WHEN POLITICS takes centrestage, and finer elements of investigation and record-keeping by successive governments get drowned in loud calls for banning, it becomes a classic case of much ado about nothing. This is what appears to have happened in the case of the Sanatan Sanstha.
The first official proposal to ban the Sanstha was made by the Maharashtra government in April 2011 when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister. It was the Congress chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, who requested the Union home ministry to ban the Sanstha under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for indulging in terror activities and spreading fear and hatred.
Chavan told THE WEEK that, in early 2014, a second proposal was sent in the form of a 1,000-page dossier on the Sanstha’s activities and the cases against it. “We kept on pursuing the 2011 proposal to ban the Sanstha, and queries marked by the Union home ministry were duly answered. There were several rounds of communication till 2014. We have no idea what happened after that,” he said. Chavan resigned as chief minister after the Nationalist Congress Party pulled out of the ruling coalition before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
Former Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde told THE WEEK that there had been no proposal to ban the Sanstha during his tenure. The proposal landed in the home ministry during the fag end of the tenure of his successor P. Chidambaram, who asked for more information.
“There has to be sufficient and strong ground to ban any outfit,’’ said a senior investigator of a case against the Sanstha. He said the UAPA was invoked against Sanstha activists in only one case: “the explosion which took place in Goa’s Madgaon town in 2009, in which two activists of the outfit were killed.” All other cases were registered under the Indian Penal Code. The two dead activists in the Madgaon case were charged with waging war against the state, and the case was handed over to the National Investigation Agency.
The NIA filed a charge-sheet against six members of the Sanstha, but a ‘’technical’’ error by the agency led to their acquittal in 2013. NIA sources confess that if the case had been pursued properly, the case for a ban on the Sanstha would have been strengthened.
The chorus for banning the Sanstha has begun once again, after the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested five persons and invoked the UAPA once again. In the FIR registered by the ATS, the arrested persons have been described as members of a “terrorist gang”. But, there is no mention of the Sanstha or any other organisation. While filing a charge-sheet within the stipulated 60 days, the ATS will have to confirm whether they have any link to the Sanstha or any radical outfit.
“It is only when we name the organisation as an accused under the UAPA that we will be able to press for a fresh ban,” said a senior ATS officer. The ATS will need direct and technical evidence to prepare a fresh list of cases—this will take some months—and share it with the state home department. “It is premature, at this stage, to name any organisation or pursue a fresh ban. We have to prove the complicity of the organisation,” said an ATS officer.
Notwithstanding the status of investigation, the politics over the ban continues. Chavan demanded an immediate ban, saying at least 25 people with links to the Sanstha had been apprehended in connection with the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. “Is it possible that an organisation can sustain itself by collecting arms and ammunition and imparting training in the use of firearms, and the government is still not convinced that it should be banned? It is definitely finding some support from somewhere,” he said.
The first dossier on the Sanstha, initiated by former ATS chief Hemant Karkare, remains in the files. It has a list of seven cases of terrorism and promotion of hatred and enmity from 2005 up to 2011. However, none of the cases invoked the UAPA.
But, the ATS plans to cover more ground this time, and it says that one of the arrested persons has confessed that he and another person were involved in the murder of rationalist Dabholkar. This confession led to the CBI arresting a key accused, Sachin Prakashrao Andure. The CBI says that it has gathered sufficient evidence to link the Dabholkar murder with the murder of Gauri Lankesh.
While the investigation agencies connect the dots, they will require close coordination and zero political interference to pursue leads. Vijay Rokde, who filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court in 2011 to ban the Sanstha, said, “The organisation wants to overthrow the government to achieve the goal of ishwari rajya (divine kingdom). They believe that those who do not follow their system are durjans (bad people who must be killed.” However, in February 2017, the Union government informed the court that there was not enough evidence to conclude that the activities of the Sanstha were of a terrorist organisation.