A day after they were arrested by the CBI in connection with the murder of anti-superstition activist Dr Narendra Dabholkar, a sessions court in Pune on Sunday remanded lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar and his aide Vikram Bhave to the agency’s custody till June 1. Dabholkar, 67, was shot dead by two assailants at the Omkareshwar bridge in Pune on August 20, 2013.
In court, Special Public Prosecutor Prakash Suryavanshi said Punalekar instructed Sharad Kalaskar — who, along with Sachin Andure, allegedly killed Dabholkar — to dismantle a set of firearms, including the one used in the murder of Gauri Lankesh. The public prosecutor said Bhave, a Sanatan Sanstha member, not only helped the alleged shooters of Dabholkar conduct a reconnaissance and arrange a motorcycle, but also told them about the escape routes after the murder.
After hearing arguments from the prosecution and the defence, the court of Additional Sessions Judge S N Sonavane remanded the duo to the CBI’s custody till June 1.
Punalekar, an office-bearer of the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad, a lawyer’s body, has provided legal representation to several Sanatan Sanstha members and other Hindutva activists accused in many other cases. He had not only appeared for some of the accused in the Dabholkar murder case but was also often seen and quoted in the media. Bhave, a member of the Sanatan Sanstha, was convicted in the case of blasts at some theatres and an auditorium in Thane in 2008. He was given bail by the Bombay High Court in 2013. Bhave has been assisting Punalekar in his legal work, sources said.
The prosecution’s case
The investigating officer of the Dabholkar murder case, Additional Superintendent of CBI S R Singh, said in his remand application, “During interrogation, it is revealed that in June 2018, accused Sharad Kalaskar visited the chamber of Punalekar, where Vikram Bhave, the assistant of Punalekar, was also present. Kalaskar told Punalekar about his role in the murder of Dabholkar. Punalekar told Kalaskar to destroy the firearms used in the murders including that of Gauri Lankesh. On July 23, 2018 Kalaskar dismantled four country-made pistols, taking barrels and sliders, and threw them from a bridge on Thane Creek.”
The application further stated, “Punalekar’s custodial interrogation is needed to probe his role in the destruction of firearms and also to unearth the entire conspiracy, which he is in exclusive knowledge of. We also want to probe his involvement with other co-accused.”
On the role played by Bhave, the CBI has said that about 15 days before the murder of Dabholkar, Bhave helped Kalaskar and the other “shooter”, Sachin Andure, during the reccee. Bhave rode with Kalaskar and Andure on a motorcycle and allegedly showed them the way from Shivajinagar bus stand to the Omkareshwar bridge, and the residence of Dabholkar. He also showed them the escape route from Omkareshwar bridge and the place where they had to abandon their motorcycle and firearm, said CBI officials.
The defence’s case
Defence lawyer Virendra Ichalkanjika argued that the CBI arrested Punalekar on the basis of a statement given by Kalaskar to the Karnataka Police in October 2018, which was later retracted by the accused.
“It is illogical why suddenly the agency has made an arrest based on a statement given seven-and-a-half months earlier. This statement was made part of the chargesheet against Andure and Kalaskar in February this year, but at the time, no investigation of Punalekar was done. This is certainly not a fair investigation,” said Ichalkanjika.
He also brought out “contradictions” in the CBI’s 2016 chargesheet, which had named Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar as shooters of Dabholkar and the agency’s claim in 2018, that Andure and Kalaskar shot the activist dead.
“It is illogical that if an accused wants to destroy the evidence or weapon, he would destroy the entire weapon and not a part of it, as has been claimed by the CBI,” Ichalkanjika said, adding that Bhave had been questioned by the CBI multiple times in the past, but no action was initiated against him at the time.
Punalekar, who also argued against his custodial remand, pointed out that only IPC Section 201 (causing disappearance of evidence and giving false information to screen offender) has been invoked against him. However, Suryavanshi replied that that all the sections of IPC invoked in the case, along with relevant sections of the Unlawful activities Act and Arms Act, have been invoked against Punalekar and Bhave as well. The defence lawyers also sought permission to allow two lawyers to meet Punalekar and Bhave on a daily basis to discuss the case, which was allowed by the court.
The arrests so far
In June 2016, the CBI had arrested ENT surgeon and Sanatan Sanstha member Dr Virendra Tawde, the alleged mastermind of the conspiracy to kill Dabholkar. In its chargesheet against Tawde in September 2016, CBI had named Sanatan Sanstha activists Akolkar and Pawar as the shooters of Dabholkar. In 2018, however, the CBI named Andure and Kalaskar as the assailants who opened fire at Dabholkar on August 20, 2013, when he was on a morning walk in Pune.
Besides Andure and Kalaskar, during investigation of the murder, the CBI also took custody of three others — Amol Kale, Amit Digwekar and Rajesh Bangera — who are also accused in the murder of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh. The names of the accused arrested in 2018 had come up during the Karnataka Police’s investigation into the murder of Lankesh, who was shot dead at her residence in Bengaluru in September 2017.
In the last week of April, the Bombay High Court, which was hearing petitions filed by family members of Dabholkar and slain Communist leader Govind Pansare, had observed that swift action taken by the investigators in the Gauri Lankesh murder case was a lesson for those probing the Dabholkar and Pansare cases. The murder of Pansare, who was shot at on February 16 in 2015 and died four days later, is being investigated by a Special Investigation Team of the Maharashtra state Criminal Investigation Department.