It was the frequent change of SIM cards that made Kolhapur police suspicious of Sameer Vishnu Gaikwad (32), a “full-time member” of radical Hindu organisation Sanatan Sanstha who was arrested Wednesday in connection with the murder of veteran CPI leader Govind Pansare.
Following Pansare’s death in February, Gaikwad’s phones were put under surveillance and for six months, his calls were monitored. As investigators found that Gaikwad frequently discussed Pansare with his wife, their suspicion grew.
“There were uncanny similarities in the manner in which rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and Pansare were murdered. In the Dabholkar case, we suspected the involvement of the Sanatan Sanstha but were unable to nab the assailants. Witnesses had helped us track the likely route the accused might have taken, and in both the cases, the accused fled to Goa or Karnataka,” a senior police officer told The Indian Express on condition of anonymity.
“Pansare considered Dabholkar his mentor. We had also recovered recordings of some events held in western Maharashtra, especially in Kolhapur, in which Pansare supported Dabholkar’s view on rationalism. The members of the group were, therefore, kept on surveillance and when there were frequent exchanges between Gaikwad and his wife relating to Pansare, we decided to arrest him,” the officer added. Dabholkar was shot dead by two youths while he was on a morning walk on August 20, 2013.
Not just Dabholkar, police also believe there could be links between the murders of Pansare and Kannada scholar and researcher M M Kalburgi, who was shot dead outside his residence in Dharwad, north Karnataka, on August 30. On Wednesday, a Karnataka CID team, which is investigating Kalburgi’s murder, rushed to Sangli to question Gaikwad.
H C Kishore Chandra, Karnataka CID’s Director General of Police, said, “We hope to get some leads in our investigation from Gaikwad. We strongly suspect that ideological differences with Kalburgi might have been behind his assassination.”
In Sangli, the police officer claimed that while Gaikwad — a resident of Dakshin Shivajinagar in Sangli district — spoke about Pansare to his wife, he never discussed his murder. According to police, around three days ago, when Gaikwad returned to Sangli to participate in Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, a team was dispatched by the Kolhapur Police and stationed around his residence.
“He was picked up at 10 pm Tuesday,” a senior police officer said. He was formally arrested around 4.30 am Wednesday. The police produced him before a court in Kolhapur, which remanded him in police custody for seven days.
Maharashtra CID chief Additional Director General of Police Sanjay Kumar, who is heading the SIT probe in the case, said Gaikwad is a “close suspect”. “This arrest does not mean the case is solved. There is a strong possibility that Gaikwad knows about or is involved in the murder conspiracy. We are not saying he is the killer or a mastermind. He has been arrested on suspicion. His arrest is based on leads we got through electronic surveillance,” said Kumar.
Kumar said Gaikwad is a “full-time worker” of Sanatan Sanstha. “He has been working for the organisation since 1998. His entire family is associated with Sanatan Sanstha. He is also into mobile repair work. His wife lives in an ashram belonging to Sanatan Sanstha in Goa, which he used to visit frequently,” Kumar added.
The SIT also raided shops in Sangli, Navi Mumbai and Mumbai, where Gaikwad ran mobile recharge kiosks. Police teams also searched his residences in Sangli and Mumbai. A team has also been sent to Goa in connection with the case. Police suspect Pansare’s killers may be from Goa.
On February 16 this year, two motorcycle-borne persons shot at Pansare and his wife Uma when they were on a morning walk near their residence in Kolhapur. A bullet hit Uma’s head. She survived the attack but suffered paralysis. Pansare died on February 20 while undergoing treatment in a Mumbai hospital.
Following Gaikwad’s arrest, Sanatan Sanstha issued a press release stating: “Earlier, inquiry of many seekers of Sanatan was also conducted in the case of the killing of Dr Dabholkar. Sanatan Sanstha also faced similar criticism on earlier occasions. However, no output came out of these inquiries. Since Sanatan Sanstha is a spiritual organisation, it cannot provide direct legal assistance to Mr Gaikwad. However, since he is innocent, he will be provided legal assistance by either Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad or any well-wisher advocate.”
The state government had constituted the SIT to probe the case in April and sent CCTV footage of areas close to the crime scene to London for enhancement. Once the footage was sent back, the SIT released sketches of the suspects in June.
As news of Gaikwad’s arrest spread, Sanatan Sanstha workers in Sangli locked their office in Miraj and left. There have been disputes between Sanatan Sanstha and Pansare in the past. During an event in Goa in 2009, Pansare had spoken against Sanatan Sanstha. “A regional Marathi daily reported the news. Based on it, Sanatan Sanstha filed a defamation suit of Rs 10 crore against Pansare in Madgaon court,” said Raghunath Kamble, general secretary of CPI, Kolhapur unit.
When contacted, Sanatan Sanstha spokesperson Sandip Shinde said, “Gaikwad is our full-time sadhak… Even during the press conference, police said they do not know about his role in the murder. That is because police have no evidence against Gaikwad. He is being framed… We know Gaikwad is innocent. We will provide legal help to him.”
Late Wednesday night, four people, including a woman, were detained by the police in the case. A police team also conducted searches at the Sanatan Sanstha’s Panvel office in Navi Mumbai.