It took seven months after the murder of Govind Pansare, the 81-year-old social activist, rationalist and CPI leader, for the Maharashtra police to arrest the first suspect Sameer Gaikwad, an alleged activist of the Hindu organization Sanatan Sanstha. Pansare, who was famous also for writing a biography of Shivaji, died in February after he and his wife were shot at near their home in Kolhapur. He had received death threats after he gave a speech condemning attempts to glorify Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin by Hindu extremist groups. Pansare’s murder was preceded by the murder in 2013 of Maharashtra’s leading rationalist Narendra Dabholkar whom he held in high respect. Last month, Kannada rationalist and scholar M M Kalburgi was shot dead at his home in Dharwad in Karnataka. The modus operandi of the murderers in all the three cases was almost identical: they came on a motorcycle at a moment when the victim would be least suspecting of any attack and shot him dead at close range and fled on the motorcycle.
In all these murders, the Maharashtra and Karnataka police had explored whether there could be motives other than ideological for the crime. But beginning with the Narendra Dabholkar case, they had cancelled out other motives and concluded that the motive for the murder could be to silence them and spread terror among the “others of their tribe” so they do not dare to come out openly against religious superstitions and deception practised by fake gurus, shamans and babas upon the people in the name of faith. The Maharashtra police officials claimed that in the Dabholkar case they suspected the involvement of the Sanatan Sanstha but were unable to nab the assailants. Witnesses had helped them track the likely route the accused might have taken, and in both the cases, the accused were suspected to have fled to Goa or Karnataka.
The Sanatan Sanstha has denied any association and claimed Sameer Gaikwad to be innocent. But the police arrested him as a suspect because they marked him as a “close suspect” after preparing sketches from CCTV footage of the scene of the crime. Gaikwad looked like the sketches prepared and released earlier this year; after Pansare’s death in February his phones were put under surveillance and for six months, his calls were monitored. Police found that Gaikwad frequently discussed Pansare with his wife and boasted of killing Pansare to his friends. He frequently changed his SIM cards. Gaikwad had mobile recharge kiosks in Sangli, Navi Mumbai and Mumbai. Police have detained a woman believed to be his girlfriend and three others for their alleged role. Gaikwad was not cooperating with the investigators. “When we question him, he remains calm and quiet and abstains from speaking or revealing any information. Whenever he speaks, it is either irrelevant or misguiding,” according to the chief of the Special Investigating Team (SIT) Sanjay Kumar.
There is a Goa angle to the tragic affair too. Gaikwad’s wife is also a member of the Sanatan Sanstha and lives in the Sanstha ashram in Goa, which he used to visit frequently. A police team has been sent by the SIT to Goa to make further inquiries into the case. Some reports suggest that police are suspecting that Pansare’s killers may be from Goa. There is no direct evidence of involvement of Gaikwad in the murder. He is just a close suspect. What the police are hoping is to get to the killers through a close interrogation of Gaikwad.
Let us hope the SIT is able to collect strong evidence against the killers whoever they might be. For the killers might be the same in the other two cases of Dabholkar and Kalburgi as well. Even if the two men who came on the motorcycle were not the same in every case, the detection of one case might lead to the detection of the other two as the modus operandi is the same. Karnataka is keenly watching the progress of the Maharashtra SIT investigation into the Pansare and Dabholkar murder cases to solve the Kalburgi murder. Director General of Police (CID) of Karnataka says, “We hope to get some leads in our investigation from Gaikwad. We strongly suspect that ideological differences with Kalburgi might have been behind his assassination.”
No matter which group of individuals was involved in the murder of the three leading anti-superstition activists, they had committed a crime against the sacred values of our democracy. The most sacred value of our democracy is freedom of expression – freedom of expression to both believers and non-believers, theists and atheists, orthodox and heretics.