Who killed Govind Pansare?

He waged a long battle against superstition. He was the communist who also engaged with the caste question.

Written by Ram Puniyani | New Delhi | Updated: March 11, 2015 8:30 am

It’s been nearly a month since senior CPI leader Govind Pansare was shot. But police remain clueless about the murder. Following pressure from the opposition, the Maharashtra assembly on Tuesday adopted a condolence motion for Pansare. A rally has been planned in Mumbai today to protest the tardy progress in the investigation. There is a widespread belief that the authorities haven’t done enough to trace the assailants or unearth the motive behind the murder.

The first question that came to mind when I heard of Pansare’s demise was who might have killed him, and why such a saintly person would have been targeted. He was shot at on February 16 in Kolhapur while on his morning walk, accompanied by his wife. He passed away five days later in hospital. His wife has since recovered.

All through his life, Pansare had rubbed the conservative sections, the Hindutva forces in particular, the wrong way. In a lecture at Shivaji University, Kolhapur, in January this year, he had opposed the glorification of Nathuram Godse, the murderer of Mahatma Gandhi, as a nationalist. He reminded the audience that Godse was part of the RSS. He had invited the wrath of Sanatan Sanstha, an organisation under the scanner for blasts in Thane and Goa. The organisation had even filed a defamation case against him. Pansare had received threats in the past. Months after the murder of rationalist leader Narendra Dabholkar, Pansare received a letter that warned that “tumcha Dabholkar karen (you will meet the fate of Dabholkar)”. Pansare, an indefatigable fighter, continued his campaigns nevertheless.

The issue that angered the conservative sections in Maharashtra was his interpretation of Shivaji. In a lecture on Shivaji last year in Pune, Pansare had regaled the audience by narrating the life and work of Shivaji in an insightful and entertaining manner. His presentation was a refreshing contrast to the interpretations made popular by plays like Jaanata Raja and the narrations of Shivaji propagated by communal elements. In these narrations, Shivaji is primarily an anti-Muslim king. It has been popularised in Maharashtra that had Shivaji not been there, Hindus would have been forcibly circumcised and converted to Islam by Muslim rulers. Pansare, through his painstaking research, presented the true picture of Shivaji in his Shivaji Kon Hota. This book has gone into several editions, multiple translations and sold over 1.4 lakh copies. In his Pune lecture, Pansare elaborated how Shivaji respected all religions and that many of his bodyguards as well as his secretary were Muslims. He highlighted that Muslims constituted nearly one-third of Shivaji’s army and his cannon division chief was one Ibrahim Khan. In addition, many generals in his army were Muslims, who are still remembered fondly in many parts of Maharashtra.

A communist eulogising a feudal king! This paradox becomes clear when he elaborates on how Shivaji cared for the welfare of his rayyat (toilers) and reduced the tax burden on them. Shivaji’s respect for women stands out prominently in Pansare’s interpretation. How he sent back the Muslim daughter-in-law of Kalyan, who was brought as part of the plunder, is a legend of sorts in Maharashtra. Incidentally, Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar criticised Shivaji for “letting go” this Muslim woman and thereby throwing away the chance to take revenge for the humiliation of Hindu women at the hands of Muslim kings.

Pansare wrote extensively on a range of subjects, including caste and the rights of minorities. He was always alive to the issues of the masses and was at the forefront of the agitation against toll tax in Kolhapur. As a communist, he did not interpret Marx and Lenin in a mechanistic fashion. For him, Shivaji, Shahu Maharaj and Jyotirao Phule were important ideological guiding forces. He looked at the contributions of Shahu Maharaj and Phule as aiding the process of social equality. He actively engaged with issues related to caste and religious minorities. In a way, by addressing these issues, he was underlining one of the major factors related to the failure of the Indian Left.

Though leaders like Pansare identified with leaders like Shahu Maharaj, Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar, major icons of Dalit and OBC struggles, the communist Left has not seriously engaged with the caste question. In a caste-ridden society like ours, one cannot empower social movements unless caste is factored in. This is a message from Pansare’s life that needs to be remembered and integrated in the strategy for social change in India.

The pattern of attack on Pansare recalled the murder of Dabholkar, who was shot on August 20, 2013. These outstanding social activists were rationalists and worked on the ground against superstitions. In both cases, the attackers were gunmen who arrived on motorbikes when the targets were on their morning walks.

The writer, formerly with IIT, Mumbai, is associated with various human rights groups.