The Sanatan Sanstha, one of whose members was arrested last month for this February’s murder of rationalist Govind Pansare, recently said it felt more confident with BJP-led governments in both Mumbai and Delhi — as compared to when the Congress-NCP ruled Maharashtra, and had prepared a 1,000-page dossier on its activities.
In the face of loud demands for a ban on the Hindu extremist organisation, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has promised “appropriate” action — if, he has stressed, evidence is found against the Sanstha. The state government has so far given no indication of how it perceives an organisation that is on the radar of investigators for the murders of, besides Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar in 2013 and M M Kalburgi in August this year.
Voices in defence of the Sanstha have, meanwhile, continued to be heard. On Sunday, Sanstha supporters marched in Pune to protest demands to ban the organisation.
Given the fact that the Sanstha has been “espousing the cause of Hindutva”, the BJP’s difficulty in criticising it is obvious. And the party’s partner in government, the Shiv Sena, which has repeatedly demonstrated that it is itself not averse to indulging in violence to make a political point, has stood rock-solid behind the Sanstha.
Even the Congress has been speaking in different voices. While Sushil Kumar Shinde, who was Home Minister in the UPA government, has said that the previous Maharashtra government did not seriously pursue action against the Sanstha, former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has hit back — saying that it had given a detailed report, backed by evidence, to the Centre, seeking a ban.
The Sanstha, which claims to have millions of followers in Maharashtra and elsewhere in the country and the world, presents itself as a spiritual organisation that works for social uplift and national security, and to rekindle dharma, protect “seekers” (of the path of righteousness) and destroy “evildoers”. It espouses the cause of Hindu Rashtra, and frequently organises Dharma Jagruti Sabhas to “awaken” people.
To propagate its views, the Sanstha employs moral science lectures, satsangs, videos and printed literature. In the years since its inception in 1990, the Ponda-headquartered organisation has entered into ideological coalitions with local Hindu extremist groups to spread rapidly in Maharashtra and Karnataka, besides Goa.
According to Shyam Manav, who worked closely for many years with the Sanstha’s founder Dr Jayant Balaji Athavale, the organisation’s focus is chiefly on sadhana or meditation. Athavale, according to Manav, was a master hypnotist who could send sadhaks into a deep trance, after which they would be prepared to do anything for the sake of dharma, including sacrificing their lives.
“The sadhaks are programmed to carry out the task of acting against those whom the Sanatan considers evil-doers preventing the formation of the Ishwari Rajya (divine kingdom),” Manav said.
To this worldview, rationalists like Dabholkar and Pansare appeared as diabolical “evildoers”. After Dabholkar’s murder, Sanstha mouthpiece Sanatan Prabhat said in an editorial that “it was better that he (Dabholkar) died this way, rather than dying of some disease”. According to Dabholkar’s Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, the slain rationalist had been getting threats in the mail, by email, and through Sanatan Prabhat articles for at least seven years before he was murdered in the heart of Pune city on August 20, 2013. A picture of Dabholkar’s, marked with a red cross, was pulled out of the Sanstha web site immediately after the killing.
The Sanstha had filed a Rs 10 crore suit against Pansare for making a speech that allegedly defamed their “ideals”. Before his death, Pansare had received a letter threatening he would meet the same fate as Dabholkar — “Tumcha Dabholkar karoo ka?” — according to his family.
The Sanstha has been under the scanner in four bombings in Panvel, Thane, Vashi (all in 2007) and Madgao (in 2009). In 2011, two alleged Sanstha members were given 10 years in jail for the Panvel and Thane attacks, but were released on bail two years later. In 2009, two alleged members — Malgonda Patil and Yogesh Naik — were killed after the IED they were ferrying went off.
A feeling has been gaining ground among both the common man and the intelligentsia that organisations that allegedly propagate hate and indulge in violence should have no room in the land of Shahu-Phule-Ambedkar. The responses of both the central and state governments are being watched keenly — as is the progress of the investigations in the murders.