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Murder and motive: on the Narendra Dabholkar murder case

It is a matter of some consolation that the two men who shot dead Narendra Dabholkar, rationalist and anti-superstition activist, have been sentenced to life imprisonment by a Sessions Court in Pune. At the same time, it is regrettable that it took over 10 years since the August 2013 assassination for them to be brought to justice. It is disquieting that the Central Bureau of Investigation failed to prove the conspiracy behind the killing, leading to the acquittal of the man arraigned as the main conspirator. It is a setback to the conclusion of investigators in Maharashtra and Karnataka that a right-wing organisation called Sanatan Sanstha was behind the heinous murder of ideological adversaries between 2013 and 2017, although the question is still alive in three other ongoing murder trials. Virendrasinh Tawde, an otolaryngologist associated with the Sanstha’s activities, is the one acquitted of the conspiracy charge. He was an outspoken antagonist of Dabholkar and his Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti Maharashtra, an organisation campaigning against superstitions. Despite the court finding that Sachin Andure and Sharad Kalaskar, young men associated with the Sanstha, were the ones who shot dead the 69-year-old Dabholkar in Pune, it criticised the failure to “unmask the masterminds”. This meant that the role of the Sanatan Sanstha is yet to be legally established, although the court has noted the manner in which the defence lawyers sought to tarnish the image of Dabholkar and his activities.

Additional Sessions Judge P.P. Yadav’s 171-page judgment rightly points out that the existence of a motive will be insufficient to prove a conspiracy, and that reliable and direct evidence is required to show that the accused had acted on the motive. However, he does find it strange that the defence was seeking to establish during cross-examination of witnesses that the victim was “anti-Hindu”. The Sanatan Sanstha’s role, according to investigators in Maharashtra and Karnataka, was seen in the murders of Govind Pansare, a leftist leader at Kolhapur in Maharashtra (2015), academician M.M. Kalburgi (Dharwad, 2015) and journalist Gauri Lankesh (Bengaluru, 2017). In fact, it was a ballistics analysis of the gun used to kill Lankesh that disclosed that it was the same weapon used in the murder of Kalburgi. Several common features in the four murders have so far been unearthed, leading the police to conclude that a single syndicate has been active in seeking to eliminate adversaries. The governments in Maharashtra and Karnataka must show greater political will in combating such threats to independent thinkers and activists. The first step in this regard is to expedite ongoing trials and focus on proving the conspiracy, motivated by religious extremism, in its entirety.

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