Communist leader Govind Pansare succumbed to his wounds on February 20, four days after unidentified gunmen shot at him and his wife during their morning walk in Kolhapur in western Maharashtra. Pansare had been airlifted to Breach Candy hospital in Mumbai on Friday evening. Uma Pansare, his wife, is now out of danger.

Pansare, who was at the forefront of an agitation against a road development company in Kolhapur, had in early February made statements against the deification of Nathuram Godse. Soon after the shooting, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had ordered a probe into the case and the police in Kolhapur had said that an investigation was under way.

The assault on Pansare and his wife is not an isolated case. It is the latest in a series of attacks on social activists in Maharashtra. In 2013, a report said that 53 Right to Information Act activists had been attacked in the state, the most in the country since the law came into being in 2005. Nine of those activists died.

In 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, a leading anti-superstition activist, like Pansare, was shot at point-blank range in Pune while on his morning walk. Dabholkar died. In 2010, activist Satish Shetty, who had exposed several land scams in Maharashtra, was shot by as-yet unidentified people, again in Pune when he was taking his morning walk.

"There is growing lawlessness in Maharashtra by casteist and communalist elements," wrote Anand Teltumbde, general secretary of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, in a press statement released on Monday. "The present Hindutva dispensation in power in Maharashtra clearly appears to have emboldened them to go berserk killing people who are critical of them. They want to terrorize progressive Maharashtra by such cowardly acts. Sadly, they do not understand that they are strengthening the resolve of millions of Maharashtrians to defeat them."

Pansare, 82, had been an activist for several decades. A member of the Communist Party of India, he was elected to the party’s central control commission, a disciplinary body, in 2012. He mentored and championed other liberal and progressive movements in Maharashtra for five decades. His latest fight was against IRB Infrastructure Developers, which had built roads in Kolhapur. In December, the Maharashtra government announced a committee to examine the protesters’ claim that the infrastructure company was charging almost double the official road toll rate.

"I think there is more than enough scope for anyone to suspect that the forces behind Pansare sir’s attack will be very similar to the forces which gunned down Dr Narendra Dabholkar," said Dabholkar’s son Hamid. "If the culprits then had been booked immediately, this could very well have been prevented. This is a very serious challenge to democracy. The police and the state of Maharashtra should take responsibility and book the culprits as soon as possible.”

A people’s activist

Activists across the state looked at Pansare as a guide. Hours after the attack, people in Aurangabad, Solapur, Nashik, Mumbai and Kolhapur took to the streets to protest.

Although officially with the Communist Party of India, he worked with a range of activist groups across the state. There were few causes he did not take up. He worked against corruption, caste, communalism and superstition, fought for women's, workers' and human rights. After Dabholkar’s assassination, he committed the Communist Party of India’s support for eradicating superstition.

As a Marxist, Pansare was interested in how history affects the present and why hardline forces keep rising across the decades. One of his most well-received books was Shivaji Kon Hota (Who was Shivaji?) a revisionist history of the Maratha ruler, whom he portrayed as someone who respected all religions. The book had several successful runs in Marathi and was also translated into Kannada, Telugu, Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati and English.

Pansare had a son, now dead, and two daughters. All had inter-caste marriages.

Poor investigation

The police have fared poorly in catching the culprits of the rising attacks on activists.

In May, the Bombay High Court transferred the Narendra Dabholkar case from the Maharashtra police and to the Central Bureau of Investigation. There have been no leads yet.

On the morning Pansare was attacked, the CBI had said that it would reopen Satish Shetty’s murder case in the light of new evidence it had discovered in November, after filing a closure report in August, saying that it did not have enough evidence to identify his murderers. Just before his death, Shetty had been raising questions about alleged land grabs in Lonavala by IRB Infrastructure Developers, the company Pansare was protesting against.

"It is a pity that those who took this step think such acts are bravery when a person in his early 80s is attacked in such way," Dabholkar said. "If the gunmen in Charlie Hebdo can be nailed down in 24 hours then why have the shooters of Narendra Dabholkar been free for 18 months and why haven't Pansare sir’s attackers not yet been booked?”