The crime

A method in the madness

Print edition : September 29, 2017

The scene of the crime outside Gauri Lankesh's house in Bengaluru on September 5. Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar

There are similarities between the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh that cannot be dismissed as merely coincidental.

The crime, chilling and macabre, was a challenge to the sovereignty of the state and to the freedom of thought and expression and individual activism. The gruesome, premeditated shooting of Gauri Lankesh on the evening of September 5 outside her home at Rajarajeshwari Nagar in south-west Bengaluru raises worrying questions about the growing intolerance of independent voices.

The 55-year-old publisher and editor of the Kannada tabloid Gauri Lankesh took on with courage the political establishment and Hindu right-wing forces through the three decades of her journalistic life. She attempted to bring naxalites to the mainstream and batted for the rights of Dalits, farmers and minorities. Certainly, she had detractors. But who would gun her down with such brutality? What was the motive, and who will gain from her death? To put it more simply, was the murder (clearly a professional hit job by as yet unidentified assailants) meant to send out a chilling message to those supporting her views?

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) D.N. Jeevaraj, who represents the Sringeri Assembly constituency, actually insinuated that she might have been killed for her statements against the Hindu right wing. At a rally in Koppa taluk in Chikmagalur a day after the murder, Jeevaraj, a former BJP whip in the Karnataka Assembly, criticised the language that Gauri Lankesh used in her writing and quoted the headline of one of her articles: “ Chaddigala Maaranahoma” (Death to wearers of shorts), a reference to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). “If she had not written ‘chaddis’ maaranahoma’ in her paper that day, would she still be alive today?” he asked his audience. Later, he claimed that he had been misquoted.

On September 5, Gauri Lankesh left her office in south Bengaluru just after seven and drove 10 kilometres to her home. She reached minutes before eight. She sat briefly in her parked car checking her mobile phone before she got out and entered her premises through the smaller of two gates. She then opened the larger gate, apparently to facilitate the parking of her car, and at this point she was shot at from what appears to be within a distance of 10 feet. The preliminary investigations were based chiefly on footage from two closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras that she had installed at the front of her home. It shows a person of medium height in a black jacket and a helmet covering the face shooting at her four times. Digital-image-enhancing software is being employed to get a clearer view of him (or her) because investigations hinge largely on the identification of the assailant.

A senior officer from the special investigating team (SIT) that has been set up by the Karnataka government to probe the murder told Frontline that three bullets pierced her body while the fourth missed; its fragments were found in a wall of her home. One bullet entered her body from behind in the shoulder region, while two hit her abdomen from the front. A doctor involved with the post-mortem examination of her body at the Victoria Hospital said that there were entry and corresponding exit wounds for each of the three bullets, which damaged her heart and lungs and killed her instantaneously. Investigating officers disclosed that a preliminary analysis of the four empty cartridges and the small fragments of the four bullets found at the site showed that a countrymade 7.65 mm pistol, which is rather commonly available, was used.

Assailants on a motorcycle again?

Footage from nearly 500 CCTV cameras installed all along the 10-km route from Gauri Lankesh’s office to her house has been analysed. But it has not yet been ascertained whether the assailants were following her or even how many of them there were. But the footage that captured the shooting also shows a light that the police said could be from the headlights of a motorcycle. The light from behind Gauri Lankesh’s car disappears when the shooter leaves after the killing. So did the assailants come on a motorcycle? So far there have been no witnesses. Gauri Lankesh’s neighbours reacted only after they heard the gunshots. They alerted the police and informed her mother when they saw the bleeding body.

Curiously, the modus operandi of the killing mirrors the one used in the murders of three other left-thinking intellectuals in recent years: the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, 67, in 2013 in Pune; Govind Pansare, 81, of the Communist Party of India in 2015 in Kolhapur; and the Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi, 77, also in 2015 in Dharwad. In each case, two assailants rode up to the victim on a motorcycle; the pillion rider either alighted or continued to sit on the motorcycle to fire from close range, and the assailants sped away after the murder. The similarities between the murders, all unsolved, do not end here. At all four sites, 7.65 mm cartridges were found, and countrymade pistols were used in all the murders.

An officer who investigated the Kalburgi murder pointed out that “the 7.65 mm pistol used to kill Kalburgi in 2015 was the same weapon that was used to murder Pansare the same year” and also that forensic evidence clearly indicated that “one of the two guns used to shoot Pansare was used to kill Dabholkar in 2013”.

An officer with the newly formed SIT said bullet fragments and cartridges from the scene of Gauri Lankesh’s murder would have to be analysed and compared with similar material found in the other three cases before any firm conclusion could be drawn on whether the same people or organisation was responsible. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is probing the Dabholkar murder; an SIT in Maharashtra is probing Pansare’s murder; and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Karnataka Police is investigating Kalburgi’s murder. The State government has announced a reward of Rs.10 lakh for information leading to the killers of Gauri Lankesh. The similarities that have been noted between the murders raise the question whether a more coordinated effort and sharing of information would not bring better results. The CBI and the Maharashtra SIT have filed charge sheets and made arrests in the Dabholkar and Pansare murders. There has as yet been no charge sheet or arrest in the Kalburgi case.

In September 2015, the Maharashtra SIT arrested Sameer Vishnu Gaikwad from Sangli in connection with Pansare’s murder and charge-sheeted him as one of the assailants. The CBI arrested an ENT doctor, Dr Virendra Tawade, from Panvel in June 2016 in connection with Dabholkar’s murder and filed a charge sheet accusing him of being part of the murder conspiracy. In November 2016, the SIT probing Pansare’s murder interrogated Tawade and filed a supplementary charge sheet accusing him of leading the conspiracy behind Pansare’s murder.

Tawade is a member of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, an organisation that is allegedly an offshoot of the Sanatan Sanstha, a Hindu radical group based in Goa and founded by Dr Jayant Athavale. Gaikwad is alleged to be an activist (or “sadhak”) of the Sanatan Sanstha. Thus, the charge-sheeting of Tawade in both the Dabholkar and Pansare murders links the organisation with both crimes. While Gaikwad has been out on bail since June 2017, Tawade has filed an application seeking bail.

Neither the CBI nor the SIT has been able to secure clinching evidence, leave alone a conviction. Officers investigating the cases say this is because two of the key accused in the Dabholkar case, Vinay Pawar and Sarang Akolkar, are absconding. They are believed to have fled to Nepal or Bhutan or Bangladesh. In March 2017, the CBI announced a reward of Rs.10 lakh for any information that could lead to their arrest. The CBI claims that both Pawar, who is from Maharashtra’s Satara district, and Akolkar, who is from Pune, are sadhaks of the Sanatan Sanstha and are “close associates of Dr Tawade and involved in the murder of Dabholkar”. Informed sources also said that Akolkar was named an accused in the 2009 Goa blast case and has a red corner notice issued against him since 2012. The CBI’s view is that Pawar killed Dabholkar, while Akolkar was a key conspirator.

There is an apprehension that the Karnataka CID’s intelligence networks, which are largely restricted to the State, do not have the wherewithal to investigate a crime or conspirators with links in another State. It has been on the hunt for Rudra Patil, also an alleged Sanatan Sanstha activist and a childhood friend of Gaikwad. He has been absconding since his name cropped up in the 2009 Goa blast case.

According to police sources, Sanatan Sanstha sadhaks are a crafty lot and emulate Israel’s Mossad and the Soviet KGB. A senior officer said: “They do not carry mobile phones. To deliver a small message they will travel 400 km and back. Among a number of dos and don’ts, the organisation prescribes a code of conduct and behaviour for its sadhaks and a charter of punishments for non-believers. If a non-believer commits a minor misdemeanour, he is punished; if it is something irreparable, death is the punishment.”

The Sanatan Sanstha denies it all. Its spokesperson, Chetan Rajhans, told Frontline that it did not advocate violence and that the “communists were attacking [it] because [it] was spreading spirituality in India”. He added: “We condemn the killing of Gauri Lankesh as we do any other killing. But for the past 10 years, the communists have employed the philosophy of ‘calling him a mad dog and shoot him, Goebbels style’. It has been three months since Tawade applied for bail. The two cases [Dabholkar and Pansare] are not progressing since the investigating agencies have no proof. We are an NGO. There is not a shred of evidence against the Sanatan Sanstha.” When questioned over sadhaks like Gaikwad, Rajhans admitted that he was part of the organisation but said that his “role was restricted to driving vehicles that belonged to the Sanatan Sanstha”. As for Tawade, he “conducted free medical clinics at the ashram”. He said the organisation had asked Pawar and Akolkar to come and “face the judiciary since their continued absence from the law was giving the Sanstha a bad name”.

Police officers were sceptical. One of them said: “It is obvious why the investigative agencies are unable to nab them….” The insinuation was that it was because both Goa and Maharashtra are now ruled by the BJP.

This indeed may be why Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has not handed over the Gauri Lankesh murder investigation to the CBI. The victim’s brother has asked for a CBI probe. But the track record of Central agencies in dealing with Hindutva terror has not been confidence-inspiring. The National Investigation Agency, for instance, dropped charges against the accused in the 2008 Malegaon bomb blast case citing a lack of evidence.

The Congress has linked Gauri Lankesh’s killing to the RSS and the BJP. Party vice president Rahul Gandhi caused a political storm when he said: “It is a philosophy. Anybody who speaks against the ideology of the BJP, against the ideology of the RSS, is pressured, beaten, attacked, and even killed. They want to impose only one ideology which is against the nature of India.” The BJP called this comment “mala fide” and claimed that disgruntled naxal groups angered by Gauri Lankesh’s efforts to bring some of them into the mainstream might be responsible for her murder.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister of Law and Justice, said: “I would like to ask Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah whether she [Gauri Lankesh] was undertaking efforts to [have naxals lay down their arms] with permission from the government. If so, why was she not given security?” He added that the slain journalist’s brother had also said that it could be the handiwork of disgruntled naxals. (Indrajit Lankesh’s statement was, however, dismissed by Gauri Lankesh’s sister Kavitha, who said that that was not possible.)

RSS denial

The RSS, too, has denied involvement. Speaking to Frontline, Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, one of the RSS’ most influential figures in the south, said that the needle of suspicion “pointed to the naxals” and that “even her [Gauri Lankesh’s] brother was saying so”. He added: “We are not in violence. We do not support violence. Our ideas may clash, defer…. But then independence of thought and expression is guaranteed under the Indian Constitution.”

The Left has condemned the killing. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury addressed a protest meeting organised by journalists’ associations in New Delhi. He noted that there was an “eerie pattern” in the murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar. He added that the Sangh Parivar was fostering a climate of bigotry, hate, intolerance and violence in India. Stating that the killing was one in a series of murders of rationalists and that they were “interconnected”, the CPI(M) said: “All of them were vociferous in their opposition to superstition, obscurantism and the perpetuation of the communal agenda by the right-wing Hindutva forces. The Polit Bureau strongly condemns the cold-blooded murder.... This killing, fits into a by now familiar pattern of eliminating voices that dare to speak out against the current climate of hate and intolerance by the RSS/BJP.”

Protests and candlelight vigils were organised by civil society across the country. In Bengaluru, Gauri Lankesh’s body was kept for public viewing in the precincts of the iconic Ravindra Kalakshetra. Just next door to the venue, at the equally iconic Town Hall, she had led numerous protests. The Chief Minister, some of his Cabinet colleagues, former Union Minister M. Veerappa Moily, theatre personalities, journalists, activists and members of civil society were among the mourners.

A number of film personalities, including Javed Akhtar, Shekhar Kapur, Dia Mirza, Nandita Das, Renuka Shahane and Shirish Kunder condemned her killing. Javed Akhtar tweeted: “Dhabolkar, Pansare, Kalburgi, and now Gauri Lankesh. If one kind of people are getting killed which kind of people are the killers.” The well-known Kannada writer Baraguru Ramachandrappa said: “It is an attack on rational and progressive thinkers in Karnataka.”

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