Mumbai: On November 23, 2018, when the Karnataka Special Investigations Team (SIT) filed an elaborate and foolproof supplementary chargesheet in the murder of 55-year-old Kannada journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh, her family and friends were hopeful for quick delivery of justice. The SIT had gathered 456 witnesses and 1,056 pieces of damning evidence against 17 of the 18 arrested accused in the case.
But on her third death anniversary, her family, friends and the prosecution say they have had a frustrating time convincing the Karnataka state government to set up a dedicated special fast track court in the case. The situation, they say, got further exacerbated with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March this year.
S. Balan, the special public prosecutor appointed to handle the case, says since the time the two chargesheets – the main chargesheet and the supplementary one, together running into 10,000 pages –was filed, he has only waited for the court to commence the trial. “It has been over a year and a half since I submitted the draft charges in the case, the court has still not framed them. The trial is still very far away,” he says.
The case is currently assigned to the principal judge of the Bengaluru sessions court. The judge is also the administrative head of the court, handling the everyday administrative work of the court along with several other trials under special Acts. In Lankesh’s case, the police have booked the accused under the special Karnataka Control of Organised Crime Act (KCOCA) but haven’t allocated a special designated court to handle the case. “So, after all his administrative work, the judge at best is able to spend an hour or two in the court. In that time, he has to handle several cases, one of them is Lankesh’s case,” Balan points out.
The police have filed a chargesheet against 17 persons for murder, conspiracy, destruction of evidence along with several other sections under the Indian Penal Code. The police have also invoked sections of the Indian Arms Act and KCOCA against all the accused.
The first breakthrough came only in March 2018, with the arrest of K.T. Naveen Kumar, a 37-year-old member of the Hindu Yuva Sena. The breakthrough came nearly seven months after Lankesh was killed by two men who arrived at her residence and fired at her four times. Other arrests followed. The chargesheets include Parashuram Waghmare, masterminds Amol Kale, Sujith Kumar alias Praveen and Amit Digwekar as prime accused. Though the Sanatan Sanstha is believed to have been involved in the killings of many rationalists, a direct connection was established for the first time in Lankesh’s case.
But after such crucial breakthroughs, nothing really happened, Lankesh’s sister Kavita says. Early this year, fed up of waiting for the trial to commence, Kavita and the family of another slain Kannada scholar-rationalist M.M. Kalburgi (whose case is also languishing before a sessions court) met the state’s home minister Basavaraj Bommai and urged him to set up a fast track court in the cases. While Bommai, Kavita says, heard them keenly, no arrangements for fast track courts have been made so far.
Balan says it is either for the state government or for the courts to decide on this matter. “Since both Lankesh and Kalburgi’s case has common accused, and common Hindu radical outfit was involved, it only makes sense to try the two cases in the same court,” he added.
Campaign for justice
Kavita, a filmmaker and poet, has since been waging a campaign for justice for her sister. But she says she has to date not been able to muster the courage to follow the legal proceedings inside the court. “It is difficult for me,” she adds. But Lankesh’s friends and supporters have ensured that the case is followed through.
One such person is Shivasundar, a journalist who was also Lankesh’s close friend. Shivasundar says he has had a long association with Lankesh, both in journalism and activism.
Right from the start of the case, Shivasundar has been following up thoroughly. He has been attending every court hearing, coordinating with the prosecution lawyer and trying every bit to ensure his friend gets justice. “The case was handled very well since the start. We were fortunate to find a good team. But legal struggles don’t end there. You need to have the case followed well in the court too,” he says. According to him, the SIT connected all links efficiently and he adds, “Many officers in the SIT say this happened only because the team was allowed to work without any interference (by the then Congress government).”
Only the weapons of crime have been missing. The police have claimed that the murder weapons were thrown in the Vasai Creek, between the Mumbai-Thane highway. “The SIT had engaged special teams to carry out deep dredging of the creek. The police ended up excavating several other weapons but not the one used in Lankesh’s murder,” Shivasundar adds.
By the time the Congress-JD(S) government in Karnataka collapsed in July 2019 and BJP leader B.S. Yediyurappa took over as the chief minister, Shivasunder says the investigation had already come to an end. “All that was needed now was a designated court to conduct a trial on a daily basis. But that did not happen.”
Since the trial got delayed, the accused persons have applied for bail several times. “It is their right and they have been applying for one. We have continued to oppose it,” Balan says. He further adds that the defence lawyers have also tried various ‘tactics’ to delay the court proceedings.
Lankesh’s murder was likened to the killings of three other rationalists, that began with Narendra Dabholkar, founder of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS, or Maharashtra Eradication of Superstition Committee) on August 20, 2013 in Pune, while he was out on his morning walk. After Dabholkar, senior Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Govind Pansare was assassinated on February 16, 2015 in Kolhapur, Maharashtra and Kalburgi on August 30, 2015 in Dharwad, Karnataka.
It is not just Lankesh’s case that the trial has got delayed. While in Dabholkar and Pansare’s case, the investigation is still underway, in Kalburgi’s case the trial is yet to commence. Kalburgi, a rationalist, and a former Hampi University vice-chancellor in the state’s northwest Ballari district, was gunned down by two assailants on August 2015. In August last year, the SIT filed a chargesheet against seven accused, including the hitman Ganesh Miskin. In Lankesh’s case too, Miskin has been named as the gunman. The six other accused in Kalburgi’s case include Amol Kale, Praveen Prakash Chatur, Vasudev Bhagavan Suryavamshi, Sharad Kalaskar and Amith Ramchandra Baddi.