Narendra Dabholkar case: Here’s why the recent arrests were made

Sanatan Sanstha member and Gadkari Rangayatan case-accused, Vikram Bhave, along with advocate and national secretary of the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad, Sanjeev Punalekar, were produced before a Pune court Sunday and sentenced to 10 days in custody. This was based on evidence produced by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in connection to the murder of rationalist, Narendra Dabholkar.

Punalekar is also a person of interest to the Karnataka SIT investigating the September 2017 murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru.

The fearless editor of ‘Lankesh Patrike’ was murdered at her doorstep, but suspected Hindu extremists. Sanjeev Punalekar is a key accused in the Lankesh case as well as the murder of Dabholkar.

The duo, charged with criminal assistance and destruction of evidence, was arrested in Mumbai on Saturday. The court, after perusal of the prosecution and defence’s cases on Sunday, May 26, remanded them to CBI custody till June 1.

Here’s what happened

An anti-superstition activist and author of The Case for Reason, Dabholkar, was shot dead by two bike-borne assailants, while out on his morning walk on the Onkareshwar Bridge, Pune, in 2013.

Based on prima facie evidence, the CBI has claimed before Additional Sessions judge, SN Sonawane, that Bhave and Punalekar had allegedly assisted at least two of the shooters and later helped destroy the weapons used against Dabholkar.

Accused #1

A preliminary probe by the nodal investigation agency has revealed that a Sanatan Sanstha member, later identified as Bhave, had pointed Dabholkar out to the shooters on the fateful day in August.

The CBI probe also suggested that Bhave conducted a reconnaissance of the scene before the mission, along with two others already in custody.

Bhave, who had been accused of involvement in the 2008 Gadkari Rangayatan case, wrote a Marathi book after being released on bail titled “The Invisible Hand Behind the Malegaon Blast.”

Accused #2

Pune-based lawyer Punalekar, is the defence lawyer for some of the accused in the Thane, Vashi and Malegaon blasts, besides being one of the seniormost members of the HVP, a lawyers’ body and an offshoot of the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti. He has also appeared for some of the accused in the Dabholkar case, according to Indian Express.

He is suspected to have instructed Sharad Kalaskar, one of the shooters arrested in the case, to destroy the weapons used in the killing of Dabholkar in 2013 and Gauri Lankesh in September 2017.

Lankesh too was a rationalist and journalist, who ran a weekly publication giving voice to alternative political and cultural discourse and often debunked divisive myths peddled as truth by the Sangh Parivar organisations.

Kalaskar is the key accused in the case.

Kalaskar told CBI officers that the weapons used in Dabholkar’s murder were with him till September 2018. Fearing arrest, he allegedly approached Punalekar, who then advised him to throw them into the Kharegaon creek in Thane.

Lankesh murder weapons disposed of

Kalaskar in his confessional statement to the Karnataka Special Investigation Team probing the Lankesh case under the Karnataka Control of Organised Crime Act, 2000, registered a similar narrative: “Sanjiv Punalekar asked me to dismantle the country-made pistols used in the crimes and get rid of them. He also asked me dispose of the bike used in the murders.”

The statement said that as per Punalekar’s advice, he and (another accused) Vaibhav Raut dismantled and threw away five country-made pistols including the 7.65 mm gun used to kill Lankesh, into the river from the bridge at the Vasai creek on the night of July 23, 2018.

This was right after the arrest of key members of the Sanatan Sanstha by the SIT in May 2018; according to the statement, Kalaskar was asked to meet Punalekar in Mumbai by Sanatan Sanstha member Murali alias Rushikesh Deodikar, who is yet to be arrested. 

Kalaskar told the SIT that he met Punalekar where they discussed “about whether there is any evidence of links between Amol Kale and Virendra Tawade (Sanatan Sanstha men considered central to the murders in 2013 and 2017)”. “After a while Punalekar asked me where are the guns? I told him they are with Murali. Punalekar then told me to meet him after two days,” Kalaskar’s statement says.

The probe and what’s next

In the chargesheet, he adds, “I met advocate Sanju Punalekar alone near his office a few days later and he told me to destroy the barrels of pistols used for the events (murders). He asked me how long it would take me to make new guns and he said he would pay the cost for making guns. He also asked me to destroy all guns and bombs that were in the possession of Murali.”

The multiple crimes referred to in the confession, according to SIT officials, include the murders of Dr. Dabholkar, Lankesh, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi.

In its remand application in the Pune court, the investigating officer in the Dabholkar case, Additional Superintendent of CBI SR Singh said, “During interrogation it is revealed that in June 2018, accused Sharad Kalaskar visited the chamber of Punalekar, where Vikram Bhave, assistant of Punalekar, was also present.”

The application further states, “Punalekar’s custodial interrogation is needed to probe his role in the destruction of firearms and also to unearth the entire conspiracy which he in exclusive knowledge of. We also want to probe his involvement with other co-accused.”

In the Dabholkar case, a bench of the Bombay High Court monitoring the investigations has sought action against all persons linked to the murder and destruction of evidence. But the Karnataka SIT has been trying to find more evidence to link Punalekar to the destruction of the guns before initiating legal action against him.

The CBI will now recover the weapons from Vasai and Kharegaon creeks after clearance from agencies, including the Navy.

Here’s how they figure in several rationalists’ death

Besides Punalekar, Bhave and Kalaskar, two others have been arrested so far, in connection to Dabholkar’s murder—namely, Rajesh Bangera, Amol Kale, Amit Digvekar, Sachin Andure and ENT surgeon Virendrasinh Tawde.

The CBI claims that Andure and Kalaskar pulled the trigger on Dabholkar, while Bangera and Kale are also named in the conspiracy to murder Lankesh.

Tawde is a Sanatan Sanstha member, and suspected to be the mastermind behind the murder of another rationalist, veteran Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Govind Pansare. He was killed in Kohlapur, Maharashtra, in 2015.

Hindu hardline groups and terror

Hardline Hindu groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Sanatan Sanstha have had many such trysts with the law in the past, notably including allegations of hatching a terror plot to attack youth attending the Sunburn Festival in Pune, 2017.

But it was Lankesh’s murder that brought the latter group under renewed spotlight especially for its blatant modus operandi, shooting the journalist-activist at her doorstep in Bengaluru, Karnataka.

It all began with the VHP which in the 1980s began a campaign for the construction of a temple dedicated to Lord Rama in Ayodhya. Then led by Acharya Giriraj Kishore, Swami Chinmayanand and Ashok Singhal, the VHP went on to play a mammoth role in the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and subsequent pogroms against Muslim communities in North India.

After BJP’s victory in the 2002 elections in post-riot Gujarat, international president of the VHP, Pravin Togadia, had reportedly said, “All Hindutva opponents will get the death sentence, and we will leave this to the people to carry out.”

In recent times, their crowning achievements include legitimisation of the “Love Jihad” brigade that singles out Muslim men for “conspiring” to seduce, marry and convert Hindu women, vandalisation of the west gate of Taj Mahal, employing a network of spies who work as restaurant employees across UP to keep an eye out for “suspicious” (read interreligious) couples, endorsing anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence under the pretext of establishing a Hindu empire. Intellectuals, journalists and activists also find themselves in increasingly grave danger.

Last year, the US had classified the Vishwa Hindu Parishad as a militant religious outfit in its World Factbook published by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), along with another notorious group Bajrang Dal.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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