Last November, the man under arrest for his alleged involvement in the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh organised a “sabha” of Hindu activists in a wedding hall at his home town Maddur in Karnataka. The sabha was a joint venture of the Hindu Yuva Sena’s Maddur unit — headed by K T Naveen Kumar, the 37-year-old who was arrested in Bengaluru last month — and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a sister concern of the Sanatan Sanstha based in Goa’s Ponda.
A report on the sabha at the Annapurneshwari Kalyana Mandir — with the Karnataka co-ordinator of HJS Guruprasad Gowda and the Sanstha’s Suma Mangesh in attendance — was posted on the Sanstha’s official website sanatan.org with a December 20, 2017 dateline.
As investigations progress in the Lankesh case, there is growing evidence that Kumar was closely involved with the radical Sanstha, which has been linked in Maharashtra — by the CBI and a Maharashtra police SIT — to the shooting of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, 69, in Pune on August 20, 2013, and Govind Pansare, 81, in Kolhapur on February 16, 2015.
The CBI has named a senior member of the Sanstha, Dr Virendra Tawade, as a key conspirator in the Dabholkar murder. Two missing activists of the Sanstha, Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar, are suspected to be the shooters in the case. The Sanstha has also been linked to the Pansare killing by the Maharashtra SIT.
Lankesh, a 55-year-old journalist-activist who had been vocal in her criticism of religious extremists, was shot dead at her home in west Bengaluru on September 5, 2017. On February 18 this year, Kumar was arrested under the jurisdiction of the Upparpet police station in west Bengaluru based on a crime branch officer’s complaint that he was carrying bullets at the city bus stand.
Investigations have shown that Kumar, during conversations about guns and ammunition with friends in Maddur, alluded to his links with the Lankesh murder. On March 2, the Karnataka Police SIT probing the murder took Kumar in custody.
Investigations have shown that Kumar, who became a part of the Hindu Yuva Sena in 2015, started getting closer to the Sanstha since 2017.
Police have reported seizures of books and material linked to the Sanstha from Kumar’s homes following his arrest. He is reported to have attended meetings in the outfit’s headquarters last year, and a senior lawyer of the Sanstha is among those who have tried to meet Kumar in custody.
“The dharma sabha was organised by Naveen Kumar from Kadalur. They approached us under the Sanatan Dharma Sanstha and booked the wedding hall for November 19, 2017. This group rented the hall for the first time on that day and over 100 people attended the event. They were teaching about Hinduism and how to be a good Hindu,’’ said Sudhir Kumar, the owner of the marriage hall.
“Kumar was the one who came to rent the hall,” said Shiva Kumar, co-owner of the hall and father-in-law of Sudhir.
“He is known to us. He attended our adiveshan in Goa last year on our invitation. He has attended dharma sabhas in Bengaluru and a programme on Bhagat Singh. He was also part of a programme held in his own home town Maddur,’’ said Mohan Gowda, spokesperson for HJS in Bengaluru.
But the national spokesperson of the Sanatan Sanstha, Chethan Rajhans, denied any links between Kumar and his organisation. “We are not associated with Naveen Kumar. The Sanstha is a spiritual organisation. We are active in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa. This is the first time I am hearing his name,’’ he said.
Asked about the sabha in Maddur last November, Rajhans said: “The most important thing is that these programmes are conducted as per law. We take police permission for all the programmes. We are not a criminal organisation, we are a spiritual organisation. Police are investigating and the results will be out.”
On the local spokesperson of HJS referring to links between the Sanstha and Kumar, Rajhans said: “Many people come to the adiveshan from different parts of the country. Even if he has come, we will not know about it. There is an effort being made by the Communists to link us to crimes.’’
In custody, Kumar is said to have provided inputs about the route taken by him to spy on Lankesh’s home on the day of the murder, and identify the location for the killers. Police are trying to verify if it was Kumar who was seen on CCTV cameras conducting a recce on a motorcycle around Lankesh’s home on the day she was shot.
A forensic analysis of four empty cartridges and the four bullets fired to kill Lankesh has shown that the markings match those found in the killing of Kannada scholar and researcher M M Kalburgi, 77, in the northern Karnataka town of Dharwad on August 30, 2015. Forensic analysis suggests that Lankesh and Kalburgi were shot with the same 7.65 mm pistol, and that one outfit or group was behind the two killings.
Findings from the comparison of ballistic evidence from the Lankesh and Kalburgi cases add to existing forensic evidence from the shooting of the leftist thinker Pansare. They suggest that the same 7.65 mm countrymade gun used in the Kalburgi murder was found to have been used in Kolhapur.
Further, a comparison of ballistic evidence in the Pansare case with that in the shooting of rationalist Dabholkar has revealed another link — the second gun used to shoot at Pansare was the one used to kill Dabholkar. The CBI has named members of the Sanstha as key individuals in the Dabholkar murder case.
The Sanstha has been linked to a bomb blast that occurred on October 16, 2009, in Margao in Goa to allegedly disrupt a Diwali festival it had opposed. The group was also linked in 2008 to two blasts that occurred in theatres in Navi Mumbai and Thane where a Marathi play, opposed by the Sanstha, was staged.
At Maddur, where Kumar worked as financier and real-estate operator, some residents expressed shock at his arrest while others said they had warned relatives against spending time with him.
Kumar’s family hails from the Kadalur village, around 9 km from Maddur town. “Their uncle owns some land in the village but Naveen and his parents moved to the town long ago,’’ said a Kadalur resident.
“His father used to work in the Chamundeshwari sugar factory. Naveen was educated at Bharati College in K M Doddi and we used to often see him… he would address us with respect,’’ said a retired colleague of Naveen’s father.
“One of our relatives is very good friend of Naveen. We tried to discourage him from hanging out with Kumar but did not succeed,’’ said a man distantly related to one of Kumar’s friends who is also under the SIT scanner in the Lankesh probe.
Thimme Gowda, the older brother of Kumar who shares the same name as their father, said his brother was taken by police under “suspicious circumstances”. “When we met him, he said he was taken away a few days prior to when he was shown as arrested. He told me police were trying to pin him in the Lankesh case,’’ claimed Gowda, who lives in Maddur with the family.
Incidentally, the report on the Sanstha website about the programme organised in Maddur by Kumar has been removed — the original link says the page cannot be found. However, the report can be accessed on Google cache, which indicates that the original link was available till February 26.