The Karnataka Police are claiming they are on the brink of solving the murder case of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh, but the only arrested accused, KT Naveen Kumar, has neither revealed any concrete details about those who orchestrated the crime nor has he disclosed how it was executed.
Police say the 37-year-old gunrunner from Mandya provided logistical support to the killers and have named him accused number 1 (A1). They say he has named a second accused (A2), Praveen Limkar of Kolhapur, as his accomplice.
The government’s advocate submitted on March 12 details of the investigation to the court in a sealed cover, marking a major development in the sensational case with a prayer to allow the court to carry out a lie-detector test, brain-mapping and a narco-analysis test on Naveen Kumar.
“He (Naveen) is trying to mislead us, and only a narco-test will reveal the true extent of his link (to the murder),” says special investigation team (SIT) chief BK Singh.
Sketches were released of the two men, including the one seen firing bullets at Lankesh on CCTV footage on September 5, 2017, as she opened the gate to her Rajarajeshwari Nagar residence. The SIT set up to probe the murder also announced Rs 10 lakh reward for an informant that could lead them to the killers, but it has failed in getting a relevant lead. Both suspects are believed to be between the ages of 25 and 35 years.
Singh says preparing precise sketches, using the available CCTV footage, has been tough. The footage shows two helmet-clad men on a motorbike tailing Lankesh’s car from her office to her home. The footage gathered from the CCTV at her home shows the murder being carried out under car headlights. As Lankesh walks out of her car to open the gate, a man calls out to her before firing at her seven times, finding the target twice on the chest and once on the forehead.
“The calm with which the man puts the weapon back after killing shows he is a trained marksman – akin to someone who has been trained by the armed forces,” officials concerned with the investigation say.
Naveen alias ‘Hotte Manja’ – a nickname friends gave the pot-bellied man – hails from a village in Maddur taluk, off the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway. After dropping out of college, he joined the real estate and finance business. He got married six years ago and moved to Birur in Chikmagalur district, where he led a loose coalition of Hindu right-wing groups.
His elder brother, Thimme Gowda, who lives in Maddur, alleges Naveen was taken into custody a day after Shivaratri, on February 13,but the family was informed about his arrest four days later. He told the local media that Naveen had pleaded that he protect him when he went to see his younger brother at Upparpet police station in Bengaluru, as the police were trying to coax him into confessing “involvement in the Gauri murder case”.
“My brother is not a murderer. Yes, he is a member of a Hindu organisation, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti,” Gowda has told the media. According to him, their mother attempted suicide after TV channels flashed Naveen’s name and photograph in connection with the crime.
Limkar, 34, is a member of Pune-based Sanatan Sanstha, a right-wing organisation that is into “teaching spirituality comprehensively”, and runs on donations.
Limkar has an Interpol Red Corner notice against him for his alleged role in the 2009 Margaon blasts. But the police here are not giving away anything yet on how Limkar’s name came to be connected with this case.
“Limkar’s name was mentioned by Naveen during interrogation. There are sufficient grounds to make him A2,” a police officer with the SIT said, seeking anonymity.
Both, A1 and A2, have been charged under IPC sections 307 for murder and 120(B) for criminal conspiracy, while other unknown accused have been shown “absconding”.
The police have been unable to explain how a gunrunner who provided logistical support to the killer came to be named A1. Naveen had also booked a marriage hall in Mandya to hold a meeting of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, to which he belongs, the police claim.
Following the country-wide furore over Gauri’s death, the Karnataka Police began their probe by keeping an eye on all arms dealers active in and around Bengaluru. Four men who were picked up revealed that Naveen, a resident of Birur who dealt in bullets for small firearms, had tried to procure country-made weapons through them.
Bengaluru police’s city crime bureau (CCB) lured him to a busy inter-state bus station in the city by asking him through his contacts to bring 15 rounds of 0.32 calibre bullets, which fit into a weapon that uses a 7.65 mm calibre, similar to the weapon used in Gauri’s killing, and nabbed the “gunrunner”. This, they claim, is proof enough that Naveen was supplying ammunition for country-made pistols.
Once he was taken into custody, the SIT claimed that Naveen had provided shelter to the shooters and recced Gauri’s home and office, mapped the route she normally takes and her movements. Now, they say, he also recced Mysore-based writer KS Bhagawan’s house, as he was his next target.
Meanwhile, Naveen has got bail in the case where he was caught with bullets by the CCB. But, his narco-analysis and other tests in the murder case, scheduled for March 23 and 24, are expected to lead police to the actual killers.
The BJP has alleged that the “baffling” probe which has unearthed very few details of the murder points towards a political facade.
The case has got traction among right-wing supporters as they feel the Congress government in Karnataka is pressuring the police to have some kind of closure. To gain currency to their thoughts, they point that Lankesh was well known to chief minister Siddaramaiah, who had made remarks to the effect that she was a dear friend who took on the right-wing.
It is also true that she was a Naxalite sympathiser and had made efforts to bring some of them back to the mainstream.
“The government is trying to pin the murder on Naveen Kumar because of his affiliation with Hindutva organisations,” BJP spokesperson and MP Shobha Karandlaje told the media. “The Siddaramaiah government is implicating Naveen to make the BJP look bad before the Karnataka elections due in May,” she had recently alleged.
Another angle being investigated earlier, but now abandoned, was the friction between Gauri and her brother, Indrajit, who had blamed the Naxalites for the crime immediately after. Earlier, around the years 2004-2005, Gauri and Indrajit had split over their differences as editors of their father’s successful tabloid Lankesh Patrike, which made her start her own paper titled Gauri Lankesh Patrike. Indrajit had then said Gauri’s pro-Naxalite stand violated their paper’s ideology.
The common thread
A source close to the investigation who did not want to reveal his identity said: “The sketches were circulated with the Maharashtra Police and the National Investigation Agency (NIA), who have been searching for the killers of Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. One thing is clear: the targets are outspoken liberals who are seen commenting against the right-wing. Once they are marked, the killers appear to do their job in a clinical fashion and disappear into thin air, only to reappear elsewhere with the same modus operandi.”
The way Lankesh was killed is similar to the murder of Prof MM Kalburgi in Dharwad, Karnataka. He was shot at point-blank range when he answered his doorbell on the morning of August 30, 2015. The killer rode away on a waiting motorcycle. Earlier, in neighbouring Maharashtra, a similar modus operandi had been employed to murder rationalists Narendra Dabholkar in 2013 and Govind Pansare in 2015.
While the fact remains that these writers and journalists were defiant of the majoritarian view and critical of the right-wing, the ballistic evidence in their murders seems to draw a parallel between their killers.
Kalburgi, Pansare, Dabholkar and Lankesh were all shot from a similar 7.65mm country-made pistol.
The sheer audacity of these killings points to more than one reason. “The common factor in all these murders was that the victims took on the right-wing boldly. They were trolled, threatened and defamed on social media and other platforms for their views. But, silencing them is barbaric and I am next on their list,” says KS Bhagawan.
(The piece has been authored by Anil Budur Lulla, a Bengaluru-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)