Double standards

Print edition : September 28, 2018

Sambhaji Bhide, president of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan. Photo: Vibhav Birwatkar

Milind Ekbote of the Samasta Hindu Aghadi. He and Bhide are said to be the instigators of the Bhima Koregaon violence. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The contrast in the handling of the cases of social activists arrested in connection with the Elgar Parishad and those relating to the investigation into the killings of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and Gauri Lankesh is all too obvious. At a news conference in Mumbai, organisations defending the social activists said the arrests were done to deflect attention from the cases involving the members of the Sanatan Sanstha. Sanatan Sanstha is an organisation that promotes Hindutva through a web of fringe groups spread across Maharashtra and Karnataka. It is said to have an agenda of creating a Hindu Rashtra by 2023.

Dabholkar, a rationalist and a social activist, was shot dead in 2013. Two years later, Pansare, a left-wing politician, and M.M. Kalburgi, a scholar, fell to bullets. In 2017, Gauri Lankesh, a journalist, met with the same fate.

The outrage that followed Gauri Lankesh’s killing mobilised the police in Maharashtra and Karnataka to track the killers of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi. Until then very little headway had been made in this regard. And while chasing Gauri Lankesh’s killers, in June 2018, a breakthrough was made when it was found that the killings of Dabholkar and Pansare were linked to that of hers.

Investigations have revealed the links of a complex web of Hindu fringe groups such as the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti to the Sanatan Sanstha. There appears to be a shadowy organisation that works with members of these groups who carry out the attacks. It is believed that the killers of all the four intellectuals are the same or are in some way connected. A police source, not willing to be named, said as each organisation was independent it would take time to find tangible evidence linking them to the Sanatan Sanstha and therefore to unravel the plot.

In spite of substantial evidence provided by Dabholkar’s and Pansare’s family members who believe the Sanatan Sanstha, along with other fringe groups, were behind the conspiracy to murder, the authorities had refused to pursue those leads. But Gauri Lankesh’s killing, which attracted much attention, forced their hands to crack down on such outfits and finally arrest 11 people in connection with all the murders.

Amol Kale, a Hindu Janajagruti Samiti member accused in the Gauri Lankesh murder case, had recorded some names in a diary, which led the Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) to the home of Sanatan sadak (worker) Vaibhav Raut in Nallasopara, north Mumbai, in August 2018. Here they seized 20 crude bombs, two gelatin sticks, four electronic and 22 non-electronic detonators, 150 grams of explosive powder, two bottles labelled “poison”, batteries, soldering equipment, and a bomb circuit drawing. Explosives and firearms were also seized from Pune and Solapur from where Sharad Kalaskar, Sudhanwa Gondhalekar, Sachin Andure, Avinash Pawar and Shrikant Pangarkar were arrested.

Yet it is to be seen how the case goes as the handling of cases of terror against the Sanatan Sanstha has not been so encouraging. For instance, in 2008 an accidental bomb blast in Goa killed two people who were reportedly members of the Sanatan Sanstha. Rudra Patil, who knew the deceased and was also a sadak, has been absconding since. Little effort has gone into tracing him. Another two Sanatan Sanstha members, Ramesh Gadkari and Vikram Bhave, were convicted for their roles in the 2008 Thane and Vashi bomb blasts, but they were acquitted in 2013.

The police have also been soft-pedalling the cases relating to Sambaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, who are reportedly the main instigators of the Bhima Koregaon violence on January 1, 2018. Bhide’s organisation, Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, has links with the Sanatan Sanstha.

On the other hand, 10 activists (five of them were arrested in June), some of whom were not at the Elgar Parishad, have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, which gives no scope for anticipatory bail. The activists have been accused of instigating the violence that erupted after the Elgar Parishad, during the Bhima Koregaon celebrations, for having naxalite links and for conspiring to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In a September 6 hearing, the Pune Police stated that the social activists were arrested on the basis of material recovered during a probe carried out against certain others in June. The Maharashtra government says it has “cogent evidence” to show that the arrested persons were “active members” of the banned CPI (Maoist) who were in the process of creating large-scale violence and destruction of property resulting in chaos.

Meanwhile, Bhide roams free after having been given a clean chit by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Maharashtra government. Ekbote was arrested but is out on bail.

Bhide, 80, based in Sangli, was spotted near the Bhima Koregaon site where Dalits gather to commemorate their martyrs. Eyewitness accounts say he was addressing large gatherings of Maratha youths. Known for his inflammatory speeches against minorities and Dalits, in all likelihood he was mobilising them to do something on the day of the celebrations.

Similarly, Ekbote was also spotted in the district mobilising Maratha youths. In spite of video recordings of his hate speeches and instigation of violence at Bhima-Koregaon, Ekbote managed to evade arrest. He was finally arrested after the Supreme Court, on March 14, cancelled his interim bail. A few months later he was out on bail.