The anatomy of Dabholkar’s murder and how its ‘mastermind’ walked away scot-free

Atomising a failed probe into a shadowy extremist outfit, which continues to spread its roots with political complicity.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
Date:
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A trial concluded. A farmer and accountant were sentenced to life in prison for murder. Their families wept in a corner. It looked like a scene from a courtroom drama. But the plot was thicker.

The victim was Narendra Dabholkar, a long-time activist in India’s rationalist movement and the founder president of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. 

The investigators had earlier pointed to a conspiracy – to eliminate ideological adversaries of the religious doctrine propagated by Sanatan Sanstha. It’s an outfit which was opposed by Dabholkar, and has spread its roots across the Western Ghats in the absence of political will to act on official recommendations to ban it. It was alleged that the farmer and accountant were indoctrinated and given weapons and training to shoot 69-year-old Dabholkar in 2013, as part of a conspiracy involving at least three others, including the alleged mastermind, with links to the Sanstha.

However, all the others were conspicuous by absence at the courtroom as special judge PP Jadhav delivered his 170-page verdict in Pune that day. The judge criticised the prosecution’s failure to “unmask the masterminds”. And the Sanatan Sanstha, once again, managed to emerge unblemished from a trial.

Similar other cases, meanwhile, are languishing against members of the Sanstha. 

According to agencies in Maharashtra and Karnataka, the outfit is suspected to have a role in the murders of Govind Pansare, a leftist leader who was killed in Kolhapur in 2015, academician MM Kalburgi, who was killed in Dharwad in 2015, and journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was shot dead in Bengaluru in 2017. The four murders have much in common, including the weapon of choice, and investigators in Karnataka believe a single syndicate was behind them all.

But this is the story of the first of that series of murders, and how the prosecution – pulled up at least six times by the court for its shoddy investigation – failed to string together a case to demonstrate a criminal conspiracy over 11 years. Despite 20 prosecution witnesses, three chargesheets, and hoards of evidence gathered by the CBI and Pune Police.

It had seemed jinxed from the start, with the Pune police accused of using “supernatural” tools to communicate with Dabholkar’s spirit to ask for leads. The courts noted the slow pace of the probe several times. The Bombay High Court was monitoring the probe from August 2015 to April 2023. Dabholkar’s family subsequently approached the Supreme Court, which had asked the investigators to look at the alleged larger conspiracy. 

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