THE Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Karnataka police investigating the Gauri Lankesh murder case is inching closer towards proving the long-held suspicion that elements owing allegiance to right-wing Hindu organisations were deeply involved in the gunning down of the activist-journalist.
Right-wing Hindu activists had for long disagreed with and criticised Gauri Lankesh for her forthright and at times controversial views and writings on aspects of religion against the ideologies of communal hatred, bigotry and misogyny.
The SIT has so far formally arrested or taken into its custody five persons. They are K.T. Naveen Kumar (37), an activist of the Hindu Yuva Sena from Karnataka’s Mandya district; Sujeet Kumar alias Praveen (38), residing in Udupi and an alleged activist (sadak) of the Ponda-based (Goa) right-wing Hindu radical group Sanatan Sanstha and its sister outfit, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS); Amol Kale alias Bhaisaab (39), an activist of the (HJS) from Pune; Amit Degwekar alias Pradeep (39), also an alleged Sanatan Sanstha activist and resident of Ponda; and Manohar Dundappa Edave (28), a resident of Vijayapura in Karnataka.
According to highly placed sources, the SIT has not been able to establish any linkages or direct evidence to suspect the involvement or role of the Sanatan Sanstha or any other Hindu right-wing organisation.
This is the reason why no organisation has yet been mentioned in the first and only charge sheet filed by the SIT. An officer told Frontline on condition of anonymity that while there was clear and irrefutable evidence to show that the accused persons were motivated enough to kill Gauri Lankesh, they were not card-carrying members of any organisation or party, refused to acknowledge allegiance to any organisation, were extremely committed to their cause, had a good knowledge of law, knew how to take shelter under it, and were briefed almost on a daily basis by their lawyers. These are proving to be major hurdles in both cracking the case and naming any organisation as being behind the killing.
The officer said: “Given the sensitivity of the case, we are as yet not naming any organisation as being involved in the crime. Also, since the organisation that is suspected to be involved in the murder is not banned, there is at the moment no value in naming it or any organisation. Naming it at this stage will only provide an opportunity for some to legally divert attention and change public perception. We do not want to provide an opportunity for this to happen.”
The officer added: “All that the accused are saying is that they are from an organisation that has no name and whose motive is adharmeeyara vinasha , eliminating those who are anti-religious and opposed to the Hindu religion. This is only to provide deniability to the organisation they actually belong to. We need to know what happened before, during and after the crime, minute by minute, and recover the murder weapon. We have not been able to do either so far.”
Officers said that operational leaks had disrupted, delayed and almost derailed the investigation. For instance, information that three of the accused would be attending a wedding and that the SIT would be waiting to pounce on them appeared in the regional press two days before the event. This alerted the accused, who not only did not show up at the wedding but were also able to destroy crucial evidence. This delayed their arrest by three months.
Another case in point was the sketch of the alleged killers that the SIT put out based on eye-witness accounts and CCTV footage. One of the three alleged killers sported a vermilion tilak on his forehead and the fact that the sketch showed this set off an unwanted controversy. Many of the legal luminaries who appear for the Sanatan Sanstha also appear for the HJS and other radical Hindu organisations. However, the Sanatan Sanstha spokesperson Chetan Rajhans refused to deny or confirm whether any of the accused were sadaks of his organisation.
Speaking to Frontline , he said: “With lakhs of sadaks coming to the Sanatan Sanstha, it is difficult to say with certainty whether Sujith Kumar was a sadak.” Asked about the alleged involvement of the Sanatan Sanstha, Rajhans said that it was being targeted since it was a soft target. “We are not aligned with any political party and hence targeted. Earlier the RSS was…now they are strong and cannot be targeted.”
Coming almost nine months after the Gauri Lankesh murder, the 651-page May 30 charge sheet is primarily against K.T. Naveen Kumar, a small-time gun runner (he was arrested last February with 15 live .32 calibre cartridges), local hoodlum and right-wing activist who is also the president of the Hindu Yuva Sene.
According to the charge sheet, Naveen procured the bullets that were used to kill Gauri Lankesh outside her house on the night of September 5, 2017, boasted to friends about his involvement in the crime and provided local logistical support to the shooters who were from outside the State. He also guided them to the locations of Gauri Lankesh’s house and office in Bengaluru and accompanied them on a reconnaissance mission.
Originally from Birur in Karnataka’s Chikkamagaluru district, for many years now he has been a resident of Kestur village in Mandya district’s Pandavapura taluk. According to the charge sheet, Naveen Kumar was part of a bigger conspiracy and had concealed key details from the SIT and the police even after his arrest.
The charge sheet contains the statements of 131 witness, including experts from the Forensic Sciences Laboratory, doctors from Victoria Hospital where the post mortem was conducted, police officials who first visited the scene of the crime, colleagues and staff at the Gauri Lankesh Patrike office, family members, including Gauri Lankesh’s mother Indira and brother Indrajit Lankesh, local residents near the scene of the crime and friends of Naveen Kumar.
Naveen Kumar has been booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code—including Section 118 (concealing design to commit offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life); Section 114 (an abettor being present when offence is committed); Section 120 (B) for criminal conspiracy; Section 35 (when such an act is criminal by reason of its being done with a criminal knowledge or intention)—and Sections 3 and 25 of the Indian Arms Act. In front of the jurisdictional magistrate, he had given his consent for a lie detector and narco analysis test, but retracted it after he was taken to Ahmedabad, much to the chagrin of the SIT officers.
Plot to target rationalist Sujeet Kumar alias Praveen’s arrest on May 19 came during police investigations into the aborted attempt to eliminate K.S. Bhagavan, a Mysuru-based rationalist. According to the SIT officers, Sujeet Kumar has been a Hindu right-wing activist since the early 2000s and “has links to some of extremist organisations in Maharashtra and Goa and is a key link to right-wing hardline elements in these States who are involved in both the Gauri Lankesh murder and the plot to target Bhagavan”.
During interrogation by the SIT, Naveen Kumar allegedly said that he “received instructions to kill Gauri Lankesh and Bhagavan” from a Mangaluru-based man he could identify only as Praveen. The SIT feels that Sujeet Kumar is this Praveen, and now sees him as one of the key conspirators in the Gauri Lankesh murder.
Naveen Kumar was formally arrested in March, but locating Praveen proved to be a nightmare. SIT officials confessed that it had taken them months and even intercepting his calls had proven difficult as he kept travelling almost 150 kilometres every day, kept his phone switched off most of the time and, worse, always conversed in a guarded tone, using nomenclature like Bhaisaab, Chote, Oil and Dada.
Officers believe that it was Sujeet Kumar who recruited Naveen Kumar after noticing him at a conference of extremist Hindu right-wing activists at Ponda in June 2017. Naveen Kumar, who was used only during the last stages of the plot to assassinate Gauri Lankesh, was, after a meeting in November 2017 with Sujeet Kumar, “promoted” and made a part of the conspiracy to kill Bhagavan from the planning stage itself. It was also in November 2017 that the SIT got its first break in the Gauri Lankesh murder case after intercepting calls of over 250 suspected right-wing elements.
Although Sujeet Kumar has so far only admitted to belonging to “an unnamed organisation whose mission is to eliminate anti-religious people”, the SIT suspects that it was he along with Naveen Kumar who conducted a reconnaissance of Gauri Lankesh’s office and residence in the days prior to her killing.
Originally from Shikaripur in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district, Sujeet Kumar was living in Udupi during the time of his arrest. Officers are unsure if any of the three other accused, Amol Kale, Amit Degwekar or Manohar Dundappa Evade, were involved in the Gauri Lankesh murder or whether they were meant to be the sharpshooters in the plot to kill Bhagavan.
An officer said: “We do not know if they are sharpshooters. We are in the process of matching the physical attributes of the accused with the images of the shooter(s) as seen from the CCTV footage in the Gauri Lankesh case.”
A informed source told Frontline that a diary recovered from Amol Kale indicated a list of eight people, including Bhagavan and Gauri Lankesh, who were to be targeted. The SIT claims that it will elaborate on Sujeet Kumar’s role in the next charge sheet.