Delayed or denied?
The state of investigations in the suspiciously similar murders of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh speaks volumes about the current condition of dysfunction in the Indian criminal justice system
Seven years have gone by since anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in Pune while he was out for his morning walk. The CBI probe is still underway and till date, no substantial evidence has been gathered against the perpetrators. The case is emblematic of the current phase of Indian democracy where representatives and organisations fail to uphold the assured promises made at the midnight of August 15, 1947. Pandit Nehru through his vociferous speech, 'Tryst with Destiny', pledged to transform India and alleviate all that shackled it, preventing India from achieving its destiny.
Even after 73 years of being a sovereign country, we still find ourselves toiling to guarantee preservation to the very fundamental 'tattvas' which are considered a prerequisite to living a dignified life. This can be gauged through an unfortunate trail of happenings, primarily beginning with the maiming of India's revered rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. They were pawns of a system which failed to identify and diagnose the anti-social elements that impede any thinking society. The system itself was suspected of obscuring the truth and making the process of justice difficult. This has ultimately left an undeniable blot on India's multicultural model of co-existence and cooperation.
India's diversity has always been its sacrosanct imperium. The very role of the Constitutional inventors had been to consolidate the organic features of fraternal custody of Indian society in such a manner that it fortifies the people to co-inhabit this land. There is an existential threat to the ethos of this nation which presents itself whenever the 'Good Samaritans' of society act as protectors trying to highlight continuing social evils are, in return, met with severe condemnation, if not worse. Such is the story of Narendra Dabolkar — a doctor by profession and a social reformist by passion — who struggled to reclaim Maharashtran society from the arrest of superstitious credulity, black magic and dubious holy men who claimed to fix all predicaments emanating through their pristine embrace.
As an anthropocentric revolutionist, he never relied on any institutional support to aid him to eradicate the societal issues which the Maharashtrian society was fraught with.
He was a torchbearer working without an ounce of lethargy by concretising a social action centre in Satara (Maharashtra) to ameliorate the conditions of the marginalised section and to alleviate them socially and economically to lead a life of dignity, security and prosperity. Narendra Dabolkar rekindled the very spirit of Dr Ambedkar by embarking on the primrose path of uplifting the condition and state of affairs of the Dalits, by indulging and providing a moral core to the movement for the uniformity against the deeply entrenched caste system which has mutilated and corrupted the social collectivity, India has always nurtured.
Narendra Dabolkar's struggle to unearth the prevalent bigotry and misogyny of society, his brusque manner of igniting the society against the alleged beholders of right-wing extremity, through his resilient speeches which won him hearts and souls of those who couldn't stand the bluntness of such a society. Narendra Dabolakar in his battle against the fiendish components of the society had made him the lone formidable adversary of those fear mongers, who were surviving by asphyxiating the voices of dissent. The relevance of these critical voices of dissent, raised by individuals such as Narendra Dabolkar is that of tools by which we can mend the erratic social features of our society and launch ourselves as an evolved society, hinging itself on lines of scientific temper, logical acumen, observing reality from the prism of fairness and equity rather than preconceived notions.
As Dabolkar and many others like him ultimately found out, there is a price to pay for those who wish to stir up the status quo.
Background to the tragedy
After working as a doctor initially, Dabholkar started to get involved with various social initiatives in the 1980s. He shifted his focus towards the eradication of superstition and joined the Akhil Bharatiya Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (ABANS). Realising the need to confront various forms of superstitious beliefs, he formed the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) in 1989 — thereby marking the rise of his activism career. Dabholkar confronted many dubious 'tantriks' and self-claimed holy men who promised 'miracle cures' for ailments and criticised self-styled godmen who declared to perform miracles. Between 1990–2010, Dabholkar was also active in movements for the equality of Dalits.
In 2010, Dabholkar made several failed attempts to get an anti-superstition law enacted in the state of Maharashtra. Under his supervision, MANS drafted the 'Anti-Jadu Tona Bill (Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Ordinance). Prominent political parties opposed the bill claiming it would adversely affect Hindu culture, customs and traditions. Replying to the controversy in an interview with AFP, he said, "In the whole of the bill, there's not a single word about God or religion. Nothing like that. The Indian constitution allows freedom of worship and nobody can take that away, this is about fraudulent and exploitative practices." Despite multiple complaints about the bill not being discussed, it was only after his murder that the bill was cleared by the Maharashtra cabinet and eventually enacted as an ordinance on December 18, 2013.
Similar were the scenarios leading to the murders of Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. Indeed, after the death of Dabholkar, Pansare encouraged the members of MANS to continue their work. Within two years in 2015, Pansare too was killed in the same pattern — two bike-borne men taking close-range shots. In another six months, Kalburghi was also shot dead from point-blank range. He had garnered much controversy in 2014 while addressing a seminar on the 'Anti-superstition Bill'. Kalburghi had narrated a childhood experience where to figure out 'divine retribution', he urinated on idols as an experiment. Gauri Lankesh also had the same fate eventually in 2017. She was a staunch critic of right-wing Hindutva politics.
Four killings, remarkably similar circumstances. All of them, critics against exploitation in the name of religion and superstition. None have found justice in the years since. Now, there may well be yet another chance.
A day after the Supreme Court handed the Sushant Singh Rajput case to the CBI, Hamid Dabholka, son of Narendra Dabholkar, said that despite multiple arrests being made, in regard to his father's death, the fact that the main mastermind is not yet being caught, it remains a threat for freethinkers and rationalists. For the Sushant case, he hoped for a logical conclusion from the CBI. This sparked the return of the inconclusive investigation to the public forum.
Seven long years have passed, but his family still seeks justice. In a release by his children — Mukta and Hamid — they stated, "The murder investigation has stopped only till the arrest of eight persons including Virendra Tawade (an ENT surgeon with alleged ties to the radical outfit Sanatan Sanstha) and Amol Kale. The CBI must go ahead and investigate the masterminds of the murder failing which the danger to the lives of rationalist thinkers will not fade away. Seven years after the murder, the investigation remains incomplete."
Since the killing, the investigation has changed hands of five agencies. In Maharashtra, it was with the CID, ATS and SIT. And in the Central agencies, the probe had gone to the NIA and now with the CBI. An organisation has even been identified (Sanatan Sanstha). Still, nothing conclusive has been found to show for all the effort and delay. The same can also be said of the murders of Pansare and Kalburgi. Apart from arresting right-wing Hindutva activist Virendra Tawde in 2016, Sachin Andure and Sharad Kalaskar were declared as the shooters in 2018. The CBI also arrested right-wing Hindutva lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar and his associate Vikram Bhave in May 2019. But, since then, there has been no progress in the investigation. While charge sheets have been filed against Tawde, Andure and Kalaskar, the agency has yet to untangle the conspiracy threads linking Dr Dabholkar's murder with that of Govind Pansare, scholar MM Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh.
In more recent developments, this year, in March, CBI claimed to have recovered a pistol from a creek near Thane, which believed to have been used in the murder of Dabholkar. It said that Sharad Kalaskar had dismantled the pistol and threw it in the creek in July 2018. The pistol has been sent to forensic experts but the outcome of the tests are as yet unknown.
Legacy and way forward
The question that lies ahead is whether justice has been adequately served? Or has it been delayed, waylaid by unavoidable factors that were impossible to predict? Or, in fact, has it been entirely denied? The investigation still lies tangled in unknowns and variables and the freethinker is still regarded as a threat. Is silencing rationalist voices now an ingrained part of the nature of this country?
But there may be hope. The nationwide clamour which was felt on the untimely demise of Narendra Dabolkar speaks volume of how his ideals had impregnated those who were influenced and impacted by his work, in fields of social retrospection, eliminating social dictums that challenge the potentiality of an individual, and foremost help people navigate a life free from diabolical restrictions that strained society to never outgrow primitive barriers. Narendra Dabolkar not for once questioned his incentives rather his devotion to the holistic altering of society continues to inspire many even today.
Today we stand at the fringes of traditional backwardness and an advanced future that awaits us. To reach it, we must break free of age-old shackles that bind us without justification and emphasise on following a path of intellectual goodwill that guarantees a way ahead for both the have's and have-nots'.
Circumstances time and again have proved that fate isn't kind or fair to the righteous, especially to those who proceed to dismantle structures based on exploitative practices and unthinking beliefs. Thankfully, there are those few who would still stand and have the necessary resolve to champion such thankless causes. Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and Lankesh were such tireless crusaders, true patriots that now deserve wider recognition, they deserve justice.
As a nation, we can no longer allow any lapses in the efforts to bring the guilty and the complicit to fair and impartial justice. Above all, we must establish a positive precedent that will enable course correction from these murky waters.
7:20 am | August 20, 2013
While out on a morning walk, Dabholkar was shot down by two men near Omkareshwar temple, Pune. The assailants fired four rounds at him from a point-blank range and fled on a motorcycle parked nearby.
Dabholkar campaigned against superstitions, confronting dubious tantriks and self-claimed holy men who promised 'miracle cures' for ailments. The mastermind of the killing is yet to be arrested.
9:25 am | February 16, 2015
Pansare and his wife Uma were returning from their morning walk. Two men on a motorcycle shot five times at them at a close range outside their house. Four days later on Feb 20, Pansare succumbed to his injuries.
Sameer Gaikwad, a member of Sanatan Sanstha, was arrested, but no evidence could be found. Five years since he was killed, but a WHY is still missing and any semblance of justice is yet to be delivered.
8:40 am | August 30, 2015
Two men came to his residence and knocked on the door. They pretended to be his students when his wife opened the door. When she went to fetch coffee for them, they fired at him from a point-blank range and fled on a motorcycle.
Kalburgi was a progressie voice in his caste. His murder is less likely to implicate conventional Hindutva groups, and more likely to involve the fine rivalries and high political stakes within Lingayat caste politics.
8 pm | September 5, 2017
3 unidentified men shot Gauri to death at her house in Bangalore. The men fired at least seven bullets at her while she was unlocking the main door of her house after returning from work. They escaped on a scooter after the murder.
In June 2018, the Special Investigation Team stated that Parashuram Waghmore had confessed to the murder: he claimed that he was told to kill someone to save his religion, and that he did not know who the victim was.
*With inputs from Saba Chhibber