In parallel to the swelling tide of verbal and symbolic protests from intellectuals and others about the growing climate of intolerance in the country, grassroots groups have been holding rallies in Maharashtra demanding that the government investigate Hindu extremist groups for their possible involvement in the murders of activists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare.

Among the protesters is a united front of a dozen groups, which has held four big protest marches all over the state since Pansare was shot on February 16. The next march will cover a nearly 400-km stretch of western Maharashtra: it will start on November 21 from Pune, 150 km southeast of Mumbai, where Dabholkar was murdered, and end on November 24 in Kolhapur, 240 km further southeast of Pune, where Pansare was assassinated. The organisers expect about 10,000 people to participate.

The front includes organisations such as the Shramik Mukti Dal, political outfits such as the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Phule-Ambedkarite groups such as the Bahujan Sangharsh and the Satyashodak Jan Andolan.

“This movement began with Pansare’s murder,” said Bharat Patankar, 66, writer and president of the Shramik Mukti Dal, in late October, at the group’s headquarters in Kasegaon village in Maharashtra’s Sangli district. “After Pansare’s cremation on February 21, we held a rally where I publicly said that the government should investigate two organisations: the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and the Sanathan Sanstha.”

Allegations denied

Under pressure to act, the police finally made the first arrest in connection with Pansare’s murder a whole seven months afterwards. On September 16, they arrested Sameer Gaikwad, a member of the radical Hindu group Sanatan Sanstha, from Sangli district, and took him into police custody. At a press conference on November 2 in Belgaum in north Karnataka, however, the Goa-based Sanatan Sanstha denied its members had anything to do with the activists’ murders.

But overall, besides Gaikwad’s arrest, investigators have made little headway in both cases, a fact highlighted by the Bombay High Court on October 28. The court reprimanded the Central Bureau of Investigation, which is investigating Dabholkar’s murder, for the “lacklustre approach of its officers”, according to a report in the Indian Express.

The court acknowledged that the Maharashtra police’s Special Investigation Team, which is looking into Pansare’s murder, had done slightly better, probably referring to Gaikwad’s arrest. But it asked why both sets of investigators had not yet tracked down Sanatan Sanstha activist Rudra Patil, a suspect in Pansare’s murder who is also an accused in a case of a bomb blast that went off in Goa in 2009. “There is no progress at all,” the judge said. The court is hearing petitions filed by the murdered men’s families in which they have asked for court-monitored investigations because they were unhappy with the current probes.

Dabholkar, a writer and the founder-president of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, which works to eradicate superstition, was murdered on August 20, 2013, when he was out on his morning walk in Pune. Then on February 16, Pansare, a writer and member of the CPI, was fired upon in Kolhapur by two men on a motorcycle while he was taking his daily morning walk with his wife. Pansare died from his wounds four days later.

Wave of protests

Then just over two years after Dabholkar was murdered, on August 30, across the border, in Karnataka’s Dharwad district, MM Kalburgi, an iconoclastic academic who was an expert on Kannada vachana literature, was killed in his home in the morning by two assailants.

The unprecedented series of daylight murders of progressive activists, the government’s failure to unequivocally condemn the killings and the sluggish pace of the police investigations have, among other incidents, triggered a wave of protests from academics, creative professionals and activists from virtually every field, in the form of both joint and individual statements.

Writers and filmmakers from all over the country have returned their national awards, including the Sahitya Akademi award, specifically to protest against the awarding body’s failure to condemn the killing of Kalburgi, who was a recipient of its honour.

Over the past week, more oblique criticism, in the form of calls for the need for tolerance and debate, has come from business and economic leaders, such as Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan, and NR Narayana Murthy, co-founder of the software giant Infosys.

Street demonstrations

These courageous voices have rightly received the national attention they deserve, but equally important are the grassroots protests in Maharashtra that began earlier and are taking the fight to the scenes of the crimes and making specific demands. Like Dabholkar and Pansare before them, some activists are doing so at considerable personal risk.

Chief among them is Bharat Patankar, the founder and president of the Shramik Mukti Dal, who trained as a gynaecologist before becoming an activist. He has received threatening letters from Hindu extremists for the past two years.

The socio-political Shramik Mukti Dal, which means “Movement for the Freedom of Toilers” and works across 11 districts in Maharashtra, has waged some of the country’s most successful struggles to improve farmers’ access to water in drought-prone areas, to end caste oppression, and to obtain fair compensation to those displaced by large projects. It has about 500 activists, 10,000 families who are members and many more supporters, Patankar estimated.

With the help of socially committed engineers and environmentalists, it led a landmark struggle of villagers and farmers against the excavation of sand from riverbeds and helped in the eventual construction of the Baliraja dam, with the involvement of locals. Besides Patankar, other prominent members include Waharu Sonawane, a leading Adivasi poet, and Patankar’s wife, Gail Omvedt, sociologist, human rights activist and prolific author, who has written several seminal books on the anti-caste movements as well as a biography of BR Ambedkar.

Even before Pansare’s murder, the Dal spearheaded the forging of the front of left organisations with the aim of fighting caste oppression. Late last year, the dozen groups formed the umbrella Samajik Atyachar Pratibandha Chalwal Ani Jati Mukti Andolan (Movement to Prevent Social Atrocities and Struggle for the Annihilation of Caste), the last phrase recalling the title of Ambedkar’s great undelivered speech written in 1936. The front held its first conference on January 25, on the premises of the residence of the great 19th-century caste reformers Jyotiba and Savitrabai Phule in Pune.

When Pansare was murdered, this front was ready to act. Following the rally at Pansare’s funeral, at which Patankar spoke, the front has organised or taken part in three protest marches. On March 11 in Mumbai, a rally began in the Byculla locality and was headed to Mantralaya, the building housing ministers’ offices, but the police stopped it in Azad Maidan, a huge ground in the downtown area. This rally attracted groups from all over Maharashtra, with more than two lakh people taking part, by conservative estimates (see banner image above).

On March 24, in Kolhapur, about 6,000 people participating in a rally were stopped by the police while they attempted to march to the local office of the Sanatan Sanstha.

Speeches before a protest march of a dozen groups in Kolhapur on March 24 that attracted about 6,000 people.
Credit: Kunda Pramila Nilakanth

On April 8, in Nagpur, about 4,000 people protested in front of the chief minister’s residence in that city, which is Maharashtra’s winter capital and is also where the headquarters of the RSS is located.

Following this, grassroots groups have been working locally. Now, after a gap of seven months, the organisations will march together again in the third week of November, starting on the bridge in Pune where Dabholkar was shot dead. Although Patankar wanted the rally to be on foot, by consensus the people will traverse the nearly 400 km from Pune, where the Sanathan Sanstha is also very active, to Kolhapur in various vehicles.

Investigate Hindu groups

The main demand at these rallies has been that the chief minister and the government investigate Hindu extremist groups, especially Sanatan Sanstha, as part of the probes into Dabholkar’s and Pansare’s murders.

Over the years, the government has arrested several left-wing activists on flimsy pretexts, but has done nothing against the Sanatan Sanstha, which is openly advocating violence, Patankar said. Among the left-wing activists who have been arrested is Sachin Mali of the Kabir Kala Manch, a cultural group in Pune. He has been accused of having links with Naxalites and booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

In contrast, nothing has happened to the Sanatan Sanshta’s founder, who is openly urging Hindus to adopt violence. As far back as in October 2005, Jayant Athavale urged readers to become “Hindu Naxalites”. Then in March 2008, Athavale wrote an article with the headline, “Hindus, there is no alternative to copying Naxalites and terrorists”.

“The Indian Penal Code has several provisions that the government can use against this incitement to violence,” Patankar said. “We demand that the chief minister and the government include Athavale, his organisation and the publication in their investigations.”

Patankar’s public demands that the government investigate the Sanatan Sanstha echo Pansare’s repeated calls for the government to investigate Hindu groups such as the Abhinav Bharat for their possible links to terror acts.

Threats continue

For his vocal stand and as a leader of a group with a huge following in parts of rural Maharashtra, Patankar appears to be on the Sanatan Sanstha’s radar. As recently as on October 17, Patankar was tailed by a journalist from the organisation’s Marathi publication, Dainik Sanatan Prabhat.

Patankar and his wife, Gail Omvedt, had come from Kasegaon to Mumbai that day for the monthly meeting of the Satyashodhak Study Circle, organised jointly by the Satyashodhak Resource Centre and the CPI. The study circle aims to explore the work and ideas of Marx, Phule and Ambedkar. A Sanatan Prabhat journalist, Sharad Gogawale, sat through the entire meeting, taking notes in a pad with his publication’s name on it, according to the meeting’s organiser, Kunda Pramila Nilakanth.

A student at the meeting recognised the Sanatan Prabhat journalist, whom she knew from earlier, and alerted Nilakanth. “At the meeting, we also discussed the upcoming rally,” said Nilakanth. “He must have clearly come to gather information because he has never attended the study circle’s meetings before.”

On his Facebook page, Gogawale describes himself as a network engineer at Reliance Communications in Mumbai. His posts attack communists and journalists such as Nikhil Wagle and Rajdeep Sardesai, who have openly opposed communal politics, and about Hindu pride.

On March 16, exactly a month after Pansare was shot, Patankar received an envelope with a copy of the Sanathan Prabhat. To a layperson’s eye, the handwriting on the envelope, which contained the March 7 edition of the publication, matched that of two earlier handwritten letters Patankar had received, suggesting that the source is common. has copies of these letters.

Patankar said the letters had taken on a more ominous tone over the past year. Also, while the anonymous writers had earlier chastised him for being “anti-Brahmin”, the recent letters began to refer to religion, calling him “anti-Hindu”.

“I used to throw away most of the letters,” said Patankar. “But last year, a colleague advised me to keep them.”

More threats

In February, a few days before Pansare was shot, Patankar received a three-page letter in Marathi. In that, the writer accused him of being anti-Brahmin and anti-Hindu, and says that he is going the way of Pansare and Justice BG Kolse Patil, a retired high court judge and progressive activist. The writer described himself as a retired professor of sociology and former head of department at the Government College in Pune/Latur.

But after newspapers reported in March that Patankar had been receiving threatening letters, he received a conciliatory note. This time, the handwriting on the envelope was different from that on the earlier letters, and the message inside was typewritten. “The letter addressed to you was just outburst (sic) of my emotions,” it said, referring to the February letter. “I deeply apologize for the same. It was not at all a threat. It was my big mistake…I am in no way connected to any incident/organization whatsoever.”

This was a feeble attempt to distance the Sanatan Sanstha from the letters following the media reports, said Patankar.

A few days before the protest march in Kolhapur, Patankar scanned and emailed a handwritten letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, saying that the Shramik Mukti Dal suspected that the Sanatan Sanstha was behind Pansare’s murder and that the government should investigate this.

Apart from a reply saying that his letter had been sent to the concerned department, Patankar has received nothing from the government.