Two years after Kannada rationalist Malleshappa Kalburgi was shot dead at his home in Dharwad, Karnataka, on August 30, 2015, senior journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh was killed in a strikingly similar manner in Bengaluru on Tuesday night.
Comparisons between the two deaths were inevitable: both Lankesh and Kalburgi were outspoken critics of Right-Wing forces in the country and both were shot at close range, at their residences, by unidentified men on motorbikes. Acknowledging the similarities, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has now ordered a Special Investigation Team to look into possible connections between the cases.
So far, no such SIT has been appointed to investigate Kalburgi’s murder, and the Karnataka police has made little headway in the case.
Lankesh’s murder also harks back to the murders of two other critics of the Right Wing in recent few years: those of Maharashtrian rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, who was killed in Pune in 2013, and Govind Pansare, who was shot at in Kolhapur in 2015. Their cases, too, remain unsolved years after their deaths, even though investigation agencies have often claimed they are close to cracking the cases.
As Lankesh’s murder investigation gets off the ground, here’s a look at current status of the investigation into the murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar.
Noted scholar and rationalist MM Kalburgi was shot dead at his home in Dharwad, Karnataka, on August 30, 2015, by two unidentified gunmen. Two years later, his killers remain unidentified, no arrest has been made in the case and his family members have lost all hope in the investigation.
The former vice chancellor of Kannada University, Kalburgi was known for being a progressive voice within the politically-dominant Lingayat caste group in Karnataka. He was also openly critical of the superstitions in Hinduism, and was accused by Hindutva groups of hurting religious sentiments. Like Gauri Lankesh, he had received several death threats over the years for his views and writings.
When Kalburgi was killed, the case was initially taken up by the Hubli-Dharwad police and later passed on to the state’s Crime Investigation Department. Four days after the killing, the police released sketches of the two alleged gunmen. In September 2015, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah announced a Rs 5 lakh reward for anyone who could offer clues in the case.
In December 2015, the CID claimed that Kalburgi was killed with the same weapon that was used to kill Maharashtrian rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. But in May 2016, the CID blamed the Maharashtra SIT investigating the Pansare murder case for being uncooperative and delaying the Kalburgi case.
When Kalburgi’s family and supporters marked his second death anniversary last week, the CID claimed it was “very close” to solving the case. But the only information they able to provide was that the murderers were not known to the witnesses, that the killers were “powerful” and that they have ruled out “family dispute or personal grudge” as a motive for the crime.
Meanwhile, Kalburgi’s son Srivijay told the media that in the past seven months, investigating officials have not been able to give the family any new information on the progress of the case.
A renowned rationalist and a medical doctor from Maharashtra, Narendra Dabholkar was shot in cold blood in Pune on August 20, 2013 by two unidentified gunmen, when he was out for his morning walk.
As the founder-president of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, an anti-superstition advocacy group, Dabholkar openly called out the self-proclaimed “godmen” and tantric healers in the country, and spent several years pushing for a law against black magic and superstition. (The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act was eventually passed four months after his death). Since the 1980s, Dabholkar had been receiving several threats from Hindutva elements who felt his views were threatening their culture, and he was also assaulted on a few occasions.
In May 2014, the Dabholkar’s murder case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation, but it did not make much headway. More than a year later, in August 2015, the CBI announced a reward of Rs 25 lakh for anyone who could provide information on the Dabholkar murder.
In June 2016, the CBI arrested and charge-sheeted Virendra Tawade, a surgeon and a member of the Right-Wing Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, as the suspected “main conspirator” behind the killing of Dabholkar. Interrogations of Tawade led the police to the names of two other suspects – Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar – who belong to the Janjagruti Samiti’s parent body, the Sanatan Sanstha. Akolkar is also a suspect in the Goa bomb blast case of 2009. The duo are suspected of being the shooters in the killing of Dabholkar.
The police have been unable to nab Akolkar and Pawar so far, and in March this year, the CBI announced a reward of Rs 5 lakh each for information on their whereabouts. Meanwhile, Tawade has applied for bail but hearings in the trial are yet to begin.
Like Dabholkar, rationalist, author and Left-wing politician Govind Pansare was attacked by two unidentified gunmen on his way back from a morning walk in Kolhapur, on February 16, 2015. He died of bullet wounds four days later, on February 20. His wife Uma, who was shot at in the skull, survived the attack but now suffers from paralysis.
Pansare was a member of the Communist Party of India and a supporter of Dabholkar’s movement against black magic. He advocated for inter-caste marriages and spoke out against the Hindutva glorification of Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mohandas Gandhi.
With no immediate leads or clues after the attack on Pansare, the Maharashtra police announced a cash reward for anyone who came forward with information. Within a month of Pansare’s death, the reward amount was raised from Rs 50,000 to Rs 25 lakh.
By September 2015, the murder was linked to the Sanatan Sanstha when the police arrested one of its members, Sameer Gaikwad, in connection with the case. They also launched a hunt for another member, Rudra Patil, who is an accused in the 2009 Goa blast case. Since then, however, investigative teams have not been able to find conclusive evidence to link Gaikwad to Pansare’s killing, and he is now out on bail.
By 2016, the case was taken over by a Special Investigation Team, which implicated Virendra Tawade, Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar – suspects in the Dabholkar murder case – in the Pansare case as well. Here too, Tawade was named as a key conspirator, and Akolkar and Pawar were suspected of firing at the Pansares.
While a CBI inquiry confirmed the links between the two cases, there has been little progress in the investigations since mid-2016. In March this year, the SIT team interrogated Sanatan Sanstha’s founder, Jayant Athavale, to get information on the possible whereabouts of Akolkar and Pawar, but the duo remain untraceable.
The Pansare and Dabholkar families have since filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court to ask for a speedier investigation, and have also appealed to the state government to ban the Sanathan Sanstha.
“The pace of the investigations in all three cases has been painfully slow,” said Hamid Dabholkar, the son of Narendra Dabholkar. “In our petition to the Court, we stated that if investigations are not sped up, more such murders will happen. And sadly, that is coming true.”