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COVER STORY

The smoking gun

A pistol could help solve 4 murder cases against people linked to Sanatan Sanstha

Doctor of death: Virendra Tawade (wearing white shirt), an ENT specialist and Sanstha member, was one of the alleged masterminds behind the Dabholkar murder.

THE MURDERS of Narendra Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh took place four years and 800 kilometres apart. Dabholkar, a renowned rationalist and medical doctor, was killed in broad daylight, near a temple in Pune on August 20, 2013. Lankesh, an activist and editor, was gunned down at night, outside her home in Bengaluru on September 5 last year. In both the cases, the assailants used country-made pistols and escaped on two-wheelers.

The CBI is inquiring into the Dabholkar murder, while a special investigation team of the Karnataka Police has come close to cracking the Lankesh case. A potentially clinching evidence of the link between the two cases, however, was unearthed by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad. On August 11, the ATS began a series of arrests and raids across Maharashtra that not only blew the lid off a terror plot, but also unearthed a huge arms cache. Part of the cache, investigators say, was a 7.65mm country-made pistol that could have been used to kill both Dabholkar and Lankesh.

Investigations into the two murders have long been converging. The SIT has arrested 12 persons and charged them under the Karnataka Control of Organised Crimes Act, describing them as “highly indoctrinated and trained” criminals. One of the accused—K.T. Naveen Kumar alias Hotte Manja, a hindutva activist from Mandya who allegedly supplied firearms to the assassins—told investigators that Lankesh was killed for her “anti-Hindu” views and “criticism of Hindu gods”.

In May, the SIT filed a 650-page charge-sheet, which mentions a “bigger network” and a “larger conspiracy” that Naveen was part of. It has found that at least five of the accused are associated with the Goa-based Sanatan Sanstha and its affiliate Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, which has branches in Karnataka and Maharashtra as well. Investigators say they have avoided naming the organisations for “operative” reasons.

A Maharashtra ATS officer said the arrested men “have links, one way or the other” to the Sanatan Sanstha.

Apparently, the plot to kill Lankesh has roots in Maharashtra. A big breakthrough in the case came on May 21, when the SIT nabbed three hindutva activists—Amol Kale, Amit Degweker and Manohar Yavade—from Davangere. They confessed to hatching a plot to kill Mysuru-based rationalist K.S. Bhagwan in 2015. Kale, a graduate in mechanical engineering from Pune, allegedly masterminded Lankesh’s killing. His personal diary gave investigators vital clues to the whereabouts of other suspects. A businessman, Degweker is the promoter of Sanatan Prabhat—the mouthpiece of the Sanatan Sanstha—and is suspected to be funding the “covert operations” of the organisation.

Kale is the crucial link that connects the Lankesh and Dabholkar murders. According to the CBI, Kale and an associate called Virendra Tawade, who was arrested in June 2016, masterminded the Dabholkar killing. Tawade is an ENT specialist, and has been a sadhak (spiritual seeker) in the Sanatan Sanstha for more than 15 years. He used to treat fellow sadhaks at the Sanatan Ashram in Panvel.

The role played by Kale and Tawade became clearer after the recent arrests by the Maharashtra ATS. One of the arrested men, Sharad Kalaskar of Nalasopara near Mumbai, told the ATS that he was the one who shot Dabholkar. Kalaskar also revealed the name of an accomplice—Sachin Andure.

On August 18, Andure was taken into custody by the ATS and handed over to the CBI. According to the CBI, it was Kale and Tawade who ordered Andure and Kalaskar to kill Dabholkar. Andure’s confession led to the seizure of arms and ammunition from a house in Aurangabad, which belonged to Andure’s cousin. The 7.65mm country-made pistol was part of that cache. The ATS also arrested another crucial suspect, Sudhanva Gondhalekar, in Pune. An animator and graphic designer, Gondhalekar has a diploma in mechanical engineering. According to the ATS, he was the technical brains of the hindutva terror module that was recently dismantled by the raids. He is also said to have links to the Sanstha. “As far as we know, he is the only one who knew about Kalaskar being involved in the Dabholkar murder. He is at the same level as Amol Kale,” said an ATS officer.

Investigators are now looking at whether the terror modules operated by Kale and Gondhalekar were involved in the murders of communist leader Govind Pansare in February 2015 and Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi in August 2015. Both Pansare and Kalburgi were shot dead by men who escaped on motorcycles. A forensic report had found that the gun used to kill Kalburgi and Lankesh were the same. Pansare was also shot with a country-made pistol.

The overlapping clues in the four cases had prompted Kalburgi’s wife, Umadevi, to move the Supreme Court in January this year, demanding better coordination among investigating agencies. The Kalburgi murder is being now probed by the crime investigation department of the Karnataka Police, which has made little headway in solving the case.

“We hope the developments [in the Lankesh case] will help solve all four cases,” said Kalburgi’s son Srivijaya. “In my father’s case, we haven’t heard of any concrete breakthrough…. The only assurance we are getting is that investigation is going on.”

Kavita Lankesh, Gauri Lankesh’s sister, said she was happy with the progress of the investigation. “I believe the SIT is on the right track,” she said. “The accused might be killing because of the ‘dharma’ drilled into his mind. They are misguided youth who are puppets in other people’s hands.”

For now, all eyes are on the ballistics report on the pistol recovered from Aurangabad. “We need to ascertain whether the bullet casings found near Lankesh’s home match any of the pistols seized by the ATS,” said an SIT officer. “Striation marks (grooves on the surface) of a bullet, made when it is fired, are unique; it is like the fingerprint of a pistol.”

Asked whether the ATS is certain whether the Sanatan Sanstha is involved in the murders, an officer said the arrested men “have links, one way or the other” to the organisation. “We will not hesitate in raiding the ashram in Goa, and question [Sanstha’s head] Jayant Athavale—or, for that matter, the entire top brass of the organisation.”