Seven Years After His Killing, Justice for Narendra Dabholkar Nowhere in Sight

While the rationalist's path-breaking work to fight superstition has been carried forward by others, the investigation into his murder is advancing at a snail's pace.

Mumbai: Seven years to the day when Dr Narendra Dabholkar, 67, was shot dead on Omkareshwar bridge in Pune, while on his morning walk, there is little clarity on who masterminded the heinous murder and why. The investigation is moving at a snail’s pace and the trial is yet to begin. The delay puts the spotlight on the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), its inability – or unwillingness – to get to the truth of who wanted Dabholkar dead.

Dabholkar, the genial doctor, social activist, rationalist, writer and editor, was the face of the anti-superstition movement in Maharashtra for more than two decades. The Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS), which he co-founded, campaigned for social reform and a law against black magic and superstitious practices across religions, saying they exploit the poor and uneducated. Dabholkar had been painted as “anti-Hindu” and had received multiple threats to his life. In December 2013, four months after his murder, the Maharashtra government finally passed the law Dabholkar had been campaigning for – the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act.

The probe into his murder continues to meander, its unhurried pace and listless follow-ups are baffling. After Dabholkar, three other rationalists – Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh – were similarly shot dead. Multiple agencies grappled with Dabholkar’s case: the Pune Police formed 30 teams, the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad arrested two men, before finally the CBI took over in May 2014.

Gauri Lankesh

From left to right: Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. Credit: PTI, Twitter

However, the CBI’s tardiness has annoyed even the Bombay high court. Hearing petitions by the Dabholkar and Pansare families, the division bench of Justices S.C. Dharmadhikari and R.I. Chagla stated on February 13 this year: “There should be some certainty (about the trial). There should be no failure of justice delivery…both for the victims and their families, and also the arrested accused”.

Every August 20, there are renewed calls from Dabholkar’s family and his legion of friends and associates to expedite the investigation so that the masterminds are punished. Every year, they rededicate themselves to carrying forward his work and strengthening MANS.

The organisation’s efforts and the CBI’s unending investigation have run parallel in the last few years, but they could not be more dissimilar. The CBI, with all its resources and reach, is yet to piece together the motive for the murder and its masterminds. The family and MANS, despite their grief and limited resources, have managed to accomplish that which would have made Dabholkar proud.

Also Read: Why Indians Need to Eradicate the Superstitions in Their Midst

What we know about the murder

What’s known about the murder so far? Two years after it took over the case, the CBI arrested Virendra Tawde of the ultra-right wing group Sanatan Sanstha. His accomplices Vinay Pawar and Sarang Akolkar were supposed to be the shooters. The Karnataka’s Special Investigation Team, probing Lankesh’s murder in 2017, nabbed sharpshooter Amol Kale. This led the CBI the following year to arrest Sharad Kalaskar and Santosh Andure, for shooting Dabholkar.

Kalaskar, reported to be a Sanstha sympathiser, is the common thread in Dabholkar, Pansare and Lankesh murders. The Maharashtra ATS arrested him last year for Pansare’s murder (four years after the crime) and the Nalasopara arms haul. A large cache of explosives and firearms were recovered from an apartment in Nalasopara, a far suburb of Mumbai; ten were arrested including Vaibhav Raut, a ‘gau raksha activist’, who had stocked them in his house.

The CBI finally took Kale into custody for Dabholkar’s murder with little explanation for the delay. A former Pune convenor of the Sanstha-affiliated Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, Kale was allegedly an associate of both Kalaskar and Raut. Kalaskar, in his confession, reportedly admitted to being involved in murdering Dabholkar and Pansare, shot Dabholkar twice, detailed how he had been approached by activists of a “right wing group” who gave him a “crash course” in using firearms, and how the Sanstha’s Virendra Tawde had told him “We have to finish off some evil men”.

The headquarters of the Sanatan Sanstha in Ponda. Credit: Sneha Vakharia

The headquarters of the Sanatan Sanstha in Ponda. Photo: Sneha Vakharia

The trail led the CBI to lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar and his aide Vikram Bhave last year. Both were arrested. Bhave was a member of the Sanstha while Punalekar had represented several of its members and Hindutva followers in court cases including in the Dabholkar case, and was an office bearer of the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad that functions as a right-wing lawyers’ collective. Punalekar is out on bail. The CBI told a Pune court that he had helped to destroy the weapons used in Dabholkar’s murder.

This April, as the country was in the coronavirus-induced lockdown, the CBI informed the Pune court that Kalaskar had disposed of four firearms in a creek near Mumbai, of which one may have been used to kill Dabholkar. With multiple trails leading to the Sanstha, it is anybody’s guess why the CBI has not closed in on the group yet. Based in Goa, with branches in Maharashtra and Karnataka, it campaigns for a “Hindu Rashtra”. It had openly threatened Dabholkar with dire consequences for his “anti-Hindu” work.

Also Read: How Political Patronage Has Kept the Sanatan Sanstha Afloat in Goa

“It’s known who the masterminds are but nabbing them requires political will which has been absent,” says Nikhil Wagle, a well-known journalist and friend of Dabholkar from 1985. Dabholkar’s family – wife Shaila, children Hamid and Mukta – and the extended MANS family are deeply disappointed. “The investigation has stopped with the arrest of eight people. The CBI must go ahead and investigate the masterminds failing which danger to the lives of rationalists will not fade away,” the family said in a statement.

Famil remain committed to Dabholkar’s vision

However, in their day-to-day life, they have stuck to the basics since that dark morning. “We have chosen our path,” says Mukta Dabholkar, “I know Hamid’s and my name and those of MANS leaders were on the list recovered during the investigation, but like my father, we too have no fear. It’s ok if there are many more people on the other side but we have social support too. Often while travelling, we go into restaurants and find that someone has paid our bill while we were eating. I take it as support for us, our work.”

MANS has since been led by Avinash Patil, groomed by Dabholkar himself. Committed people like Madhav Bawage, Sudesh Ghoderao, Prashant Potdar, Rahul Thorat and others rose to the occasion. The Dabholkar siblings travelled far and wide across Maharashtra to lend heft when needed.

The outcomes of these efforts have affirmed Dabholkar’s conviction that people can be empowered to question customs, discard superstitions, and forsake self-styled godmen who exploit them. Its unceasing drive across towns and villages to implement the law has led to more than 510 cases registered till last year and 15 convictions. MANS activists persuaded the Karnataka government to pass a similar law last year. They campaigned for a law against “caste panchayats” in Maharashtra. Called the Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2016, it bans “caste panchayats”, a parallel and illegal judicial arrangement, from ostracising people or families.

The widows of Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and M.M. Kalburgi meet in Dharwar at the Kalburgi resident before a massive march through the town to demand action against the killers of the three rationalists. Photo: Siddharth Varadarajan/The Wire

Its publications – monthly Andhashraddha Nirmulan Vartapatra and journal Thought & Action – have been published without break. MANS has expanded too. Five years after Dabholkar’s murder, it added 125 units and doubled its volunteer strength to reach beyond 10,000. Its volunteers regularly visit schools and colleges to promote scientific and evidence-based thinking and demystify miracles, call out occult and superstitious practices across religions. It commemorated its 30th anniversary last year.

All this is important but is not a substitute for justice for the crime. And that, at the moment, seems far away.

Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based journalist and columnist, writes on politics, cities, gender and the media.