The Sanatan Sanstha, which is under the spotlight following Friday's arrest of one of its members for the murder of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar in 2013, is a mid-sized outfit that poses an outsized threat.

Its history of terror acts, its highly motivated army of sadhaks, as its members are called, the outlandish claims of its spiritual guru Jayant Athavale and the steady growth of its hydra-like structure mean that this organisation matters not just in western Maharashtra and Goa, but even in areas beyond that.

Sanstha’s affiliates

Originally registered as a charitable trust under the name of Sanatan Bharatiya Sanskruti Sanstha by Athavale, his wife Kunda Athavale and two others in Mumbai in 1991, the Sanatan Sasntha claims to be an organisation given “to educate people about the science of spiritualism”, to encourage them “to be sadhaks [seekers]” and “to guide sadhaks until they meet their Guru”.

Over time, Athavale’s enterprise gave birth to several outfits, all of which owed allegiance to him, but presented themselves as independent entities instead of affiliates of the Sanatan Sanstha.

The Sanatan Sanstha, for instance was registered much later in Goa with an office in an ashram in Ponda, Goa. Other ashrams of the Sanstha, like those at Panvel and Miraj in Maharashtra, were registered as separate trusts, as were organisations like the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and Dharmashakti Sena, and its Sanatan Prabhat newspaper.

Given the activities the Sanstha’s members have been accused of, it is not inconceivable that Athavale considered the legal advantage of creating a network of independent outfits instead of forming branches linked to a mother organisation.

Targeting so-called evil-doers

Athavale’s teachings fly in the face of India’s Constitution. His spiritual preaching may often appear to be harmless, but his political teachings are far from benign.

Many editions of Sanatan Prabhat have proclaimed that the organisation aims to establish a Hindu Rashtra by 2023. Its articles and headlines attack Muslims, Christians, rationalists and communists and label them as evil-doers. “You feel so victorious after killing a mosquito,” said Athavale, as quoted in the Sanatan Prabhat in 2007, “imagine how you would feel after killing an evil person?”

Athavale has publicly announced that the objective of his movement is to establish Ishwary Rajya, or the Kingdom of God, on earth by destroying durjans, or evil doers, who indulge in “bad habits”, “misinterpreted religious beliefs” and practice “bad politics, economy and culture”.

In the mid-1990s, once Athavale had a substantial number of members ready to do anything for him and for his Ishwary Rajya, he developed a curriculum for the Sanstha’s meditation camps and satsangs, or interactive meetings.

Once trained, his followers started travelling to new areas to organise similar camps and meetings. In these camps, followers were encouraged to narrate their experiences, and special ones were sent to Athavale for interpretation.

These experiences were also published in the Sanatan Prabhat, which every sadhak is expected to read daily. This, as well as discussions on published items on religion and nation in the Sanstha’s newspaper, is part of the spiritual practice required of all followers.

In 2015, several blogs and websites associated with the Sanstha reported that Athavale – who, his followers believe, is a divine incarnation who took birth on earth to establish the Kingdom of God – had undergone several “divine changes” in his body.

According to these websites, Athavale’s miraculous transformation included: His hair turning golden; divine particles falling from his body; the symbol of “Om” appearing on his fingernails, forehead and tongue, and various fragrances emanating from his body.

What the group’s beliefs and doctrines have meant as a matter of practice is difficult to ascertain, but the frequent terror acts this organisation has allegedly been involved in shows that its members – whose number is said to have grown significantly over the last decade – are taking their guru quite seriously.

Defenders of the faith?

The first time this became apparent was in 2008 when the Maharashtra police arrested several Sanatan Sanstha members with regard to two consecutive bomb blasts.

The first of these blasts took place on May 31 that year at Vishnu Bhave auditorium in Vashi, Navi Mumbai. The second went off in the parking area of Gadkari Rangayatan auditorium in Thane West, Mumbai.

Seven persons were injured in the second explosion, which was meant to protest against a Marathi play, Amhi Pachpute, which allegedly showed Hindu gods and goddesses in poor light. In 2011, a Mumbai court sentenced two of the arrested sadhaks – Vikram Bhave and Ramesh Gadkari – to 10 years rigorous imprisonment for the two blasts.

Again on October 16, 2009, two sadhaks – Malgonda Patil and Yogesh Naik – died when the bomb they were allegedly carrying in their scooter went off prematurely at Madgaon in Goa. Sadhaks had allegedly planned to disrupt the Narkasur effigy contest, a hugely popular festivity in Goa in which the demon Narkasur is celebrated on the eve of Diwali. The Sanatan Sanstha had declared this practice to be anti-Hindu.

Within a few months of the Madgaon blast, the Goa police had zeroed in on the Sanatan Sanstha. “At present the institution appears to be developing into a stage of terror activities,” said a Goa police report prepared in 2010.

It added: “… if allowed to grow up in a peaceful state, there is imminent danger to the life, property, communal harmony of the state and the nation.”

This report formed the basis of 1,000-page dossier submitted by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad to the Union Home Ministry in 2011, seeking a ban on the Sanstha. But no action was taken as there developed a difference of opinion between the state government and the Centre.

High-profile assassinations

A few years later, there were a series of high-profile assassinations. While Narendra Dabholkar was killed in Pune on August 20, 2013, Communist Party of India leader Govind Pansare was gunned down in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, on February 16, 2015, and veteran Kannada writer MM Kalburgi fell victim to an assassin’s bullets in Dharwad, Karnataka, on August 30, 2015. Each of these murders was carried out in the same manner – by a set of two assassins on a motorcycle.

Whether all three were killed by the same set of people is yet to be established. But at least, in the cases of Dabholkar and Pansare, the spotlight is clearly on the Sanatan Sanstha.

Samir Gaikwad, who was arrested in September 2015 in connection with the murder of Pansare, is a member of the Sanstha. So is Virendra Tawde, who was arrested on June 10 for the murder of Dabhokar after the Central Bureau of Investigation questioned several high-profile members of the Sanstha, including Athavale.

It goes without saying that in Athavale’s scheme of things Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi were all considered durjans, or evil-doers.