Exactly seven years ago, rationalist Dr Narendra Achyut Dabholkar was shot dead by two bike-borne assailants in Pune. His murder and three more similar killings, that of communist leader Govind Pansare (February 2015), Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi (August 2015) and Bangalore journalist Gauri Lankesh, sparked nationwide debate surrounding issues of freedom of speech and various hostile forces to rational thought.
The investigating agencies now say these murders are closely linked and may have some common perpetrators. A look at work and legacy of Dr Dabholkar and the probe into his murder — initially by Maharashtra police and currently by CBI — which has had its share of controversies and contradictions.
Narendra Dabholkar: The rationalist and his legacy
In late 1980s, Dabholkar revitalised the superstition thought process by founding Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) after leaving his decade long medical practice. He aggressively took on deep rooted superstitious practices and their proponents.
Over the years, while MANS continued efforts towards eradication of superstitious activities, Dabholkar made several attempts to build an anti-superstition legislative framework. He not only faced opposition by various organisations and political parties but also delays in enacting the law by the governments of the time. Ironically, within days after his murder, government of Maharashtra government cleared the pending anti superstition and black magic practices ordinance which became law in December 2013.
Along with being long-time editor of Marathi weekly Sadhana which champions liberal thought, Dabholkar was very active in movements dedicated to scientific temperament, and equality among various sections of the society. During his college days, Dabholkar was an award winning Kabaddi player and participated in national and international tournaments.
Dabholkar was shot dead by two men while he was on a morning walk on a bridge near Omkareshwar temple in Pune on August 20, 2013. He was 67.
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Probe by Maharashtra police and arrest of firearms dealer
The first arrests made by Pune city police were of Manish Nagori, an alleged firearms peddler, and his aide Vilas Khandelwal in January 2014. But prior to this, the two had a contentious arrest history. Both were already in jail since they were arrested by the Thane Police’s Crime Branch at 4 pm on August 20, 2013 in an extortion case. This arrest had taken place just hours after Dabholkar’s murder.
In October 2013, Nagori and Khandelwal were transferred to custody of Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) and 40 illegal firearms were allegedly recovered. A ballistic examination of one of those firearms reportedly suggested that it matched with the ‘markings’ on a cartridge seized from the Dabholkar murder spot in Pune.
After the ATS wrote to the Pune police about the cartridge, Pune cops arrested Nagori, Khandelwal and two others, but initially in connection with the 2012 murder of security guard on Pune University Campus. Later the duo was charged with the murders of an unidentified man in a Pune suburb and also for Dabholkar murder.
When Nagori and Khandelwal were produced in court on January 21, 2014, they claimed that then ATS chief Rakesh Maria had offered them Rs 25 lakh for confessing to Dabholkar’s murder. However, during later hearings, the said that their allegations against Maria were an ’emotional outburst’. After a few months, both were released on bail by the court and were never chargesheeted in the case.
CBI investigation and contradictions in chargesheet
In June 2014, the CBI took over Dabholkar murder probe following a Bombay High Court order. Based on witness statement made by a Hindutva activist and metallurgy craftsman Sanjay Sadvilkar, the CBI arrested an ENT surgeon Dr Virendrasinh Tawade, also linked to the radical outfit Sanatan Sanstha, in the Dabholkar murder case on June 10, 2016. CBI has said that Tawade is one of the masterminds of conspiracy. Prior to arrest in Dabholkar case, Tawade was arrested by Maharashtra police for the murder Pansare, who was shot at near his residence in Kolhapur in February 2015.
CBI claimed that “long standing enmity/ hatred” between Dabholkar and his MANS with Sanatan Sanstha as the motive behind his murder. In the CBI’s September 2016 chargesheet against Tawade, agency named absconding Sanatan Sanstha members Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar as the two assailants who shot Dabholkar. But in August 2018, CBI arrested Hindutva activists Sachin Prakashrao Andure and Sharad Kalaskar and contradicting its earlier claim, the agency told the court that these two were the shooters who had opened fire at Dabholkar.
In May 2019, CBI arrested Mumbai-based Sanatan Sanstha lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar and his aide Vikram Bhave. While the above five have been chargesheeted till now by CBI, Punalekar is currently out on bail and other four are in prison. CBI also arrested three others — Amol Kale, Amit Digwekar and Rajesh Bangera — who along with Kalasakar are also accused in the 2017 murder of Bangalore journalist Gauri Lankesh. Kale, Digwekar and Bangera have not been chargesheeted yet.
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The murder weapon theories
The agencies currently investigating the murders of Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and Lankesh have claimed several common links in all these cases, including common perpetrators and common firearms among some of them. Nagori and Khandelwal have however never figured in CBI’s investigation so far nor has agency yet made any mention of the firearm recovered from them.
On the probe into weapons, the CBI has arrested lawyer Punalekar alleging that the he had advised accused Kalaskar to destroy the firearms used in multiple murders, including that of Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh. According to the CBI, following Punalekar’s instructions, Kalaskar had allegedly dismantled four country-made pistols and threw the parts from a bridge in a creek of Arabian sea near Thane on July 7 in 2018.
The CBI then hired a foreign agency to carry out a search to retrieve these weapons from the creek. In March this year, the agency claimed to have recovered a pistol from the creek. At the time of the recovery, the agency said that the weapon would be examined by forensic and ballistic experts to ascertain whether it was linked to the murder. The outcomes of these examinations are unknown
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