An advocate linked to the radical right-wing Sanatan Sanstha outfit who has been arrested by the CBI in connection with the August 2013 murder of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar in Pune is also a person of interest to the Karnataka SIT investigating the September 2017 murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru.
The SIT’s investigations have found that advocate Sanjeev Punalekar ordered the destruction of the 7.65 mm countrymade gun used to murder Lankesh.
A man arrested in the Lankesh and Dabholkar cases, Sharad Kalaskar, is said to have revealed in the course of investigations that he was instructed to destroy the guns used for the murders by Punalekar, following the arrest of key members of the Sanatan Sanstha by the SIT in May 2018.
Seeking the remand of Punalekar on Sunday, the CBI also told a Pune court that he had instructed Kalaskar to dismantle the firearms used in Lankesh’s murder. The agency also claimed that Vikram Bhave, a Sanatan Sanstha member arrested along with Punalekar, not only helped Dabholkar’s killers do recce and arrange a bike but also told them about the escape routes to use after the killing.
According to a statement given to the SIT by Kalaskar, which is part of the 9,235-page chargesheet in the Lankesh case, in June 2018, he was asked to meet Punalekar in Mumbai by Sanatan Sanstha member Murali alias Rushikesh Deodikar, who is yet to be arrested. Kalaskar told the SIT that when he met Punalekar at his office in Mumbai, “there was a discussion about whether there is any evidence of links between Amol Kale and Virendra Tawade (Sanatan Sanstha men considered central to the murders in 2013 and 2017)”. “After a while Punalekar asked me where are the guns? I told him they are with Murali. Punalekar then told me to meet him after two days,” Kalaskar’s statement says.
In the chargesheet, he adds, “I met advocate Sanju Punalekar alone near his office a few days later and he told me to destroy the barrels of pistols used for the events (murders). He asked me how long it would take me to make new guns and he said he would pay the cost for making guns. He also asked me to destroy all guns and bombs that were in the possession of Murali.”
Kalaskar’s statement goes on to say that he then separated the barrels and slides of the guns used for the murders and threw them in a river on the Mumbai-Pune highway in July 2018.
In its remand application in Pune court, the investigating officer in the Dabholkar case, Additional Superintendent of CBI S R Singh said, “During interrogation it is revealed that in June 2018, accused Sharad Kalaskar visited the chamber of Punalekar, where Vikram Bhave, 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 countrymade pistols, taking barrels and sliders, and threw them from a bridge on Thane Creek.”
The application further states, “Punalekar’s custodial interrogation is needed to probe his role in the destruction of firearms and also to unearth the entire conspiracy which he in exclusive knowledge of. We also want to probe his involvement with other co-accused.”
Arguing against remand for Punalekar, defence lawyer Virendra Ichalkanjika said that the CBI had arrested him on the basis of Kalaskar’s statement to the Karnataka Police in October 2018. “It is illogical why suddenly the agency has arrested based on a statement after seven-and-a-half months.”
Ichalkanjika also said, “If an accused wants to destroy evidence or a weapon, he would destroy the entire weapon and not a part of it as has been claimed by the CBI.”
The Karnataka SIT has been trying to find more evidence to link Punalekar to the destruction of the guns before initiating legal action against him.
In the Dabholkar case though, a bench of the Bombay High Court monitoring the investigations has sought action against all persons linked to the murder and destruction of evidence. In a March 14, 2019, interim order, a division bench of the court had said, “We find that if with the assistance of the police party in the neighbouring State, the alleged shooters can be arrested, then, why those assisting and helping them and particularly, in destroying the arms and weapons used in the crime, cannot be apprehended, and when sufficient clues are available.” The court had added, “… there are materials pointing towards involvement of others. If there is enough material, according to the investigating machinery, then we do not know what more is required. If the search is only for corroborative material, then, that must end some day.”
An office-bearer of the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad, a lawyer’s body, Punalekar has been giving legal representation to several Sanatan Sanstha members and other accused Hindutva activists. He has also appeared for some of the accused in the Dabholkar case.