Investigations into the killings of Narendra Dabholkar in 2013 and Govind Pansare in 2015 appear to have reached a crucial stage. Recent developments indicate that investigators are close to nabbing the killers and, hopefully, exposing the masterminds too.
It is believed that Hindu extremist groups that were upset with the social activism of Dabholkar and Pansare were behind the killings. Both were rationalists who fought tirelessly to end superstition and discrimination on the basis of caste, and their work among the poor was well known.
The arrests of Sanjeev Punalekar, a lawyer with a Hindu right-wing legal organisation, and Vikram Bhave, a Hindu right-wing activist, on May 25 in Pune were a major breakthrough for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). According to sources, the investigators were able to gather evidence that linked Punalekar and Bhave to the alleged killers. In another major development, the CBI arrested Sharad Kalaskar, 25, in Mumbai on June 11. Kalaskar, they say, may be directly involved in both the shootings.
Punalekar was in judicial custody until July 5. The CBI reportedly had evidence that he advised Kalaskar to destroy the gun used to kill Dabholkar and Pansare. Although Punalekar has been granted bail, the CBI claims to have unearthed “incriminating evidence” from his laptop in the Dabholkar murder case. Punalekar works for the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad, a legal organisation that represents Hindu right-wing activists. He has helped several of the accused in the Malegaon blast case (2008), the Dabholkar and Pansare shootings and the killing of the journalist Gauri Lankesh (2017).
The CBI says Vikram Bhave allegedly assisted the shooters and conducted a reconnaissance of the spot where Dabholkar was shot. Bhave’s lawyer told the Pune court holding the hearing that Bhave’s name had not featured in the CBI’s charge sheet and there was no evidence to prove his involvement in the murder. The CBI, however, believes that Bhave, an accused in the 2008 Thane theatre bomb blast case, continues to be involved actively with Hindu right-wing groups and it suspects that he profiled and identified Dabholkar. Sharad Kalaskar had been arrested in September 2018 by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad for his involvement in an arms haul case. He was among a dozen men who reportedly planned a terror attack on a music festival in Pune. Most of the accused were members of or had links to the Sanatan Sanstha, a Hindu right-wing organisation based in Navi Mumbai. The police reportedly found a cache of countrymade weapons said to have been collected by the group. Custodial interrogation of Kalaskar revealed that he played a significant role in the shooting of Dabholkar, Pansare, and perhaps even Gauri Lankesh.
Kalaskar was arrested again this June by the CBI on the basis of the evidence they had of his links to the Dabholkar case. Kalaskar reportedly told the CBI that Punalekar asked him to destroy the gun that was used to kill Dabholkar and Pansare. Sources said he told the investigators that the dismantled parts of the gun were thrown into the Thane creek. The Bombay High Court ordered the agency to retrieve the gun. However, the dense mangroves in the area are proving to be a challenge, the CBI told the court.
On August 20, 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, 68, founder of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) was on his morning walk in Pune when he was shot dead by assailants on motorcycles. Nobody took responsibility for the killing. Two years later, 81-year old Govind Pansare, a Communist Party of India leader, writer and social activist, was shot in Kolhapur in the same manner. He died a few days later. A few months later, on August 30, 2015, M.M. Kalburgi, an academic and former Vice-Chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi , was shot dead by two assailants in his home. Gauri Lankesh met a similar fate in front of her house.
In spite of the similarities in the cases, the investigation moved very slowly. So far, 10 people have been arrested in connection with the killings. It was only after the Bombay High Court ordered the CBI, in 2018, to hasten the investigation that the agency speeded up its work.
Meanwhile, the MANS has been relentless in its pursuit of justice. It believes that deliberate attempts are being made to scuttle the investigation. It is a sinister plot involving a complex web of extremist organisations. Until the Sanatan Sanstha and the other Hindu right-wing groups are probed it is unlikely the investigators will get to the root of the plot, says the MANS.