Exactly one year ago, on September 5, 2017, Gauri Lankesh was assassinated by unknown assailants at her home in Bangalore. The brutal murder of the journalist and social activist was the fourth instance in four years of the murder of a rationalist and intellectual, allegedly by extremists in the Hindu Right.
The spate of killings began with the murder of Narendra Dabholkar on August 20, 2013 in Pune, when two motorcycle-borne assailants shot at the medico and anti-superstition activist while he was on his morning walk.
Two years later, the fatal attacks on Communist Party of India leader Govind Pansare in Kolhapur and Lingayat scholar M.M. Kalburgi in Dharwad indicated that these killings could be a concerted attempt by individuals or groups to silence those who had been openly contesting ideas of the Hindu Right and promoting rationalist thought in various public platforms.
The investigations that followed each of these murders has revealed that the attacks were indeed a part of a larger plan to target popular activists and influential scholars.
On Lankesh’s first death anniversary, it is a good time to understand what these killings portend for a country as diverse as India.
Over the last four years, multiple investigation agencies have found that all those apprehended as suspects in the killings have one common connection – their association with two right-wing extremist organisations, the Sanatan Sanstha and its affiliate organisation, the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS).
Despite finding this common connection, the investigative agencies have not been able to close the cases, flip-flopping from one theory to another. However, their probe has veered around individuals who are or were associated with these two right-wing organisations.
During the course of the investigation, the agencies have found that key members of Sanatan Sanstha, along with other fringe organisations, may have been mobilising resources to plan these murders.
The most shocking detail that emerged from the investigations is a diary which was seized from a suspect named Amol Kale, an activist of the HJS. The diary contained a hit list in which Lankesh’s was the second name. Renowned playwright and actor Girish Karnad figured at the top of the list. Mysore-based writer and academic K.S. Bhagwan, Kannada writers Yogesh Master, Chandrashekhar Patil and Banajagere Jayaprakash, former Karnataka backward castes commission chairman C.S. Dwarkanath, and seer opposed to superstition Nidumamidi Swamiji were also mentioned as targets.
All these people have questioned the myths circulated by the Hindu right intelligentsia through their work. The diary also means that such attacks on anti-establishment activists may not stop if the kingpins are not arrested soon.
The investigating agencies also believe that not just Lankesh’s but all the four murders were directly or indirectly linked to the Sanatan Sanstha or organisations like the HJS, Hindu Yuva Sena and the likes. Last month, the Central Bureau of Investigation told the court that it has evidence that the murders of Lankesh and Dabholkar are linked. It said that Sachin Andhure, who has now been named as Dabholkar’s assassin, told the agency that he was handed over a country made pistol and three bullets by one of those arrested in Lankesh’s murder case.
Twelve suspects have been arrested by the Karnataka SIT with regard to Lankesh’s murder, including Ganesh Miskin, K.T. Naveen Kumar, Amit Degwekar, Parashuram Waghmore and Amol Kale. Miskin, according to reports, has confessed to being one of the two who knocked on Kalburgi’s door before he was shot.
Naveen Kumar, a member of the Hindu Yuva Sena, has also reportedly said that he was introduced to the Sanatan Sanstha by Mohan Gowda, the Karnataka spokesperson of the HJS. In his confession statement, he said he was noticed by Gowda in the 2017 All India Hindu Convention, an annual event hosted by the Sanatan Sanstha to promote the idea of a Hindu rashtra, in Ponda, Goa where the organisation is headquartered. Naveen had made a case for the necessary use of weapons and arms to protect the Hindu religion in his speech at the convention.
Similarly, Kale and Amit Degwekar, both Sanatan Sanstha members, the latter of whom lived in the organisation’s headquarters in Goa, are believed by the Karnataka SIT to have masterminded Lankesh’s killing. The police chargesheet in the case clearly says the accused “were angry with her for speaking against Hindu dharma, Gods of Hindu dharma and insulting Hindu dharma” and so decided to kill Lankesh. Waghmore, an activist of the controversial Sri Ram Sene, is now being named as Lankesh’s assassin.
The CBI, which is investigating the Dabholkar case, had initially named Vinay Pawar and Sarang Akolkar, both still absconding, as the shooters. But last month, it named Sachin Andhure and Sharad Kalaskar as the motorcycle-borne assassins. Virendra Tawde, again a member of HJS, is said to be the kingpin. Despite the flip-flop and the delay, for which the Bombay high court too pulled up the agency, the undeniable connections of most accused to the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS cannot be ignored.
The two organisations, in a press conference last week, defended themselves by saying that the accused could have attended their meetings but were never members of any of the organisations. “None of them have ever been a part of our organisation. They must have attended our meetings and must have been staunch supporters of Hindutva, but that does not mean they have been a part of Sanathan Sanstha,” said Chetan Rajhans, the national spokesperson of the organisation, at a press conference in Mumbai. However, even the spokespersons of the two organisations could not deny the ideological affiliation of the accused to these militant Hindutva outfits.
Not new to controversy
Sanatan Sanstha and HJS are not new to controversy. The Sanathan Sanstha, a Hindu revivalist organisation, was formed in 1990 by Jayant Athavale, a hypnotherapist, with the goal of turning India into a Hindu rashtra. It moved its centre to Ponda, Goa in 1999, after which the HJS evolved as its offshoot in 2002. Ever since their formation, they have been known to be highly secretive in their functioning. The Sanstha, however, claims that as many as 320 Hindutva outfits are associated with it.
The Sanathan Sanstha first shot to prominence when the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad alleged that it had a role to play in the Vashi and Thane blasts of 2008. The blasts had happened in the parking lots of theatres which were staging a play that the Sanatan Sanstha thought portrayed Hindu mythological figures in a poor light. They were also accused of playing a direct role in the 2009 Margao blasts. On the eve of Diwali in Margao, a package of explosives bombs blew up accidentally in a scooter which was meant to transport the explosives. It killed two activists of the Sanatan Sanstha – Melguna Patil and Yogesh Naik – who were riding the vehicle when the bombs exploded. The blasts led the National Investigative Agency (NIA) to nab several activists of the organisation, but the accused were acquitted because the agency could not find enough evidence against them.
Even as the role of the outfits is being probed, it was reported that Goa-based writer Damodar Mauzo, known for his critical views against Hindutva, was also sent death threats allegedly at the behest of activists associated with the Sanatan Sanstha.
Ostensibly a spiritual organisation, it has been organising annual “Hindu” conventions in Goa where it openly promotes militant Hindutva ideology. The Wire had earlier reported that Amol Kale, an accused in Lankesh’s murder, was convenor of an HJS branch and Amit Degwekar, also an accused in the case, stayed at the Sanatan Ashram of Goa for more than a decade and has worked for the outfit’s mouthpiece, Sanatan Prabhat.
Writing for The Wire, senior journalist Devika Sequeira explains how the group has got continuous political patronage from various political parties, especially the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) led by Sudin and Deepak Dhavlikar. The organisation is infamous for its strong campaign against the church and is also known for issuing veiled threats to many prominent writers, artists and scholars in the Sanatan Prabhat. She says, “Though the BJP and its parent body, the RSS, may pretend to have nothing to do with the Sanatan, its backhand support and silence provides more than ample endorsement.”
It has been widely alleged that the Sanatan Sanstha and organisations like it enjoy an unprecedented impunity, especially in the past few years. Despite its controversial presence, it has only expanded and its political activities only increased. Sanatan Sanstha now prescribes the moral code for being a ‘good Hindu’. From what to wear and who to marry to how to urinate, it has all the questions answered according to the Sanatan doctrine.
The investigations into the Lankesh’s murder indicate that militant Hindutva outfits are much better organised currently than they were in the past. Yet, the probe has stopped short of producing conclusive results. Much of this also has to do with the lack of political will and bureaucratic manoeuvres, it has been alleged. For instance, the CBI complained that the Maharashtra government has not cooperated properly ever since the Dabholkar case was transferred to the central agency. Avinash Patil, president of the Maharashtra Andhshraddha Nirmulan Samiti of which Dabholkar was a part, told The Wire, “Lack of political will has led to a delay in probe. The police kept treating Dabholkar’s murder as a regular murder case while it was clear that it was an ideological murder. The CBI now is on the right track but after its flip-flop on who was the assassin, the chargesheet will have to be changed now. This means further delay.”
The assassinations of the four happened because their beliefs were in direct contrast to organisations like the Sanatan Sanstha. On Lankesh’s first death anniversary, this aspect of her killing will be remembered. With the slain journalist’s former team members launching the first edition of the Nyaya Patha (Path to Justice) today, taking a leaf out of the Lankesh Patrike which Gauri edited, one hopes her rationalist legacy will live on.