By ANOSH MALEKAR
1 August 2016
Photo: The rationalist Narendra Dabholkar lived from 1945 to 2013.
NARENDRA DABHOLKAR was in a chatty mood on the evening of 18 August 2013. The 67-year-old rationalist had delivered a lecture against superstition in the town of Rahimatpur, in Maharashtra’s Satara district, and was returning in a car to his home in Satara city, about a half-hour drive away. On the way, Dabholkar held forth on “the benefits of a healthy diet, regular exercise and time management, to help one live longer,” recounted Shivaji Raut, an old friend and right-to-information campaigner, who was with him on the journey.
Though he arrived home quite late, Dabholkar rose early the next morning to catch a 6 am bus to Pune. He generally spent the first two days of each week in the city, where he oversaw the work of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Committee), also known by the acronym MANS, an organisation he founded in 1989. While in Pune, Dabholkar would also wrap up work on the latest issue of Sadhana, a 68-year-old weekly that he had edited for 15 years.
Dabholkar reached Pune at around half past nine, but before he could attend to his work, he was called away to Mumbai “at short notice to participate in a television debate on caste panchayats,” Vinod Shirsath, a Pune-based journalist who was then Sadhana’s executive editor, told me. By the time Dabholkar returned, it was past midnight, and he retired to a flat that belonged to the trust that ran Sadhana. He had called a press conference the following day, at which he was to speak about the need to use eco-friendly idols, instead of plaster ones, for immersion in ponds, lakes and rivers during the upcoming Ganpati festival.
Dabholkar woke up on the morning of 20 August, put on a simple violet khadi shirt and light cotton trousers, and stepped out of the flat for a walk. He walked roughly a kilometre till he came to the Omkareshwar bridge, which spans the Mutha river and connects the Omkareshwar temple on one bank to the popular Bal Gandharva auditorium on the other. Dabholkar began to cross the bridge from the temple end.
Two men had been skulking around the area, waiting for him. The activist had walked less than half the length of the bridge when the men approached him and started firing at him. One bullet slammed into his temple, above his right eye, and entered his skull. Another cut through his neck and lodged in his chest. The third grazed his abdomen. Dabholkar slumped face down to the ground, as blood gushed out of his wounds. The shooters darted away, jumped onto a motorcycle parked nearby, and sped off into one of the tiny lanes that wind through the old city.
Dabholkar’s son, Hamid, who was in Satara, received a call from a policeman at around 8.30 that morning, informing him of what had happened. He called Shirsath immediately, and told him that Dabholkar had been “shot and admitted to Sassoon Hospital.” He added: “You please rush, I’m leaving too.” But Dabholkar had died as soon as he was shot.
Later that same day, the activist’s body was transported to Satara. Thousands streamed to his house to pay their final respects—including the then chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, and the state’s home minister, RR Patil. Raut recounted that many of the mourners were deep in shock, and that a silence hung heavy over the house.
But not everyone present that day remained subdued. Raut remembered that “the silence was broken by comrade Govind Pansare’s arrival late evening from Kolhapur.” The 81-year-old Pansare, also a rationalist, and a member of the Communist Party of India, was not formally Dabholkar’s colleague—but as two public figures with similar ideologies, they were well acquainted with and supported each other’s work. When he arrived, Raut said, Pansare stood beside Dabholkar’s body and shouted slogans condemning the murder. He was vocal in the media, too. The Times of India quoted him the next day as saying, “Dabholkar’s assassination is an indicator that there’re fundamentalists and fascists among us who want to quell all rational voices with violence.”
Pansare was voicing a widespread fear: that violent Hindu groups were growing in prominence, and muzzling free speech in a region with a long-standing tradition of progressive politics and thought. In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, western Maharashtra saw the birth of movements such as Jotirao Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj, dedicated to fighting caste discrimination; and the the Prati Sarkar, an anti-imperial peasant uprising, whose participants also carried out elaborate social programmes. Dabholkar was in many ways an inheritor of this tradition, but, as he attempted to promote rationalist thought, he faced continuous opposition, often in the form of overt threats. Some of these threats came from Hindu groups, most notably the Goa-based Sanatan Sanstha—which has, since the killing, come under intense scrutiny from investigating agencies.
Pansare’s statement to the Times of India proved prophetic. A year and a half later, on the morning of 16 February 2015, he, too, was shot, near his home in Kolhapur; he died four days later. On the morning of 30 August that year, a few hundred kilometres to south, in the city of Dharwad in Karnataka, another rationalist, the scholar MM Kalburgi, who formerly served as the vice chancellor of the Kannada University in Hampi, was shot and killed in his home. Kalburgi, too, had drawn the ire of Hindu groups for speaking against superstition and idol worship. The three murders, for which no one has yet been convicted, cast a chill over the entire region, and the country, as other outspoken activists wondered if they should lower their voices.
ONE OF THE MOST PUZZLING aspects of the investigations into the three rationalists’ murders has been the ballistic analyses provided by two forensic science laboratories—one in Mumbai, and the other in Bengaluru. Just a few hours after Dabholkar was killed, two men, Manish Nagori and Vikas Khandelwal, were arrested in Navi Mumbai in connection with another case, having to do with extortion. Maharashtra’s anti-terrorism squad, or ATS, later handed them over to the Pune police for their suspected involvement in yet another case—the 2012 murder of a security guard at the University of Pune. In November 2013, the Mumbai laboratory submitted a ballistics report to the state’s then home minister, RR Patil, that linked Nagori and Khandelwal to Dabholkar’s murder, claiming that a firearm seized from them may have been used in it.
A little over two years later, in February 2016, this finding became mired in confusion after media reports emerged about new information from the Mumbai and Bengaluru laboratories. Anil Singh, an additional solicitor general appearing for the Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, told the Bombay High Court that while the Mumbai laboratory claimed that the same weapon was used in all three murders, the Bengaluru laboratory claimed that they involved different weapons. The agency sought additional time to consult other organisations, including Scotland Yard, before arriving at a conclusion.
Since the Mumbai laboratory had not officially withdrawn its first report, linking Nagori, Khandelwal and their weapon to Dabholkar’s killing, it was unclear whether the laboratory stood by that first finding. But the media did not raise this inconsistency, and instead shifted its focus away from Nagori and Khandelwal, and the first ballistic report, to the contradictions between the Bengaluru and Mumbai laboratories’ findings.
On 30 September last year, I went unannounced to the Mumbai forensic science laboratory. To my surprise—and, indeed, confusion—a ballistics expert I met, who had knowledge of the first report, reiterated the 2013 findings. He claimed that the empty shells recovered from the Dabholkar crime scene had been matched to a 7.65 millimetre country pistol seized from Nagori and Khandelwal. He insisted that “the markings on the empty shells tested by us matched with the recovered weapon.”
Even if the contradiction between the Bengaluru and Mumbai laboratories’ claims can be put down to a difference of professional opinion, the Mumbai laboratory’s 2016 claim was difficult to reconcile with its own 2013 assertion. Nagori and Khandelwal were let off in the Dabholkar case in April 2014 on a technicality—that the police did not file a charge sheet against them within 90 days of their arrest, as required by law. But how, I wondered, could a weapon seized from the two men in 2013 have been used in Pansare and Kalburgi’s murders in 2015?
ON THE DAY Dabholkar was murdered, after the news had broken, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, or HJS, a group affiliated to the Sanatan Sanstha, uploaded onto its website a photograph of the activist with a red “X” over his face. The move drew sharp criticism, and the cybercrime cell of the Pune police directed the HJS to take the image down. The matter ended there.
The Sanstha had long kept up an attack against Dabholkar, disrupting his public meetings, criticising him in its publications and on its websites, and terming him a “Hindudrohi,” or traitor to Hindus. But this image echoed the many anonymous threats that Dabholkar received while he was alive. Perhaps the last of these read, “Remember Gandhi. Remember what we did to him”—a threat that his family told me he received often, sometimes even at public functions. Dabholkar chose to ignore these warnings, and declined police protection.
A day after Dabholkar’s death, the Sanstha published a statement by its founder, Jayant Athavale, on the front page of its website. It read, “Births and deaths are pre-destined and everybody gets the fruit of their karma. Instead of dying bedridden through illness, or after some surgery, such a death for Dabholkar is a blessing of the Almighty.” Athavale added that though “Dabholkar was an atheist and did not believe in god, the same god would give solace to the departed soul.”
These sinister remarks were widely reported, and left many speculating about possible links between the organisation and the murder. The Sanstha was already suspected to have had a hand in several acts of violence. In 2008, several of its “seekers” were arrested in connection with explosions of crude bombs that had taken place that year. Two blasts occurred at auditoriums—in Navi Mumbai and Thane—that were staging the play Amhi Pachpute, which the HJS claimed hurt Hindu sentiments; and one blast took place at a movie theatre in Panvel that was screening the Bollywood film Jodhaa Akbar, which the organisation claimed showed a Hindu woman in a poor light. Two Sanstha members—Vikram Bhave and Ramesh Gadkari—were convicted for the first two blasts, and sentenced to ten years in prison. But the Bombay High Court later granted them bail and suspended their punishment—their appeals are pending before the court. The Sanstha denied having any role in the incidents, and claimed that the arrested men had been acting independently.
But the Sanstha’s discourse suggested that it had a tendency towards violence. In a July 2008 article titled ‘Spiritual as Criminal?’ for the website Countercurrents, the journalist Subhash Gatade wrote that while most of the organisation’s texts deal with purportedly spiritual subjects, “a very important text in the training of the seekers is ‘Texts on Defence.’” Through it, Gatade pointed out, Sanstha seekers were “imparted training with air rifles.” He also cited several instances in which Sanstha texts appeared to condone violence. Athavale, for instance, wrote in his book Science and Spirituality, “Destroy evildoers if you have been advised by saints or Gurus to do so. Then these acts are not registered in your name.”
A website that promotes Athavale’s work describes him as a “psychiatrist and clinical hypnotherapist” from Mumbai, who discovered the limits of modern medicine when he saw that some of his own patients were cured only after they sought help from “a holy person or place.” He founded the Sanstha in the neighbouring state of Goa in 1999, to, according to the group’s website, “impart spiritual knowledge to the curious in the society.” The organisation also sought to cultivate religious tendencies in people, and provide “personal guidance to seekers for their spiritual uplift.” From 1985 onwards, Athavale, a slight, bespectacled man, dedicated himself to the spiritual realm, and, the site says, soon started showing signs of divinity—his hair reportedly began to turn golden in colour, and the Devanagari symbol for “Om” appeared on his fingernails, his tongue and parts of his skin.
Sanstha officials maintain that Athavale is no longer involved in the activities of the organisation. “Since year 2006, because of various ailments and old age, he has remained confined to His room,” Abhay Vartak, a spokesperson, told me over email. “Therefore, all the activities of the Sanstha and management of various Ashrams are looked after by the seekers and trustees of Sanatan Sanstha.”
The organisation had drawn the suspicion of the state government several years ago. I obtained a copy of an April 2011 letter from the home ministry of the Maharashtra state government—then headed by a Congress and Nationalist Congress Party coalition—to the central home ministry—then headed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. The letter said, “You are informed that three cases are registered against activists of Sanatan Sanstha regarding Bomb Blasts. The arrested accused have taken encouragement, incitement, motivation, from the writings in Sanatan Prabhat”—the Sanstha’s official publication. Enclosing “a detailed report” on the blasts, the letter said, “this government has reached the conclusion that the aforesaid organisation is liable to be banned with its affiliated sister concerns/trusts.” But the request was never implemented, and the Sanstha remained active.
Also ineffective in curbing the Sanstha’s activities was a petition to the Bombay High Court by a group of families from Nashik, Pune, Osmanabad and Ahmednagar districts. The petitioners complained that young female members of their families had abandoned them and joined Sanstha ashrams. One submission said that the Sanstha, “for achieving their goal of Ishwari Rajya,” or a divine kingdom, published material that “directs, canvasses its members to overthrow the system established as per Constitution of India, 1950.” The petitioners contended that this amounted to “waging a war against the Indian state,” and asked the court to declare the Sanatan Sanstha a terrorist organisation, and ban it.
At the end of November 2013, a few months after Dabholkar’s murder, his family met the Maharashtra politician Sushil Kumar Shinde, then the UPA government’s home minister, to also seek a ban on the organisation. When I met Shinde at his home in Mumbai on 30 September last year, he refused to accept responsibility in the matter, saying, “Yes, I met them. But we were voted out.”
As investigations into the murders of Dabholkar and Pansare have progressed, disturbing links appear to have emerged between the organisation and the killings. On 16 September 2015, a special investigation team of the Maharashtra police arrested a seeker named Sameer Gaikwad in Sangli on suspicion of his involvement in Pansare’s death. And on 10 June this year, the CBI arrested another seeker, a Panvel-based doctor named Virendra Tawade, on suspicion of his role in Dabholkar’s killing.
Rather than retreat in the face of such scrutiny, the Sanstha has gone on the offensive. On 23 September 2015, a battery of 31 lawyers, led by Sanjiv Punalekar, who is associated with a group known as the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad, appeared to defend Gaikwad when the SIT presented him before a Kolhapur magistrate to seek his custody. In his email, Abhay Vartak, too, supported Gaikwad, claiming that the police was “struggling to find evidence” against him. He insisted that “Sameer is innocent and the so called investigation is a conspiracy.” He described Tawade’s arrest, too, as a conspiracy, and said that it had “only delayed Sameer’s release on bail; else he would have been out of jail by now.”
In a brief report on 7 October 2015, accompanied by a photograph, Sanatan Prabhat announced that 30 people, including Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal activists, had met at Omkareshwar temple three days earlier to pledge their support for the Sanstha. The groups pledged to “co-operate” and “communicate Sanatan’s true position to the people, through social media,” it said. Dabholkar’s son Hamid, who was alerted to the report by an email, was astonished that the group—organised under the banner of the HJS—could meet so brazenly, just metres from the spot where Dabholkar was murdered.
Meanwhile, the Sanstha continues to spew violent rhetoric. The September edition of Sanatan Prabhat carried a press release from the HJS on the hanging of Yakub Memon, convicted in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. The release called for stricter action against “anti-national” elements. Citing a seventeenth-century saint and spiritual poet especially revered in his home district of Satara, the release said that, according to “Samartha Ramdas Swami’s teaching, anti-nationals are like dogs, they must be killed.”
I asked Vartak about the Sanstha’s relationship to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, which has been the subject of some speculation. In his email, he said, “The spread of activities of the RSS has been phenomenal; however, they lack spiritual base. Sanatan Sanstha is trying to provide the missing link. End of the day, RSS and Sanatan Sanstha are organisations that are closely associated with Hindutva; needless to say that there could be some common threads.”
DABHOLKAR GREW UP in Satara, as the youngest of seven brothers and three sisters, all inclined towards intellectual activities and social causes. In this, they were encouraged by their mother, Tarabai. One of Dabholkar’s brothers went on to serve as the vice chancellor of the University of Pune, while another gave up a career as a mathematician to popularise organic farming in the state. Another of his brothers, Dattaprasad, is a well-known author, activist and scientist, and now lives in Satara after retiring several years ago as the director of an industrial research institute in Delhi.
When I met him at his home in June 2015, Dattaprasad recounted that during his and Dabholkar’s childhood, Satara had a reputation as something of a pensioners’ city, but was also a considerable hub of political activity. When the siblings weren’t engrossed in playing marbles in the city’s tiny lanes, he said, they were as likely to attend a meeting of the Seva Dal—the Congress’s grassroots organisation—as of the RSS. Dabholkar developed a love for kabbadi during this time, which went on to become a lifelong passion—he later qualified as an international-level kabaddi player. He would go on to write, in a 2007 magazine article, “There is only one book in Marathi giving a detailed and systematic account of kabaddi as a sport, and that book is written by me.”
Dabholkar’s work as an activist began in 1971, when he joined a movement called Ek Gaon Ek Panotha, or One Village One Well, which sought to persuade villages across the state to allow Dalits to access public wells. Over the next two decades, Dabholkar, who trained and worked as a doctor before giving up his practice, took on a variety of social projects: he started a fund for activists, was associated with other movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and, in 1991, set up a centre for de-addiction and mental health in Satara.
From 1998 onwards, Dabholkar also edited Sadhana—which was founded in 1948, on the first anniversary of India’s independence, by the freedom fighter and activist Sane Guruji. According to the newspaper DNA, after taking over as the editor in 1998, Dabholkar managed to boost Sadhana’s circulation from between 1,500 and 2,000 copies to around 7,000 copies. During his last rites in Satara, Shirsath said, Dabholkar’s wife, Shaila, enquired if Sadhana’s latest issue had been sent to press. “Doctor would have appreciated it. He never stopped working, even if there were problems on the home front,” she told him.
But Dabholkar perhaps poured the most energy into battling what he saw as the scourge of superstition. He founded MANS in 1989, and devoted much of the rest of his life to building it up. From around 17 branches in its early years, MANS grew to having around 250 by 2014, according to its state president, Avinash Patil.
In a rapidly modernising country, this might have seemed an odd choice of issue to focus on—especially as many others chose to work in more globally recognised areas, such as education or health. But Dabholkar believed that vast sections of the population were vulnerable to those who claimed to have supernatural powers, including so-called astrologers, black magicians and babas. Such individuals wielded great power as a result of prevalent superstitions. The resistance that Dabholkar met in fighting for an anti-superstition law made clear that he had struck a nerve, and that many felt threatened by the spread of ideas of rationalism and scepticism. The law was opposed by the BJP and the Shiv Sena, as well as many Hindu religious groups. Dabholkar’s detractors accused him of being against Hinduism, and claimed that the law would adversely affect Hindu culture, customs and traditions.
For two-and-a-half decades, beginning in the late 1980s, Dabholkar toured Maharashtra extensively, usually on state transport buses, delivering public lectures to promote a scientific outlook. He also debunked miracles and divine acts by replicating them. “Narendra was a great orator,” Dattaprasad said. “But his real strength was the extraordinary organisational skills that enabled him to build a network of committed volunteers across Maharashtra’s every taluka. Nobody had achieved this feat since Dr Hedgewar”—the founder of the RSS.
In the 2007 article, Dabholkar offered an explanation for his group’s popularity. “One reason I can think of is that people from all walks of life, of all ages, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, men and women, all have a certain inquisitive interest regarding faith and superstition,” he wrote. He believed that MANS “stirs this interest and links up with them.”
In December 2010, after Prithviraj Chavan was sworn in as chief minister and Ajit Pawar as his deputy, Dabholkar was hopeful that the anti-superstition law would be passed soon, since both politicians were known to be sceptical of superstition. “We certainly see a ray of hope in the rationalist duo,” Dabholkar told the Pune Mirror. “I knew Chavan’s father, Congress MP Dajisaheb, who was a Marxist. The position is in our favour. The bill should get passed in the coming budget session in March.” But Dabholkar was murdered under the duo’s watch. (In a darkly ironic development, Outlook magazine reported in July 2014 that Pune’s police chief, Gulabrao Pol, had turned to black magic to try and find Dabholkar’s killers. The magazine found that Pol sought the help of a former policeman, who had become a tantrik, and performed a procedure with a planchette—a wooden device believed to have the power to summon a dead person’s soul—to crack the case.)
The only consolation after Dabholkar’s killing was that the state government promulgated an anti-superstition ordinance just four days later. Many activists, Pansare among them, continued to urge the government to turn the ordinance into a law. Four months later, the assembly passed the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifices and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices, and Black Magic Act, 2013.
Shaila, a practising gynaecologist in Satara, told me that Dabholkar had been advised by police to carry a licensed firearm, but he had rejected the idea. “He was a man dedicated to a social cause,” she said. “There were many threats, and I had always lived with the lurking fear of a physical assault on him. But I never ever thought somebody would take his life.” Dattaprasad, too, said Dabholkar was undeterred by threats. “He used to say, ‘If I take security cover, my detractors will go after my fellow activists. If anyone has to die, let it be me.’”
Dattaprasad has received his share of threats for his work, through which he has tried to counter Hindu organisations’ efforts to paint the nineteenth-century thinker Swami Vivekananda as a supporter of Hindu supremacy. Through his writings and speeches, Dattaprasad has sought to present a more nuanced picture of Vivekananda, as a rationalist and a socialist, and a proponent of a scientific temper. “We cannot let the fundamentalist forces appropriate him,” he said. “Vivekananda should be known for what he is.”
An anonymous handwritten postcard that arrived at Dattaprasad’s doorstep in June 2015 made a veiled threat, suggesting Dattaprasad retire, and that he stop championing social causes. It advised him to instead take “complete rest.” Dattaprasad told me that this was followed by more direct threats to his life, but he chose to downplay them. Nevertheless, he was given police protection. “I’ve been an ordinary person all my life,” he said. “All this fuss is a bit too much to bear at this age.”
But such a “fuss” seemed undeniably warranted after the three murders, particularly given how similar they were in their methods. These similarities fuelled speculation that there might be a common hand behind them. Pansare, too, was on a morning walk, with his wife, Uma, on 16 February 2015, when his killers closed in on him. “I suddenly heard a sound like a cracker and saw a short pillion rider on a motorcycle holding a small gun,” a 14-year-old boy told investigators, in a statement reported by the Times of India in July 2016. “He fired a shot which hit an old lady who was walking. She fell.” The boy recounted that the biker then raced ahead, and “did a U-turn,” causing the bike to skid. “By then the young pillion rider stood on the foot rest and fired at an ajoba”—Marathi for grandfather—“who was walking towards them. He fired many shots. He fell.”
Like Dabholkar, Pansare, too, had made numerous enemies through his work. His opponents had long seethed at a booklet he wrote in 1988, titled Shivaji Kon Hota? (Who Was Shivaji?), which sold a total of more than 200,000 copies in Marathi, English and eight other Indian languages. The booklet argued that Shivaji was not, as the Hindu right portrayed him, a protector of Brahmins and cows, but rather of peasants, women, Dalits and even Muslims. This depiction of their revered warrior king incensed saffron groups and Marathi chauvinists.
Nevertheless, Pansare kept up his tireless activism against the ideologies he opposed, ranging from Hindutva to predatory capitalism. A week after his killing, Shruti Tambe, a professor of sociology at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly that he was an “articulate orator,” whose “life was an example of everyday commitment with the toiling masses.” When she would meet him at the CPI office in Kolhapur, Tambe wrote, Pansare was usually to be found talking to “representatives of women domestic workers, aanganwadi workers, retired soldiers, women’s organisations, various trade unions and so on.”
Pansare, too, received a steady stream of threats for his work, as did Kalburgi. Not long before he was killed, he was threatened after he participated in a seminar at Shivaji University in Kolhapur, where he attacked the idea of installing idols of Nathuram Godse, Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin, in temples across India. This idea was proposed by the Hindu Mahasabha, perhaps emboldened by the rule of a pro-Hindutva party at the centre. A few weeks before his murder, a former student of Pansare who works as a senior journalist in Pune told me, “despite stiff opposition, he had insisted on holding a public talk in Kolhapur by the retired Inspector General of Police SM Mushrif on the latter’s controversial book, Who Killed Karkare? There was a good turnout, but Pansare had received anonymous postcards from Pune, threatening to ‘make a Dabholkar’ of him.”
After he was killed, Pansare’s supporters pledged to walk, as a symbolic protest on the twentieth of every month, the path he had habitually walked every morning—a practice they continue to this day. Pansare’s daughter-in-law, Megha, told me the protestors were inspired by the methods adopted by Dabholkar’s family and MANS activists in Pune, who congregated on the twentieth of each month at Omkareshwar bridge, also as a protest. Those gatherings have drawn social and political workers, writers, academics, and leading artistes from film, television and theatre, including Amol Palekar, Naseeruddin Shah, Nagraj Manjule, Sonali Kulkarni and Atul Pethe. Among the slogans that they chant at the meetings is, “Phule, Shahu, Ambedkar, amhi saare Dabholkar” (We’re all Dabholkar). “We want the killers, and the state, to know that dissent cannot be suppressed easily,” Megha said.
TO SOME POLITICAL OBSERVERS, the killing of rationalists is a frightening symbol of how far the politics of western Maharashtra has shifted since the late nineteenth century. That era saw the region produce some of India’s most progressive activists and thinkers. Apart from Jotirao Phule and his wife, Savitribai, reformers such as Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Shahu Maharaj and Bhaurao Patil, who promoted secularism, rationalism, affirmative action, and education for girls, were also active in the region. After Independence, their ideologies served as the foundation for a variety of social and political groups, including trade unions, Dalit parties, communist parties and even the Congress. But the fact that activists who fight for similar causes today face continuous threats and intimidation from groups such as the Sanatan Sanstha suggests that this foundation has slowly been eroded over the decades.
The political trajectory of Vasantdada Patil, a former chief minister of Maharashtra, sheds some light on how this transformation took place. A member of the Congress, Vasantdada participated in the Prati Sarkar, a peasant uprising, launched in Satara in 1942 by a leader named Nana Patil, in response to Mohandas Gandhi’s call for the British to “quit India.” The Prati Sarkar revolutionaries established a parallel government in Satara, promoted education by setting up libraries and schools, and propagated rationalism. (They also undertook some less progressive exercises, such as conducting “nyaydan mandals,” or people’s courts, where feudal exploiters, British sympathisers and other assorted criminals were tried and punished. One common punishment was to cane the soles of people’s feet.)
Vasantdada was an important leader of the Prati Sarkar. In July 1943, he and several fellow revolutionaries broke out of Sangli jail, where they had been imprisoned by British rulers for their participation in the freedom struggle. In an ensuing confrontation with the police, Vasantdada was shot in the chest. Though his injury was serious, he survived, and went on to carve out a high-profile political career over the next 45 years.
But as he did so, many believe Vasantdada betrayed the Prati Sarkar, and the progressive movement in general. After Independence, he and other Congress leaders from the Maratha caste group, including Yashwantrao Chavan and Balasaheb Desai, claimed that the progressive movement was part of their heritage, but, in practice, they promoted a ruling class comprising wealthy Maratha farmers, and a few other-backward-class, or OBC, groups. This basic strategy for retaining power in the state served the Congress well for decades, allowing it to rule until the late 1980s.
The activist Bharat Patankar pointed out a parallel between the period of the Congress’s rise after Independence and the recent growth of Hindu parties: that earlier phase, too, saw a series of killings of leftist leaders. “In the late forties and early fifties, the region witnessed the murders of Chandroji Patil from Kameri, Comrade KD Patil from Kale, Balasaheb Shinde from Benapur, and Popat Master from Malkhed,” he said. “Now it is Dabholkar and Pansare.” His father, Babuji Patankar, who was a key Prati Sarkar leader, also disappeared during this period. After being called to a meeting on 24 Jan 1952, he said, “my father went missing under mysterious circumstances … His body was never found.”
Over the years, cracks began to develop between the local Congress leadership and the centre. As the centre tried to keep the state unit in check, state leaders, Vasantdada among them, retaliated by lending tacit support to a then fledgling Hindu party, the Shiv Sena, which was formed in 1966 by Bal Thackeray. The Sena practised an antagonistic politics and took on a cocktail of issues: it fomented communal violence, railed against the influx of outsiders into the region, and fought to break the hold of trade unions over industries. In 1984, the party allegedly orchestrated riots in Bhiwandi, Kalyan, Thane and Mumbai. These were preludes to much larger riots in Mumbai in 1992 and 1993, which gave the Sena the momentum it needed to seize political power in the state in 1995, in partnership with the BJP. In effect, Vasantdada, one of the state’s most prominent Congress leaders, despite his assocation with leftists, played a key role in enabling the rise of Hindutva politics.
Even as they plotted their rise in Maharashtra, Hindu groups realised that they could not ignore the leftist ideologies that had had a strong presence in western Maharashtra. The RSS attempted to fold the problems of caste into their Hindutva agenda by founding the Samajik Samrasta Manch, or “platform for social harmony,” in 1983. This group spoke of the idea of “social harmony,” or harmony between castes, rather than the older leftist idea of “social justice,” which was associated with a larger fight against the caste system itself. According to the Manch website, the Hindu ideologue Dattopant Thengdi, who spoke at its inauguration, “traced the common points in the social ideology of Dr Ambedkar and Dr Hedgewar”—though the latter was a committed proponent of Hindutva, and the former saw the Hindu religion as an oppressive system that needed to be uprooted.
Hindu groups continue to attempt to refashion their histories. On 15 December 2015, the Indian Express published an article titled ‘Misunderstanding the RSS,’ by the Sangh ideologue MG Vaidya, in which he claimed that the organisation’s volunteers had been active in the independence struggle. He wrote that the Prati Sarkar leader “Nana Patil of Satara, who led a fierce anti-British agitation, was underground for many days in the house of Pandit Satwalekar, the sanghachalak of the nearby town.”
Patankar dismissed Vaidya’s claim as a “total lie” and a “poor attempt at rewriting Satara’s history to suit the Sangh’s larger goal of appropriating the past events.” He told me, “My parents were closely associated with Nana Patil. I never heard my mother or their associates mention Satwalekar, or anybody from RSS.” Besides, he added, “Prati Sarkar’s ideology was always at cross purposes with the RSS goals. It challenged and banished Brahminic dominance and feudal ways, inspired by Mahatma Phule’s ideology.”
But even if the Hindu groups’ claims over this legacy are dubious, they did draw crucial lessons of political strategy from leftist movements. Milind Ekbote, who is from a family of RSS volunteers and has travelled to Ayodhya twice as a Sangh volunteer, told me about the RSS’s strategy to expand its base in Pune. Their work was kicked off in 1974, after the organisation’s then head, Balasaheb Deoras, declared that, “If untouchability is not wrong, nothing in the world is wrong.” This statement was widely seen as defining a new goal for the RSS, of drawing oppressed castes into its fold.
Ekbote served as an elected BJP member of the Pune Municipal Corporation in the early 1990s, and dabbled in politics before being sidelined by the party. Still, over his career he has witnessed how the RSS penetrated the congested areas where the city’s underprivileged masses lived, including Ganj Peth, where Phule had a home. “There were many like me who chose to work in the low-income areas,” he said. He counted Anil Shirole, the current BJP member of parliament from the Pune constituency; Pradeep Rawat, a former MP from the same constituency; and the late union minister Gopinath Munde, among his fellow swayamsevaks, or RSS volunteers, at various city slums in the 1970s and 1980s.
“We started shakhas in the chawls and bastis, and motivated Dalits and other lower-caste groups to join us,” Ekbote said. The group regularly organised visits of high-profile leaders to these areas to win followers. Among them was the shankaracharya of Karveer Peeth, based in Kolhapur, who, in 1986, visited the Lohiya Nagar slum in central Pune. Ekbote and his colleagues convinced 50 Dalit married couples to gather and welcome the religious leader. He also recalled cleaning the precincts of Jotirao Phule’s ancestral house in the city, which was lying in decay, to prepare for a visit by the BJP leader LK Advani, in 1988. “Advani was surprised by the welcome accorded by the slum dwellers,” Ekbote said. “We counted 25 garlands.”
These were difficult years, Ekbote explained. The BJP’s candidate for parliamentary polls, Anna Joshi, could barely manage to win a thousand votes from the area. But the party gradually gained force through the efforts of ground-level workers such as Ekbote, until it came to power in 1995, along with the Shiv Sena. A few Dalit leaders, who continue to be key figures in the party, also emerged during this period. Dilip Kamble, a Dalit leader of the Matang caste, which has a sizeable presence in the thickly populated slums of central Pune, was elected from the Parvati assembly constituency in 1995 and became a minister. Today, he is minister of state for social justice in the ruling Devendra Phadnavis government.
The coalition lost power in 1999, and was relegated to the opposition for the next 15 years—a period during which the Sena-BJP partnership weakened. But the 2014 elections saw the two parties make a strong return, this time with the BJP in the lead. The party delivered particularly impressive results in Pune city, where it bulldozed the NCP, the Congress and the Sena to win all eight assembly seats. Earlier in the year, it had pocketed the Pune Lok Sabha constituency, riding a popular wave in favour of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi.
Ekbote’s fortunes did not rise with the parties’. In search of an election ticket, he switched from the BJP to the Shiv Sena during the 2014 assembly polls, but lost from the Shivajinagar constituency. Since then, he has been active as a promoter of cow protection, and has supported several gaushalas, or cow shelters, under the banner of his organisation, the Samasta Hindu Aghadi, which is dedicated to the Hindutva cause.
Ekbote was among those who came out in open support of the Sanatan Sanstha and HJS after Gaikwad was arrested in the Pansare murder. “The arrest of Sameer Gaikwad is a serious cause for concern among true Hindus,” he told me. “See, Sanatan seeks to propagate spirituality. They get a bit aggressive in their publications and websites. Doesn’t mean their sadhaks”—seekers—“are committing murders.”
In a statement issued in October 2015, Ekbote condemned those demanding a ban on these organisations. “The only agenda of these people is Hindu-hatred,” he told me when we met in November, and alleged that “the Congress-NCP government had done all it could to implicate” the Sanstha and the HJS. He was also bitterly critical of what he called Dabholkar and Pansare’s “pseudo secularism.” “They misinterpreted ‘vivekvad’”—rationalism—“to hurt the common people’s sentiments and beliefs,” he said.
IN SEPTEMBER 2015, after hearing petitions filed by the families of Dabholkar and Pansare, the Bombay High Court expressed concern over the investigations into their cases—the former’s by the CBI and the latter’s by a special investigation team, or SIT. The court criticised both for their failure to make progress. “It is a disturbing factor,” said the bench of Justices Ranjit More and Rajesh Ketkar.
After this, the investigations appeared to pick up pace. A week after the court began hearing the petitions, the SIT arrested Gaikwad in connection with the Pansare murder. This was the first major breakthrough in the nearly seven months since the crime.
Other names, too, began to emerge. In the second week of October, a senior police officer in Kolhapur told me that the police had vital clues to Gaikwad’s close links to a man named Rudra Patil, a seeker from Sangli. Patil was also wanted in a 2009 case regarding a bomb blast in Madgaon, Goa, in which two seekers died while ferrying explosives on a scooter. He had been absconding ever since. The officer added that another absconder in the same case, a man named Sarang Akolkar, was also under investigation for links to the murders. Patil, who had studied in Kolhapur, was suspected to be involved in Pansare’s murder, the officer said. Akolkar, who was from Pune, was being investigated for his possible involvement in Dabholkar’s killing.
Arguing the case on 7 October, the two families’ lawyer, Abhay Nevagi, told the high court that investigating agencies had failed in their duty to nab Patil, even though they had issued a “red notice” to Interpol, the international policing agency, seeking his arrest. “Look at the way the agencies are operating,” he said. “He is absconding for six years.”
Nevagi also pointed out that Patil’s wife, Priti, was the lawyer representing Gaikwad in Kolhapur, effectively suggesting that the agency was not thoroughly probing potential links between suspects. In its comments, the court, which had read confidential reports on the progress of the investigations, concurred with the families on the question of Patil’s importance, and curtly criticised the agencies’ work. “The report is silent on steps taken to nab Rudra Patil,” Justice More said. “There is no doubt of some link.”
Two months later, on 14 December, the SIT filed a 372-page charge sheet against Gaikwad in a Kolhapur court. The document contained the statements of 77 witnesses, including that of the 14-year-old boy who was present at the scene of Pansare’s murder, and who had identified Gaikwad.
But the investigation seemed to stall again after this; no major developments were announced for several months. In April 2016, the court took the agencies to task again. “How many more murder anniversaries and status reports must one wait for before any concrete leads can be obtained in the two cases?” a bench of Justices SC Dharmadhikari and Shalini Phansalkar-Joshi said. On 3 May, the court told the agencies to “exhibit more promptness and expediency in completing the investigations, or at least making real progress,” and assured them that “as long as matters are before this Court, no hurdles and obstacles can be placed” before the investigations.
For the first time, the court also took note of potential links to the Sanstha, orally instructing investigating agencies to question its members. In January this year, I attended a media briefing by the special public prosecutor in the case, Harshad Nimbalkar, soon after his appointment. Nimbalkar said that there was strong evidence of the Sanstha’s involvement. The charge sheet against Gaikwad, he said, detailed a long history of enmity between Pansare and the organisation. “A civil and other criminal cases were filed by the Sanstha against Pansare in Goa,” he said. “It had also complained to the bar council of Maharashtra and Goa against his activism. This showed that the organisation stood to benefit directly from his murder.” Nimbalkar added, “Right now, our aim is to not give any scope for Gaikwad to get bail. We will tell the court that the investigation is still on and that he may flee, like his aide Rudra Patil.”
But the Sanstha’s spokesperson, Vartak, insisted that the seekers were “innocent and are being made the scapegoat.” The organisation’s lawyer, Punalekar, also told me over the phone that it was being dragged unfairly into the case.
On 29 December 2015, the Kolhapur police received an oddly ominous letter from Punalekar, in which he said that witnesses in the Pansare case could be in danger. “Western Maharashtra is infamous for criminal activities and there are chances that the witness may be the target of those who want to malign the image of the Sanatan Sanstha,” he wrote. When I spoke to him, Punalekar said his letter was not intended as a threat. “My intention was simple, and as stated, to ensure protection for the witness,” he said. Punalekar pointed an accusatory finger at the police instead. “But what was the intention of the Kolhapur police, who selectively leaked its contents to the media?” he said. “All this was being done to somehow implicate the Sanstha and its associate organisations.”
The Dabholkar case returned to the headlines on 10 June this year after the CBI arrested Virendra Tawade, a surgeon based in Panvel, and a member of the HJS. The 48-year-old Tawade, who is originally from the coastal town of Devgad, had spent six years in Kolhapur before he moved to Satara sometime around 2006. He worked with various hospitals for two years, during which time he also led the Sanstha’s attempts to hound Dabholkar by disrupting his anti-superstition public meetings or pressurising authorities to halt them. He was produced in court on 11 June. The CBI, citing his emails, call records, and a hard disk recovered from his house, said that he had received instructions from an unidentified source to “focus on Dabholkar” three months before the murder. The same day, media reports appeared, quoting CBI sources saying that Tawade could be a key conspirator, and may have arranged a weapon and bullets for the crime.
A senior CBI officer involved in the case told me that Tawade had been in touch with Akolkar, and had undergone arms training in the village of Karajnagi in Jath taluka, in Sangli. The officer said that this was the native village of Rudra Patil, and of his cousin, Malgonda—one of the two men who died in the Goa blast.
While Tawade’s arrest seemed like a breakthrough, in mid June the Mumbai Mirror and the Times of India published a sensational story of a statement made to the CBI by a key witness in the presence of a magistrate, which severely dented the agencies’ claims that they were conducting an effective investigation. The witness, a Kolhapur resident, said he had worked with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and the Sanatan Sanstha, but was not a formal part of any organisation. By his account, “around 2013,” Tawade approached him, and asked him for help in manufacturing a revolver, procuring bullets, and sheltering two men. The witness said he wriggled out of the requests. “On August 20, 2013, I heard about Dr Narendra Dabholkar being shot dead and my mind went over my entire interaction with Dr Tawade,” the Mumbai Mirror report said. “He and others in his group knew of Dr Dabholkar’s exact whereabouts. I called my policeman friend and asked him to get in touch with any senior officer and to please fix an appointment for me. I also told him that I wanted him to share my apprehensions with his seniors.”
The witness said he met senior police officials in Kolhapur, and later an officer of the ATS. He claimed that he told the ATS officer that he “would be willing to testify in court if required,” and that the officer “said OK but did nothing about it.” The Mumbai Mirror report quotes him as saying that, a year and a half later, “on February 2015, Govind Pansare was shot dead.”
The report continued with the witness’s account. “Within hours of the attack on Pansare, a police officer from Rajarampuri division of Kolhapur contacted me,” the man reportedly said. He claimed that he, once again, told the police everything he knew, but that, “once again, nothing happened.” It was only in January 2016 that the CBI approached him, and made him a witness in the Dabholkar case.
LIKE DABHOLKAR, PANSARE AND KALBURGI, Bharat Patankar, too, is familiar with menacing anonymous letters. One handwritten postcard arrived at his doorstep on July 2014, addressing him as “Janaab Dr Bharat Patankar” and accusing him of being a “Brahmin hating liberal, who believed the world and all knowledge contained in it began and ended with Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar.” Another followed a few days later, warning him to “stop beating the Bahujan drums”—using a term that, in Maharashtra, refers to non-Brahmin castes.
“Threats have been a part of my life ever since I decided against appearing for my MD in gynaecology to become a full-time activist in 1973,” Patankar told me when I met him at his home in Kasegaon village, in Sangli district. Hostility has spilled over into aspects of even his personal life, such as his marriage to the US-born sociologist Gail Omvedt. “This has prompted the right wing to raise occasional queries,” he said. “Like, ‘Who is Patankar? His wife is a foreigner?’”
Like other activists in the state, including Dabholkar and Pansare, Patankar, in his writing and activism, makes a link between the Hindu right and oppressive capitalism. He began in the late 1980s by targeting the latter, working with dam evictees in the Krishna valley in the state’s southern districts, and fighting against what he felt were the Congress government’s flawed irrigation policies. “The spirit behind this movement had its roots in the Satyashodhak tradition of Phule, who criticised the irrigation bureaucracy of his time for neglecting the water needs of farmers,” Patankar said.
After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in 1992, Patankar expanded his work to also fight against communalism. On 6 December 1993, a year after the demolition, he organised a farmers’ protest in Kolhapur, which was attended by 25,000. Among those present that day was Pansare, who addressed the crowd.
Since then, anti-communalist and anti-capitalist tendencies have been intertwined in Patankar’s activism. He has organised rallies in the 13 drought-prone, eastern talukas of Sangli, Satara and Solapur districts. “The drought-hit people from these talukas gather in large numbers every year since 1993 on 26 June, the birth anniversary of erstwhile ruler and social reformer Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur,” Patankar said. During their meetings, he added, they “discuss the political and social implications of the rise of communal forces, and plan counter-strategies, while continuing to pursue demands for equitable access to water and a fair share of the Krishna waters.”
Patankar has also frequently articulated his positions through his writings. In a widely circulated essay titled ‘Hindu or Sindhu,’ first published in Marathi in 1993, he wrote, “The Hindutvavadis are the offspring of the capitalists who exploit workers, agricultural labourers, peasants, women, adivasis, dalits, nomads, balutedars and tenants.” He argued that Hindutva forces were “trying to heighten casteist exploitation by restoring old brahmanic religion in a new form. Muslims have been made the direct target of their bloodthirsty attack.”
His vociferous activism has drawn sharp opposition. After the two threatening letters in 2014, a third arrived in February 2015, a fortnight before Pansare’s murder, asking if Patankar “had been appointed by radical Muslims to finish Brahmins and Hindus.” It compared Brahmins with Jews, and reminded him that even Hitler’s Nazis had failed to annihilate the latter. The letter dismissed Patankar and Pansare as “mere puppets in the hands of radical Muslims.”
Within days of Pansare’s death, yet another letter arrived. It contained 61 typed words in broken English, and was marked by a change in tone. The sender apologised for the earlier letters, calling them “just outburst of feelings/emotions.” It continued, “It was not at all threat. It was big mistake. Henceforth I will try to keep aloof from what is happening around me.” The letter concluded with the words, “I am in no way connected to any incident/organisation whatsoever. Wishing you a long long healthy life.”
About a month later, Patankar received a copy of Sanatan Prabhat by post at his residence. He told the local media about this, and voiced his suspicions that the Sanstha could be linked to the murders. This was widely reported across Maharashtra.
On 24 March, Patankar announced a protest march by his organisation, and several leftist parties, on the Sanatan Prabhat’s Kolhapur office, against what he said was malicious propaganda against progressive movements and activists that the magazine had carried for years. The protestors also intended to pressurise authorities to investigate potential links between the Sanstha and the rationalists’ murders. In response to his announcement, followers and supporters of the Sanstha threatened to hold a counter-march. Tensions rose between the groups, leading the police to impose prohibitory orders in Kolhapur. That same day, Patankar and his supporters attempted to go ahead with their march, but were met by Sanstha supporters. The situation grew volatile as the two groups shouted slogans at each other. Finally, police intervened, and called for people to remain calm.
By this time, the Marathi media had highlighted the threats that Patankar had received. After the protest against Sanatan Prabhat, the police decided to take preventive action in light of these threats. Patankar’s ancestral home, a modest stone-brick structure in the old quarter of Kasegaon, abutting National Highway 4, has since been under the constant vigil of armed police guards.
IN AN EDITORIAL titled ‘A “Tolerant” State’ published on 18 June 2016, the Economic and Political Weekly observed, “While Dabholkar, Pansare and MM Kalburgi’s murders (as well as the harassment meted out to others like them) are deplorable, what is even more despicable is the silence of large sections of the population and the continuing support of political interests to their tormentors.” The absence of a proper government response, the editorial argued, “is a clear indication that citizens feel they are not safe if they speak out against entrenched religious vested interests and that the state will not take their complaints seriously.” It warned that a society “that cannot tolerate dissenting views or keeps quiet in the face of a violent reaction to such views, is staring at a cultural and intellectual abyss.”
In July last year, I heard a similar criticism of the response to the murders when I accompanied Patankar to the town of Kundal, in Sangli district, to meet the 93-year-old Ram Lad, one of the last surviving revolutionaries of the Prati Sarkar. Lad, who has large, sharp eyes and a thick, grey moustache, had lost much of his hearing, but was otherwise remarkably fit. “What did independence give us?” Lad said. “We fought an oppressive foreign regime hoping to establish people’s self-rule. We feel let down today. The rulers changed, but oppression continues. Where is the freedom we had hoped for?”
I asked him about the role of leaders such as Vasantdada in weakening the presence of the left in the region. “Why blame Vasantdada alone?” he said. “Even Yashwantrao Chavan and Sharad Pawar let down the people of Maharashtra. Politics became a means for them to grab power. One wonders if they were really concerned about welfare of the ordinary masses.”
He castigated the younger generation for failing to stand up to the rise of fundamentalist forces. They “were silent spectators,” he said, “while those claiming to be liberals stood with folded hands before the powers that be.” People had chosen “to turn a blind eye to age-old evils like casteism, communalism, religious bigotry and economic inequality,” he added. He grew increasingly agitated as he said this, and then snapped at me, “Why isn’t your generation angry?”
Anosh Malekar is an award-winning journalist based in Pune, who prefers traveling in rural India and writing about people living on the margins of society. He has worked with publications such as The WEEK and the Indian Express.