It’s been more than five and a half years since the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in Pune on August 20, 2013, and more than four years since Govind Pansare, a member of the Communist Party of India and an author who promoted rationalism, died of bullet wounds in Kolhapur on February 16, 2015.
The investigations into the copycat murders are proceeding at a snail’s pace. Both men were shot dead by assailants who were on motorcycles. Both were out on their morning walk. While Dabholkar died almost instantly, Pansare died after four days. His wife, Uma, who was with him, was also shot. She survived, but is paralysed. The similarities in the work of both men as well as the similarities in the killings led investigators to believe that the murders were linked.
Dabholkar was the founder of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, an organisation whose members travel all over the State debunking blind faith beliefs and exposing charlatans who exploit people. Pansare was fiercely against right-wing appropriation of iconic leaders like Shivaji and even wrote a book on this.
The families of the victims filed a writ petition last year seeking court supervision of the Central and State investigations. A Special Investigation Team of the Central Bureau of Investigation is handling Dabholkar’s case, while the State Criminal Investigation Department is in charge of the Pansare probe. In 2018, the CBI arrested seven men linked to Dabholkar’s killing, some of whom were apparently linked to the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore in September 2017. Four arrests have been made in Pansare’s case. But there have been no convictions in either case.
On March 14, a Bombay High Court division bench of Justices S.C. Dharmadhikari and B.P. Colabawalla said the State government had been reduced to a “laughing stock”. A report by the SIT said the team had visited a property owned by one of the accused to try and find him. The court responded by saying that it was unlikely a murder accused who was being hunted would stay at a known address and that too four years after the crime. “The elementary steps you are taking to nab the accused have reduced you to a laughing stock. Because of you the public has a perception that some people can get away, remain uninvestigated only because they enjoy certain patronage,” the court said.
The court directed the Additional Chief Secretary to appear before it on March 28 to explain the slow progress in the cases. The judges said, “Let the state feel some pressure…. It must face consequences some day. Most often the police get away… no memos are issued, no explanations sought.”
On March 28, the court wondered at the non-intervention of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in the slow progress of the cases. It said, “What is the Chief Minister doing? You hold 11 portfolios, including Home, but do not seem to find the time to take stock of the case and remove obstacles in the probe. Chief Ministers must realise that they do not belong to any particular party but are leaders of the State. It is a sovereign function that cannot be outsourced.”
The advocate appearing on behalf of the State CID said the government had increased the reward for finding the accused, from Rs.10 lakh to Rs.50 lakh. The court responded: “This is a knee jerk response. Your perception itself is faulty. Do you think people will take you to the accused! For all you know, people may be getting paid more for keeping quiet.” The CBI’s counsel said that charge sheets had been filed in the Dabholkar case against two shooters.
At the next hearing, on April 26, the judges lauded the investigation into Gauri Lankesh’s murder and said Maharashtra should learn from it, “The government of Maharashtra must realise that when a crime of this nature was committed in the adjoining State, namely, in the State of Karnataka, the functionaries and the officials in charge of machinery of law and order in that State acted swiftly and without any intervention of the court.” Regretting the casual approach of the investigations, the court exhorted the State government saying, “Bureaucrats at the helm have to show people how they deal with such attacks.” The court finally directed the Chief Secretary to hold meetings with the Additional Chief Secretary and the SIT and CID officers to decide what is required to take the investigation forward. The State government was also directed to provide all assistance if the investigative agencies wanted to proceed with any major operations.
The court said, “All political parties, those who are in power now and in future, should ensure that no outfit or person involved in such attacks is spared. Justice Dharmadhikari said, “No one should attempt to silence a voice of dissent. That should be our endeavour. We expect all political parties and their bosses to show maturity and not create obstacles in the investigation.”