Killers on the loose

Published : Sep 13, 2017 12:30 IST

THE cold-blooded murder of Gauri Lankesh has brought the focus back on the tardy progress in the investigation into the killing of another outspoken critic of the right wing, Professor M.M. Kalburgi.

On August 30, 2015, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, known for his strong stand against superstitious practices and right-wing groups, was shot dead by two unidentified persons at his residence in Dharwad. Kalburgi was reportedly speaking on his cell phone when someone knocked on the door of his house and he opened it. A moment later, his wife, Umadevi, and daughter, Roopadarshi, heard gunshots, and when they rushed out in panic, they saw Kalburgi in a pool of blood. The bullets had pierced his forehead. When he was taken to hospital, doctors declared him brought dead.

There were no eyewitnesses, and the surveillance cameras at most junctions in the city were defunct. The special investigating team constituted by the Hubballi Dharwad Police Commissioner hardly made any progress until it chanced upon CCTV footage from an institute in the neighbourhood which had images of two suspected assailants on a motorcycle.

Kalburgi had been provided security after he received threats over his remarks on idol worship (in 2014). Just a few days before he was killed, he requested the police to withdraw the armed guards deployed at his house. The police suspected a planned attack.

The police said they were investigating all angles, including the involvement of fringe elements. Meanwhile, similarities in the killings of Kalburgi and the rationalists Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar of Maharashtra started emerging. Dabholkar, the anti-superstition crusader, was shot dead on August 20, 2013, in Pune, and Pansare, the rationalist, was killed in Kolhapur in February 2015.

Following the public outcry and demands from the opposition for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Chief Minister Siddaramaiah handed over the case to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Interestingly, at one point the State Cabinet mulled over handing the case to the CBI. But at a press briefing after a Cabinet meeting in September 2015, Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister T.B. Jayachandra said: “Since giving Kalburgi’s murder case to the CBI will take time, we have decided to conduct a probe by the CID before it is handed over.” Kalburgi’s family has not insisted on a CBI probe. But activists and writers are not happy with the progress made so far.

The investigating agencies in Karnataka and Maharashtra suspect the role of the Sanatan Sanstha, a Goa-based Hindutva group, in these killings. The weapon used and the modus operandi are similar. The only difference was that while Kalburgi was shot at his own doorstep, Dabholkar and Pansare were shot while out walking in the morning.

Ballistic reports have determined that 7.65 mm countrymade pistols were used in all three assassinations. Efforts to get a forensic test done on cartridges by Scotland Yard have also failed. Meanwhile, the special investigation team (SIT) probing the killing of Gauri Lankesh has determined that a similar weapon was used in her murder too.

While the agencies had been investigating the fringe element angle since 2013, the first breakthrough came in 2016 when the CBI, which is investigating Dabholkar’s murder, arrested Dr Virendra Tawade from Pune on charges of arranging weapons and logistics. Tawade is an ENT specialist and a member of the Sanatan Sanstha.

Another member of the organisation, Sameer Gaikwad, who was arrested by the SIT of Maharashtra in connection with Pansare’s murder, was granted bail this year in June.

The CBI announced a reward of Rs.5 lakh in March 2017 for information on Tawade’s associates Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar, allegedly “sadhaks” of the Sanatan Sanstha, who are suspected to have carried out the attack. They are absconding. The CID in Karnataka questioned Tawade in the Kalburgi case. It is also on the lookout for Rudra Patil, another “Sanatan sadhak” who is an accused in the 2010 Goa blasts case. Witness accounts pointed to his presence near Kalburgi’s residence. He, too, is absconding.

But all said and done, in a case having its roots or branches extended to a neighbouring State, it is a bit difficult to expect perfect coordination between government-owned agencies of two different States investigating different cases, considering the technical hurdles involved. While some say investigation by a Central agency might help in such cases, persons like Megha Pansare, daughter-in-law of Govind Pansare, point to the tardy progress in the Dabholkar murder, which is being investigated by the CBI, until the High Court started monitoring it. Megha Pansare, who on a few occasions met Kalburgi’s family in Dharwad, has demanded a court-monitored probe into the Kalburgi case as is being done in the case of her father-in-law.

For the record, in August the Bombay High Court, hearing the cases of Dabholkar and Pansare, observed that the murders were not “stray incidents” and the accused seemed to have “organisational backup”. Going by the way the investigation is progressing, a court-monitored probe might be able to ensure some progress in the Kalburgi case.

Girish Pattanashetti in Hubballi

( With inputs from K.V. Aditya Bharadwaj, Bengaluru.)

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