Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was in a chatty mood on the evening of 18 August 2013. The 67 – year – old rationalist had delivered a lecture against superstition in the town of Rahimatpur, in Maharashtra’s Satara district, and was returning in a car to his home in Satara city, about a half – hour drive away. On the way, Dabholkar held forth on “the benefits of a healthy diet, regular exercise and time management, to help one live longer,” recounted Shivaji Raut, an old friend and right – to – information campaigner, who was with him on the journey.
Though he arrived home quite late, Dabholkar rose early the next morning to catch a 6 am bus to Pune. He generally spent the first two days of each week in the city, where he oversaw the work of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Committee), also known by the acronym MANS, an organisation he founded in 1989. While in Pune, Dabholkar would also wrap up work on the latest issue of Sadhana, a 68 – year – old weekly that he had edited for 15 years.
Dabholkar reached Pune at around half past nine, but before he could attend to his work, he was called away to Mumbai “at short notice to participate in a television debate on caste panchayats,” Vinod Shirsath, a Pune – based journalist who was then Sadhana’s executive editor, told me. By the time Dabholkar returned, it was past midnight, and he retired to a flat that belonged to the trust that ran Sadhana. He had called a press conference the following day, at which he was to speak about the need to use eco – friendly idols, instead of plaster ones, for immersion in ponds, lakes and rivers during the upcoming Ganpati festival.
Dabholkar woke up on the morning of 20 August, put on a simple violet khadi shirt and light cotton trousers, and stepped out of the flat for a walk. He walked roughly a kilometre till he came to the Omkareshwar bridge, which spans the Mutha river and connects the Omkareshwar temple on one bank to the popular Bal Gandharva auditorium on the other. Dabholkar began to cross the bridge from the temple end.
Two men had been skulking around the area, waiting for him. The activist had walked less than half the length of the bridge when the men approached him and started firing at him. One bullet slammed into his temple, above his right eye, and entered his skull. Another cut through his neck and lodged in his chest. The third grazed his abdomen. Dabholkar slumped face down to the ground, as blood gushed out of his wounds. The shooters darted away, jumped onto a motorcycle parked nearby, and sped off into one of the tiny lanes that wind through the old city.
Dabholkar’s son, Hamid, who was in Satara, received a call from a policeman at around 8.30 that morning, informing him of what had happened. He called Shirsath immediately, and told him that Dabholkar had been “shot and admitted to Sassoon Hospital.” He added: “You please rush, I’m leaving too.” But Dabholkar had died as soon as he was shot. Later that same day, the activist’s body was transported to Satara. Thousands streamed to his house to pay their final respects—including the then chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, and the state’s home minister, RR Patil. Raut recounted that many of the mourners were deep in shock, and that a silence hung heavy over the house.
But not everyone present that day remained subdued. Raut remembered that “the silence was broken by comrade Govind Pansare’s arrival late evening from Kolhapur.” The 81 – year – old Pansare, also a rationalist, and a member of the Communist Party of India, was not formally Dabholkar’s colleague—but as two public figures with similar ideologies, they were well acquainted with and supported each other’s work. When he arrived, Raut said, Pansare stood beside Dabholkar’s body and shouted slogans condemning the murder. He was vocal in the media, too. The Times of India quoted him the next day as saying, “Dabholkar’s assassination is an indicator that there’re fundamentalists and fascists among us who want to quell all rational voices with violence.”
Pansare was voicing a widespread fear: that violent Hindu groups were growing in prominence, and muzzling free speech in a region with a long – standing tradition of progressive politics and thought. In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, western Maharashtra saw the birth of movements such as Jotirao Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj, dedicated to fighting caste discrimination; and the the Prati Sarkar, an anti – imperial peasant uprising, whose participants also carried out elaborate social programmes. Dabholkar was in many ways an inheritor of this tradition, but, as he attempted to promote rationalist thought, he faced continuous opposition, often in the form of overt threats. Some of these threats came from Hindu groups, most notably the Goa – based Sanatan Sanstha—which has, since the killing, come under intense scrutiny from investigating agencies.
Pansare’s statement to the Times of India proved prophetic. A year and a half later, on the morning of 16 February 2015, he, too, was shot, near his home in Kolhapur; he died four days later. On the morning of 30 August that year, a few hundred kilometres to south, in the city of Dharwad in Karnataka, another rationalist, the scholar MM Kalburgi, who formerly served as the vice chancellor of the Kannada University in Hampi, was shot and killed in his home. Kalburgi, too, had drawn the ire of Hindu groups for speaking against superstition and idol worship. The three murders, for which no one has yet been convicted, cast a chill over the entire region, and the country, as other outspoken activists wondered if they should lower their voices.
One of the most puzzling aspects of the investigations into the three rationalists’ murders has been the ballistic analyses provided by two forensic science laboratories—one in Mumbai, and the other in Bengaluru. Just a few hours after Dabholkar was killed, two men, Manish Nagori and Vikas Khandelwal, were arrested in Navi Mumbai in connection with another case, having to do with extortion. Maharashtra’s anti – terrorism squad, or ATS, later handed them over to the Pune police for their suspected involvement in yet another case—the 2012 murder of a security guard at the University of Pune. In November 2013, the Mumbai laboratory submitted a ballistics report to the state’s then home minister, RR Patil, that linked Nagori and Khandelwal to Dabholkar’s murder, claiming that a firearm seized from them may have been used in it.
A little over two years later, in February 2016, this finding became mired in confusion after media reports emerged about new information from the Mumbai and Bengaluru laboratories. Anil Singh, an additional solicitor general appearing for the Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, told the Bombay High Court that while the Mumbai laboratory claimed that the same weapon was used in all three murders, the Bengaluru laboratory claimed that they involved different weapons. The agency sought additional time to consult other organisations, including Scotland Yard, before arriving at a conclusion.
Since the Mumbai laboratory had not officially withdrawn its first report, linking Nagori, Khandelwal and their weapon to Dabholkar’s killing, it was unclear whether the laboratory stood by that first finding. But the media did not raise this inconsistency, and instead shifted its focus away from Nagori and Khandelwal, and the first ballistic report, to the contradictions between the Bengaluru and Mumbai laboratories’ findings.
On 30 September last year, I went unannounced to the Mumbai forensic science laboratory. To my surprise – and, indeed, confusion – a ballistics expert I met, who had knowledge of the first report, reiterated the 2013 findings. He claimed that the empty shells recovered from the Dabholkar crime scene had been matched to a 7.65 millimetre country pistol seized from Nagori and Khandelwal. He insisted that “the markings on the empty shells tested by us matched with the recovered weapon.”
Even if the contradiction between the Bengaluru and Mumbai laboratories’ claims can be put down to a difference of professional opinion, the Mumbai laboratory’s 2016 claim was difficult to reconcile with its own 2013 assertion. Nagori and Khandelwal were let off in the Dabholkar case in April 2014 on a technicality—that the police did not file a charge sheet against them within 90 days of their arrest, as required by law. But how, I wondered, could a weapon seized from the two men in 2013 have been used in Pansare and Kalburgi’s murders in 2015?
On the day Dabholkar was murdered, after the news had broken, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, or HJS, a group affiliated to the Sanatan Sanstha, uploaded onto its website a photograph of the activist with a red “X” over his face. The move drew sharp criticism, and the cybercrime cell of the Pune police directed the HJS to take the image down. The matter ended there.
The Sanstha had long kept up an attack against Dabholkar, disrupting his public meetings, criticising him in its publications and on its websites, and terming him a “Hindudrohi,” or traitor to Hindus. But this image echoed the many anonymous threats that Dabholkar received while he was alive. Perhaps the last of these read, “Remember Gandhi. Remember what we did to him” – a threat that his family told me he received often, sometimes even at public functions. Dabholkar chose to ignore these warnings, and declined police protection.
A day after Dabholkar’s death, the Sanstha published a statement by its founder, Jayant Athavale, on the front page of its website. It read, “Births and deaths are pre – destined and everybody gets the fruit of their karma. Instead of dying bedridden through illness, or after some surgery, such a death for Dabholkar is a blessing of the Almighty.” Athavale added that though “Dabholkar was an atheist and did not believe in god, the same god would give solace to the departed soul.”
These sinister remarks were widely reported, and left many speculating about possible links between the organisation and the murder. The Sanstha was already suspected to have had a hand in several acts of violence. In 2008, several of its “seekers” were arrested in connection with explosions of crude bombs that had taken place that year. Two blasts occurred at auditoriums – in Navi Mumbai and Thane – that were staging the play Amhi Pachpute, which the HJS claimed hurt Hindu sentiments; and one blast took place at a movie theatre in Panvel that was screening the Bollywood film Jodhaa Akbar, which the organisation claimed showed a Hindu woman in a poor light. Two Sanstha members – Vikram Bhave and Ramesh Gadkari – were convicted for the first two blasts, and sentenced to ten years in prison. But the Bombay High Court later granted them bail and suspended their punishment—their appeals are pending before the court. The Sanstha denied having any role in the incidents, and claimed that the arrested men had been acting independently.
But the Sanstha’s discourse suggested that it had a tendency towards violence. In a July 2008 article titled ‘Spiritual as Criminal?’ for the website Countercurrents, the journalist Subhash Gatade wrote that while most of the organisation’s texts deal with purportedly spiritual subjects, “a very important text in the training of the seekers is ‘Texts on Defence.’” Through it, Gatade pointed out, Sanstha seekers were “imparted training with air rifles.” He also cited several instances in which Sanstha texts appeared to condone violence. Athavale, for instance, wrote in his book Science and Spirituality, “Destroy evildoers if you have been advised by saints or Gurus to do so. Then these acts are not registered in your name.”
A website that promotes Athavale’s work describes him as a “psychiatrist and clinical hypnotherapist” from Mumbai, who discovered the limits of modern medicine when he saw that some of his own patients were cured only after they sought help from “a holy person or place.” He founded the Sanstha in the neighbouring state of Goa in 1999, to, according to the group’s website, “impart spiritual knowledge to the curious in the society.” The organisation also sought to cultivate religious tendencies in people, and provide “personal guidance to seekers for their spiritual uplift.” From 1985 onwards, Athavale, a slight, bespectacled man, dedicated himself to the spiritual realm, and, the site says, soon started showing signs of divinity—his hair reportedly began to turn golden in colour, and the Devanagari symbol for “Om” appeared on his fingernails, his tongue and parts of his skin.
Sanstha officials maintain that Athavale is no longer involved in the activities of the organisation. “Since year 2006, because of various ailments and old age, he has remained confined to His room,” Abhay Vartak, a spokesperson, told me over email. “Therefore, all the activities of the Sanstha and management of various Ashrams are looked after by the seekers and trustees of Sanatan Sanstha.”
The organisation had drawn the suspicion of the state government several years ago. I obtained a copy of an April 2011 letter from the home ministry of the Maharashtra state government – then headed by a Congress and Nationalist Congress Party coalition—to the central home ministry – then headed by the Congress – led United Progressive Alliance. The letter said, “You are informed that three cases are registered against activists of Sanatan Sanstha regarding Bomb Blasts. The arrested accused have taken encouragement, incitement, motivation, from the writings in Sanatan Prabhat” – the Sanstha’s official publication. Enclosing “a detailed report” on the blasts, the letter said, “this government has reached the conclusion that the aforesaid organisation is liable to be banned with its affiliated sister concerns/trusts.” But the request was never implemented, and the Sanstha remained active.
Also ineffective in curbing the Sanstha’s activities was a petition to the Bombay High Court by a group of families from Nashik, Pune, Osmanabad and Ahmednagar districts. The petitioners complained that young female members of their families had abandoned them and joined Sanstha ashrams. One submission said that the Sanstha, “for achieving their goal of Ishwari Rajya,” or a divine kingdom, published material that “directs, canvasses its members to overthrow the system established as per Constitution of India, 1950.” The petitioners contended that this amounted to “waging a war against the Indian state,” and asked the court to declare the Sanatan Sanstha a terrorist organisation, and ban it.
At the end of November 2013, a few months after Dabholkar’s murder, his family met the Maharashtra politician Sushil Kumar Shinde, then the UPA government’s home minister, to also seek a ban on the organisation. When I met Shinde at his home in Mumbai on 30 September last year, he refused to accept responsibility in the matter, saying, “Yes, I met them. But we were voted out.”
As investigations into the murders of Dabholkar and Pansare have progressed, disturbing links appear to have emerged between the organisation and the killings. On 16 September 2015, a special investigation team of the Maharashtra police arrested a seeker named Sameer Gaikwad in Sangli on suspicion of his involvement in Pansare’s death. And on 10 June this year, the CBI arrested another seeker, a Panvel – based doctor named Virendra Tawade, on suspicion of his role in Dabholkar’s killing.
Rather than retreat in the face of such scrutiny, the Sanstha has gone on the offensive. On 23 September 2015, a battery of 31 lawyers, led by Sanjiv Punalekar, who is associated with a group known as the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad, appeared to defend Gaikwad when the SIT presented him before a Kolhapur magistrate to seek his custody. In his email, Abhay Vartak, too, supported Gaikwad, claiming that the police was “struggling to find evidence” against him. He insisted that “Sameer is innocent and the so called investigation is a conspiracy.” He described Tawade’s arrest, too, as a conspiracy, and said that it had “only delayed Sameer’s release on bail; else he would have been out of jail by now.”
In a brief report on 7 October 2015, accompanied by a photograph, Sanatan Prabhat announced that 30 people, including Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal activists, had met at Omkareshwar temple three days earlier to pledge their support for the Sanstha. The groups pledged to “co – operate” and “communicate Sanatan’s true position to the people, through social media,” it said. Dabholkar’s son Hamid, who was alerted to the report by an email, was astonished that the group—organised under the banner of the HJS—could meet so brazenly, just metres from the spot where Dabholkar was murdered.
Meanwhile, the Sanstha continues to spew violent rhetoric. The September edition of Sanatan Prabhat carried a press release from the HJS on the hanging of Yakub Memon, convicted in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. The release called for stricter action against “anti – national” elements. Citing a seventeenth – century saint and spiritual poet especially revered in his home district of Satara, the release said that, according to “Samartha Ramdas Swami’s teaching, anti – nationals are like dogs, they must be killed.”
I asked Vartak about the Sanstha’s relationship to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, which has been the subject of some speculation. In his email, he said, “The spread of activities of the RSS has been phenomenal; however, they lack spiritual base. Sanatan Sanstha is trying to provide the missing link. End of the day, RSS and Sanatan Sanstha are organisations that are closely associated with Hindutva; needless to say that there could be some common threads.”
In September 2015, after hearing petitions filed by the families of Dabholkar and Pansare, the Bombay High Court expressed concern over the investigations into their cases—the former’s by the CBI and the latter’s by a special investigation team, or SIT. The court criticised both for their failure to make progress. “It is a disturbing factor,” said the bench of Justices Ranjit More and Rajesh Ketkar.
After this, the investigations appeared to pick up pace. A week after the court began hearing the petitions, the SIT arrested Gaikwad in connection with the Pansare murder. This was the first major breakthrough in the nearly seven months since the crime.
Other names, too, began to emerge. In the second week of October, a senior police officer in Kolhapur told me that the police had vital clues to Gaikwad’s close links to a man named Rudra Patil, a seeker from Sangli. Patil was also wanted in a 2009 case regarding a bomb blast in Madgaon, Goa, in which two seekers died while ferrying explosives on a scooter. He had been absconding ever since. The officer added that another absconder in the same case, a man named Sarang Akolkar, was also under investigation for links to the murders. Patil, who had studied in Kolhapur, was suspected to be involved in Pansare’s murder, the officer said. Akolkar, who was from Pune, was being investigated for his possible involvement in Dabholkar’s killing.
Arguing the case on 7 October, the two families’ lawyer, Abhay Nevagi, told the high court that investigating agencies had failed in their duty to nab Patil, even though they had issued a “red notice” to Interpol, the international policing agency, seeking his arrest. “Look at the way the agencies are operating,” he said. “He is absconding for six years.” Nevagi also pointed out that Patil’s wife, Priti, was the lawyer representing Gaikwad in Kolhapur, effectively suggesting that the agency was not thoroughly probing potential links between suspects.
In its comments, the court, which had read confidential reports on the progress of the investigations, concurred with the families on the question of Patil’s importance, and curtly criticised the agencies’ work. “The report is silent on steps taken to nab Rudra Patil,” Justice More said. “There is no doubt of some link.”
Two months later, on 14 December, the SIT filed a 372 – page charge sheet against Gaikwad in a Kolhapur court. The document contained the statements of 77 witnesses, including that of the 14 – year – old boy who was present at the scene of Pansare’s murder, and who had identified Gaikwad. But the investigation seemed to stall again after this; no major developments were announced for several months. In April 2016, the court took the agencies to task again. “How many more murder anniversaries and status reports must one wait for before any concrete leads can be obtained in the two cases?” a bench of Justices SC Dharmadhikari and Shalini Phansalkar – Joshi said. On 3 May, the court told the agencies to “exhibit more promptness and expediency in completing the investigations, or at least making real progress,” and assured them that “as long as matters are before this Court, no hurdles and obstacles can be placed” before the investigations.
For the first time, the court also took note of potential links to the Sanstha, orally instructing investigating agencies to question its members. In January this year, I attended a media briefing by the special public prosecutor in the case, Harshad Nimbalkar, soon after his appointment. Nimbalkar said that there was strong evidence of the Sanstha’s involvement. The charge sheet against Gaikwad, he said, detailed a long history of enmity between Pansare and the organisation.
“A civil and other criminal cases were filed by the Sanstha against Pansare in Goa,” he said. “It had also complained to the bar council of Maharashtra and Goa against his activism. This showed that the organisation stood to benefit directly from his murder.” Nimbalkar added, “Right now, our aim is to not give any scope for Gaikwad to get bail. We will tell the court that the investigation is still on and that he may flee, like his aide Rudra Patil.” But the Sanstha’s spokesperson, Vartak, insisted that the seekers were “innocent and are being made the scapegoat.” The organisation’s lawyer, Punalekar, also told me over the phone that it was being dragged unfairly into the case.
On 29 December 2015, the Kolhapur police received an oddly ominous letter from Punalekar, in which he said that witnesses in the Pansare case could be in danger. “Western Maharashtra is infamous for criminal activities and there are chances that the witness may be the target of those who want to malign the image of the Sanatan Sanstha,” he wrote. When I spoke to him, Punalekar said his letter was not intended as a threat. “My intention was simple, and as stated, to ensure protection for the witness,” he said. Punalekar pointed an accusatory finger at the police instead. “But what was the intention of the Kolhapur police, who selectively leaked its contents to the media?” he said. “All this was being done to somehow implicate the Sanstha and its associate organisations.”
The Dabholkar case returned to the headlines on 10 June this year after the CBI arrested Virendra Tawade, a surgeon based in Panvel, and a member of the HJS. The 48 – year – old Tawade, who is originally from the coastal town of Devgad, had spent six years in Kolhapur before he moved to Satara sometime around 2006. He worked with various hospitals for two years, during which time he also led the Sanstha’s attempts to hound Dabholkar by disrupting his anti – superstition public meetings or pressurising authorities to halt them. He was produced in court on 11 June. The CBI, citing his emails, call records, and a hard disk recovered from his house, said that he had received instructions from an unidentified source to “focus on Dabholkar” three months before the murder. The same day, media reports appeared, quoting CBI sources saying that Tawade could be a key conspirator, and may have arranged a weapon and bullets for the crime.
A senior CBI officer involved in the case told me that Tawade had been in touch with Akolkar, and had undergone arms training in the village of Karajnagi in Jath taluka, in Sangli. The officer said that this was the native village of Rudra Patil, and of his cousin, Malgonda—one of the two men who died in the Goa blast.
While Tawade’s arrest seemed like a breakthrough, in mid June the Mumbai Mirror and the Times of India published a sensational story of a statement made to the CBI by a key witness in the presence of a magistrate, which severely dented the agencies’ claims that they were conducting an effective investigation. The witness, a Kolhapur resident, said he had worked with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and the Sanatan Sanstha, but was not a formal part of any organisation. By his account, “around 2013,” Tawade approached him, and asked him for help in manufacturing a revolver, procuring bullets, and sheltering two men. The witness said he wriggled out of the requests. “On August 20, 2013, I heard about Dr Narendra Dabholkar being shot dead and my mind went over my entire interaction with Dr Tawde,” the Mumbai Mirror report said. “He and others in his group knew of Dr Dabholkar’s exact whereabouts. I called my policeman friend and asked him to get in touch with any senior officer and to please fix an appointment for me. I also told him that I wanted him to share my apprehensions with his seniors.”
The witness said he met senior police officials in Kolhapur, and later an officer of the ATS. He claimed that he told the ATS officer that he “would be willing to testify in court if required,” and that the officer “said OK but did nothing about it.” The Mumbai Mirror report quotes him as saying that, a year and a half later, “on February 2015, Govind Pansare was shot dead.”
The report continued with the witness’s account. “Within hours of the attack on Pansare, a police officer from Rajarampuri division of Kolhapur contacted me,” the man reportedly said. He claimed that he, once again, told the police everything he knew, but that, “once again, nothing happened.” It was only in January 2016 that the CBI approached him, and made him a witness in the Dabholkar case.
In an editorial titled ‘A “Tolerant” State’ published on 18 June 2016, the Economic and Political Weekly observed, “While Dabholkar, Pansare and MM Kalburgi’s murders (as well as the harassment meted out to others like them) are deplorable, what is even more despicable is the silence of large sections of the population and the continuing support of political interests to their tormentors.” The absence of a proper government response, the editorial argued, “is a clear indication that citizens feel they are not safe if they speak out against entrenched religious vested interests and that the state will not take their complaints seriously.” It warned that a society “that cannot tolerate dissenting views or keeps quiet in the face of a violent reaction to such views, is staring at a cultural and intellectual abyss.”
(Excerpts from the Article published in Caravan, August 2016)