Targeting rationalists

Voices of reason

Print edition : September 29, 2017

Narendra Dabholkar. Photo: AP

Govind Pansare. Photo: PTI

In recent years, the activists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare paid with their lives for standing up to Hindu right-wing forces.

The murder of Gauri Lankesh is uncannily similar to the killings of Narendra Dabholkar (2013) and Govind Pansare (2015). Both men were shot at close range and no one claimed responsibility. Sadly, investigations seem reduced to mere formality. While activists and the victims’ families try hard to keep the issue alive, there seems little inclination on the administration’s part to nab the culprits or even get to the bottom of the conspiracy.

Whether there is a link between the killers of Gauri Lankesh and those of Dabholkar and Pansare will be revealed when investigations into the case begin. If it is the same group (the modus operandi is identical, according to a police officer), there may be some hope of finding answers to the killing of the two highly respected rationalists who fought relentlessly against blind faith, superstition and other beliefs that they saw as irrational and exploitative. The two cases have come to the fore again with Gauri Lankesh’s killing. The failure of both State and Central agencies in tracing the assailants so far is apparent. Whether or not the lack of effort is deliberate, the latest murder will hopefully snap investigators out of their inertia. One police officer that Frontline spoke to felt that investigations into those two cases might provide leads in the Gauri Lankesh case.

Dabholkar’s family has repeatedly said that had his attackers been caught and prosecuted, Pansare might not have been killed. Similar points were raised at a rally in Mumbai after Gauri Lankesh’s killing, and the sentiment seemed to be that the killers could have been caught if there was the will to find them. The Maharashtra Police and Central agencies have cracked serious terror and underworld cases. Why are they floundering on this? Why are they not more aggressive in their search and investigations? A frightening pattern is emerging, and the state is not moving fast.

Dabholkar and Pansare were fearlessly outspoken and stuck to their mission without compromise. In spite of constant death threats from various organisations and individuals, reportedly from extreme right-wing fringe groups, they persisted in the movement to help vulnerable people from being exploited. Dabholkar apparently dismissed police protection, saying many people would be happy to see him dead and adding that it would be a worthwhile death if any good came out of it. Similarly, Pansare is known to have dismissed threats to his life, asking why anyone should target an old man like him.

Dabholkar was out on his morning walk on August 20, 2013, when two young men on a motorcycle intercepted him on the Omkareshwar bridge near Pune’s Shanivar Peth and shot him dead at close range. He was 67. The police at the time said that they were certain it was a planned killing as it was known that Dabholkar visited Pune twice a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays. Militant Hindu right-wing organisations such as the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Sanatan Sanstha, which used to constantly lash out at the rationalist and accused him of being anti-Hindu, immediately denied involvement in the murder. It later emerged that the Sanatan Sanstha might have a link to it.

Although the Maharashtra government initially offered a bounty of Rs.5 lakh for leads on Dabholkar’s murderers, little information could be gleaned. Eventually, with the Pune police failing to make any headway in the case, Ketan Tirodkar, a former journalist, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Bombay High Court asking for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over the case. The court took notice of the PIL and ordered a CBI probe.

On the basis of CCTV footage that grabbed some images of the assailants, the CBI released the names of Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar, both linked to the Sanatan Sanstha. Both are absconding. In a breakthrough that came in June 2016, the CBI followed leads to ENT specialist Dr Virendra Tawade, a member of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, which is affiliated to the Sanatan Sanstha. During a raid on Tawade’s and Akolkar’s residences, the agency recovered documents, mobile numbers, emails and other material that linked the two. The most incriminating were two emails in which Tawade instructed Akolkar on the Dabholkar murder. It found that Tawade received Rs.6,000 a month as an honorarium from the Sanatan Sanstha. Tawade is in jail and named as main conspirator in the case. But there has been little progress following his arrest.

Why Dabholkar was targeted

Why was Dabholkar targeted? As a doctor who lived in small towns in Maharashtra, Dabholkar saw that many people, including his patients, fell prey to superstitions and followed gurus, godmen, tantriks or mantriks who promised cures and miracles. A confirmed rationalist, Dabholkar decided to help vulnerable people and started the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), a committee to eradicate superstition. The organisation grew rapidly, with Dabholkar using unique and convincing methods to expose the mumbo-jumbo that godmen spread. For instance, he would go to village meetings, recreate the “miracles” some godman had performed, and prove that anyone could do these tricks.

One of his main goals was to emancipate women from superstitious practices and work for their entry into the temples that forbade women. In fact, it was Dabholkar who, under the banner of MANS, began the protest in 2000 against the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar which does not allow women into the sanctum sanctorum. Several well-known social activists joined the fight, and it became the trigger for a larger movement for women’s access to all public temples.

Dabholkar led an aggressive and successful campaign for the passing of the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill. (Some people suspect he was killed for it.) He was instrumental in drafting the legislation. In response, Hindu right-wing forces turned against him in earnest and alleged that he was attacking Hindu practices. The legislation was vehemently opposed in the Assembly by the Shiv Sena, the Bharatiya Janata Party and other Hindu right-wing organisations such as the Sanatan Prabhat and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. Even the Congress, which seemed to support his crusade, backed out, saying it would hurt some sections’ sentiments.

Dabholkar demanded that an Ordinance be promulgated as the process of enactment of the Bill would in any case be delayed because of the general election in 2014. The Bill was eventually promulgated as an Ordinance on August 24, 2013, days after he was shot. The Maharashtra Assembly passed the Bill in December that year.

At Dabholkar’s funeral, Govind Pansare, a senior communist leader in Maharashtra who had worked closely with him, shouted slogans condemning the murder and vowed to take his legacy forward. Pansare stepped up the campaign for the Black Magic Bill, as it became known, and pursued his mission to expose unhealthy practices in the name of religion. Pansare was known for his fiery and outspoken speeches. He warned that extreme Hindu groups were growing in prominence. Their mission, he said, was to muzzle anyone opposed to the concept of Hindu Rashtra. Pansare was shot on February 16, 2015. The similarities with Dabholkar’s murder were glaring. He and his wife, Uma, were out on their morning walk. As they walked back to their Kolhapur home, two men on a motorcycle drove up and shot them at close range. He died four days later. Before his shooting, Pansare was battling the collection of toll tax on the Kolhapur highway.

Pansare was the Maharashtra State secretary of the Communist Party of India and a member of the party’s national executive. A practising lawyer, he was part of a progressive group that encouraged inter-caste marriages. In the years preceding his death, he decided to take on the Hindu right wing and would give talks busting myths about Nathuram Godse that were being perpetuated by right-wing forces. Using factual information, he would often slam the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh for its version of Gandhi’s killing. Just before his death, he ensured that a function discussing the book Who killed Hemant Karkare? was not stopped by right wingers. The book alludes to Hindu groups being behind Karkare’s assassination.

In the 1980s, Pansare wrote a book in Marathi called Shivaji Kon Hota (Who was Shivaji?). Associates of Pansare say it is a balanced (and popular) account of the warrior king. In his speeches, he often argued that Shivaji was a secular ruler and not a Muslim hater or “Hindu king” as the right wing has decided to call him.

Two years have passed since his murder, and there is a reward of Rs.10 lakh for leads on his killers. Still, very little has emerged. Threatening letters which said he would meet his end are apparently in police custody.

Because the shootings were so similar, the police and the CBI conducted two forensic and ballistic tests at the Bengaluru and Mumbai laboratories. While the Mumbai laboratory claimed the same type of weapon was used in both killings, the Bengaluru laboratory said it was different. The evidence was then sent to Scotland Yard, where it languishes in a web of red tape. Dabholkar’s son said that soon after his father died the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti put up a picture of Dabholkar on its website with a big red X mark across it. The Sanatan Sanstha, short of saying good riddance, made veiled comments on the death. When so many fingers point in a certain direction, it is curious that the angle is not being pursued.

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