Nearly three years after two motorcycle riders shot the well-known rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar in Pune on August 20, 2013, the CBI has made the first arrest in the sensational murder case. The investigation agency arrested an ENT surgeon, Dr Virendrasingh Tawade, on June 10 after three days of interrogation and a search of his house at Panvel, Navi Mumbai. He is the Maharashtra coordinator of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a wing of the Goa-based Hindu cult Sanatan Sanstha, The CBI also searched the house of another Sanatan activist, Sarang Akolkar, who is wanted by the National Investigation Agency in the 2009 Madgaon blast case, in which two Sanatan members died while carrying explosives.
The searches came weeks after the Bombay High Court pulled up the CBI and the Special Investigation Team probing the murder of communist leader Govind Pansare in Kolhapur last February, for their tardiness. The CBI took over the Dabholkar case from the Maharashtra police in September 2015, but made little progress, which is why Dabholkar's children—Hamid and Mukta—requested the High Court to direct the CBI to expedite the investigation. Pansare's daughter-in-law Medha made a similar appeal to the court.
A day after his arrest, Tawade was remanded to police custody by a Pune court. The CBI told the court that it had recorded the statement of a witness regarding Tawade's alleged involvement in Dabholkar's murder under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, and had found in his laptop more than 200 emails he had exchanged with Akolkar. According to CBI sources, a major part of the conspiracy was hatched over email and that the duo referred to the murder plot as 'Project Dabholkar', and Akolkar expressed the need for an imported weapon to execute the 'project' with precision. He allegedly wrote that a country-made weapon could malfunction or miss the target, and a good weapon could be obtained from Madhya Pradesh. They also allegedly considered starting their own factory to manufacture pistols, raising the capital through donations or robberies—the way “revolutionaries had done”.
From Akolkar's flat in DSK Chintamani Housing Society in Shaniwar Peth, Pune, the CBI seized his passbook, a few bills and documents and newspaper cuttings of blasts in Mumbai. Though the CBI had a search warrant and obtained prior permission from the society's chairman, a press release by Sanatan Sanstha read: “In their [Akolkars’] absence, their house was found broken into.... the Akolkars have lodged a complaint of break in and entry with the Police Commissioner of Pune.” Akolkar's parents, Dilip and Kanchan, stay at Sanatan’s ashram in Goa for most part of the year, and the CBI said Akolkar was in touch with them till the last week of May.
“We have not searched the residences in haste,” said a CBI officer. “It is the logical result of a long, painstaking investigation, after which we narrowed down on the two individuals.” He said while Tawade planned the murder, Akolkar executed it with the help of another person.
Hamid said one of the police sketches of the killers of his father matched with Akolkar. He said the NIA, which has a red-corner notice against Akolkar, lost precious time in nabbing him and others in the Madgaon blast case. Rudra Patil, another absconder in the blast case, is one of the prime suspects in the Pansare murder case. “Had the NIA nabbed all these absconders, it is possible that Dr Dabholkar and comrade Pansare would not have been killed.” The SIT has already arrested Samir Gaikwad, a Sanatan follower, in Pansare murder case. Patil’s wife is one of Gaikwad's lawyers. Milind Yadav, a family friend of Pansare, said, “Sanatan has fielded a battery of lawyers to defend Samir and tried every single thing to scuttle and harm the investigation.”
Sanatan Sanstha has also come under the scanner of the Karnataka CID, which is investigating the murder of the rationalist writer M.M. Kalburgi, who was shot dead at his home in Dharwad last year. The CID, in its ballistic report, has stated that same set of weapons were used in the murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar. The ballistic reports of the three agencies, along with empty shells of bullets used in the murders, have been sent to the Scotland Yard for reconfirmation. “The absconders in the NIA’s list are suspected to be involved in the murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dr Dabholkar,” said Hamid. “Three different agencies are handling the investigations with a common suspect and that is why we are demanding a more coordinated effort to nail the perpetrators.”
Hamid said the NIA should question Sanatan's counsel Sanjeev Punalekar, who had allegedly said that he was in touch with Akolkar. “Advocate Punalekar said in a television debate that they will teach a lesson to former journalist Ashish Khetan [Aam Aadmi Party leader],” he said. “He had also threatened Shripal Sabnis, a famous Marathi author, daring him to go for morning walks. The agencies should take serious note of these threats.” Dabholkar and Pansare were shot while on their morning walk.
With Tawade's arrest, the CBI hopes to get vital information on the three murders. The Kolhapur district sessions court has granted permission to the CBI to question Gaikwad on his possible involvement in Dabholkar’s murder as well. The CBI will submit its report to the Bombay High Court on June 23.