February 20, 2023, marks the eighth anniversary of the killing of the rationalist comrade, Govind Pansare.
To mark the occasion his family invited me for a programme at Kolhapur in Maharashtra. It was an opportunity for me to remember my legal journey in getting justice for this prominent political leader, trade unionist, advocate and rationalist.
I still do not know what made someone kill an 82-year-old person for exercising his fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. Was he disseminating misinformation, or was he expressing an opinion which was promoting ideas against the constitution? The answers to both are a vehement no.
I am often asked what made me choose this case and present it to the high court. There is also curiosity on how I came to know him.
We were different in terms of age, philosophies and even in our belief in God.
I was a lawyer for employers, and he was a hardcore trade unionist and lawyer for the working class. We fought against each other in the courts. However, apart from his legal acumen in court, what impressed me was his radical thinking and his courage and conviction to take up issues on behalf of workers. When the trade union movement was at its peak and violence was common, Comrade Pansare boldly accepted wage cuts whenever required, along with layoffs to save industries, and at the same time ensured hefty wage increases for workers in healthy companies.
This was possible only because of his fair and rational approach.
A true secularist, he wrote a book which showed how Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was not anti-Muslim – a myth often propagated by hardline fundamentalists.
When Comrade Pansare was killed, due to my relationship of respect and trust with him and his family, I approached the high court. After eight years, I realise that after 75 years of Independence, even a slain rationalist advocate is unable to get justice. Those eight years can easily be recounted in a novel.
Challenge in courts started with getting a date for a hearing of the petition. Surprisingly the Honourable Lordship expressed a view that there are many murder cases in the state and that the court cannot monitor all such cases. However, once the hearing of the petition commenced, the case unfolded like an Alfred Hitchcock film the end of which is not yet in sight.
There have been around 50 hearings and orders that run into innumerable pages. High ranking government officers such as the joint director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, the principal home secretary of the government of Maharashtra, the additional director general and others have been summoned and questioned. Yet the shooters of Comrade Pansare and the mastermind behind the murder have not been identified.
In the course of hearings, the high court raised genuine concern and said that such murders “will put the right of free speech and expression constitutionally guaranteed in total jeopardy.” It also said that “one cannot silence contrary opinion in this manner”, and that “you cannot get over opposition and this is precisely what is going on in a progressive state.”
The high court said that the same old story is being repeated – which is nothing but an eyewash – and questioned the efficiency of the officers. It insisted on the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to conduct the trial. In the presence of the additional chief secretary and the joint director of the CBI, the high court refused to take the reports of progress submitted by the agencies, stating that there was nothing in those reports.
The high court has, time and again, gone on to remind the officers that they were in command and should take action. It was shocking that shooters’ identities remained under a cloud in the matter of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar’s murder for a long time. All four murders of rationalists and journalists – Dabholkar, Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh – were cracked not by the CBI or special investigation team of Maharashtra or Karnataka, but by the Anti-Terror Squad of Maharashtra. I believe that the credit for this goes to Shudhirchandra Kulkarni, the then ATS chief and his team. As an example of the degree of goof ups seen in these investigations, the investigating agencies had decided to send the bullets for forensic investigation to Scotland Yard but reported after nine months that this was not possible due to lack of protocol between the two countries.
Moreover, it was shocking to see the Additional Solicitor General of India requesting the high court in a matter filed by families of the deceased for directions to Karnataka Police to cooperate with the CBI and Maharashtra Police.
At that point, everybody realised the lack of coordination between the various agencies. This compelled the Supreme Court to make a statement in open court that all four murders should go to the CBI.
The slow progress in the case compelled the high court to say:
“It is time that we impress upon the Ministries and particularly of Ministry of External Affairs and Home that investigations of crime and as serious as the one highlighted in our earlier Orders would serve a larger public purpose that would ensure building up the confidence not only of the Police and Investigating Machinery in India but would send right message across the world that no crime will go unpunished in this country.”
It further stated that “the prestige and reputation of the investigating agency and criminal justice delivery system is at stake.”
The court also observed that the lives of writers, thinkers, rationalists, and liberal-minded people in all walks of life are equally precious, and no one should dare to attack a quiet and peace-loving person selflessly serving the society.
In another order, the high court time and again stated that the right to free speech and expression, to dissent and differ in order to preserve our composite culture and secular values can be safeguarded only if killers of free thinkers are brought to book expeditiously.
When the high court was meticulously monitoring the investigations, the performance of investigating agencies continued to be pathetic. I was shocked when the additional solicitor general and senior counsel of the government of Maharashtra sought a personal audience with honourable judges of the high court. Shooters in the Dabholkar case were initially named in the Pansare case as witnesses and when this was pointed out in the court, with lightning speed, they were named as accused.
In representing Comrade Pansare in this case, I repeatedly brought such goof ups to the notice of the court and this may have led to some personal damage to me. Sometimes learned judges were also upset with my persuasions. Nobody has realised how mine too has been a journey full of pain as I was at the receiving end of all forms of threats, virtual and real.
However, eight years of this journey introduced me to people like Nikhil Wagle, Ganesh Devi, some honest police officers, and above all many independent and enthusiastic young journalists.
I remain in the dark about the Pansare murder. This, despite the fact that murders of four social reformists and the Nalasopara bomb blast which revealed shocking quantity of country-made pistols and bombs, should have kickstarted robust investigations.
The real masterminds are still missing and only when the government of Maharashtra came to know that one of the topmost politicians of the country is also on the hit list was the investigation handed over to the ATS Maharashtra. This was only after the family had moved the high court. Despite finding out that common weapons were used in murders of Pansare, Kalburgi, Lankesh, and Dabholkar, no progress has been made though around 40 prominent intellectuals continue to be under threat and the protection of their family members has been enhanced to the “Y” category.
Comrade Pansare was a unique human being and though the murderers should have been brought to justice quickly, it has taken eight years and the end is yet to be seen. “By the methodology adopted, the absconding accused are not going to be arrested for years together,” the high court has said. However, I can say that the legal battle will continue till the case reaches its logical conclusion.
Abhay Nevagi is a lawyer at the Bombay high court. He can be reached at [email protected].