movement, it has fallen apart totally.”
Narkar said no one ever expected that Pansare would be harmed, least of all he himself. Like many committed political workers, Pansare had few concerns about his own safety. Threats were apparently quite common, but a friend said he would dismiss them saying “Who would be interested in an old man like me?”. Someone clearly had an unhealthy interest. His progressive voice was silenced in what can only be described as an act of cowardice.