The verdict in the Narendra Dabholkar murder case | Explained

Nearly 11 years after anti-superstition crusader Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead, a Pune court has flagged serious lapses in the probe conducted by the Maharashtra police and the CBI. While 2 assailants were sentenced to life imprisonment, 3 others were acquitted due to lack of evidence

Updated - May 24, 2024 12:48 pm IST

Published - May 14, 2024 10:21 pm IST

File photo: Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti member shows a portrait of Narendra Dabholkar during a ‘Nirbhay’ rally on his 10th death anniversary, on August 19, 2023.

File photo: Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti member shows a portrait of Narendra Dabholkar during a ‘Nirbhay’ rally on his 10th death anniversary, on August 19, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

The story so far: More than a decade after the tragic murder of rationalist Narendra Achyut Dabholkar, a special CBI Court in Pune on May 10 sentenced his assailants Sachin Prakashrao Andure and Sharad Bhausaheb Kalaskar to life imprisonment for murder and imposed a fine of ₹5 lakh. It, however, acquitted three other accused — alleged mastermind Virendrasinh Sharadchandra Tawade, lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar and his assistant Vinay Bhave — due to the failure of both the Maharashtra police and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to procure sufficient evidence against them.

Additional Sessions Judge Prabhakar P. Jadhav observed that while the two convicts executed the murder, “the main mastermind behind the crime is someone else.” The two convicts hail from Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar (earlier called Aurangabad) in Maharashtra. Andure worked as an accountant in a private shop and Kalaskar was a farmer.

Sixty-nine-year-old Dabholkar was shot dead on August 20, 2013, by two motorcycle-borne assailants on the Omkareshwar bridge near Pune’s Shanivar Peth area when he was out on a morning walk. Dabholkar’s murder, along with three other similar murder cases — that of communist leader Govind Pansare (February 2015), Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi (August 2015) and Bangalore journalist Gauri Lankesh (September 2017—) have sparked national outrage against the targeting of critics of Hindutva and campaigners against superstition and orthodoxy. Activists and stakeholders over the years have demanded a probe into the possibility of a common conspiracy on the ground that the murders appear to be eerily similar.

Also Read: Murder and motive: on the Narendra Dabholkar murder case

Who was Narendra Dabholkar?

Dabholkar was a physician, activist, rationalist and author based in Maharashtra. He founded the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith (Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, or MANS) after leaving his decade-long medical practice. He was also the editor of the weekly Marathi magazine Sadhana, which championed liberal thought and the scientific temperament. As a prominent crusader against religious superstitions, he was highly critical of godmen who promised “miracle cures” to ailments.

He also spent many years advocating for a law to ban fraudulent and exploitative superstitious practices and played a crucial role in drafting the Andhashraddha Nirmulan Bill, 2005 (Anti-Superstition Bill) which was pending before the Maharashtra legislature at the time of his death. However, the law was opposed by various organisations and political parties for being “anti-Hindu.” It was finally passed as an ordinance on August 24, 2013 — days after Dabholkar’s death. In December of that year, the State legislature passed the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013.

File photo: Hundreds of activists of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (ANiS) founded by the late Narendra Dabholkar, protest questioning the State government’s delay in bringing to justice the masterminds of Dabholkar’s murder, at Pune in 2018.

File photo: Hundreds of activists of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (ANiS) founded by the late Narendra Dabholkar, protest questioning the State government’s delay in bringing to justice the masterminds of Dabholkar’s murder, at Pune in 2018. | Photo Credit: Mandar Tannu

Investigation and trial

Over the last ten years, various investigating agencies have handled the case, starting from the Pune police to the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS). In 2014, the CBI took over the case following a Bombay High Court direction. The next year, the High Court began monitoring the probe after Dabholkar’s family claimed that there had been no progress in the investigation. It was only last year that the Court decided to discontinue its supervision after expressing satisfaction with the progress of the trial.

In Friday’s ruling, Sachin Prakashrao Andure and Sharad Bhausaheb Kalaskar were convicted under Sections 302 (murder) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC), along with charges under the Indian Arms Act, 1959. However, the remaining three accused were acquitted of charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) and Section 120B of the IPC (criminal conspiracy).

During the proceedings, the prosecution examined 20 witnesses, which included various close associates of the Sanatan Sanstha, an extreme right-wing Hindu organisation which had expressed strong opposition to the 2005 Anti-Superstition Bill spearheaded by Dabholkar. The Court identified this enmity as the primary motive for the murder. Other witnesses included Dabholkar’s son Hamid and activists from the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti.

The first accused in the case, ENT surgeon Virendrasinh Tawde, was arrested in June 2016, with the CBI claiming that he was a coordinator for Sanatan Sanstha in Kolhapur, who had personal differences with Dabholkar. Before his arrest in this case, Tawade was arrested by the Maharashtra police for the murder of communist leader Govind Pansare. In its chargesheets, the central agency alleged that he was the “mastermind” of the conspiracy to commit the murder.

The two convicted assailants, Andure and Kalaskar, were arrested only in 2018 when their role in the murder of Gauri Lankesh came to light. The ATS apprehended the duo with the help of the Karnataka Police’s Special Investigation Team (SIT). They were subsequently named in a supplementary chargesheet filed in February 2019. Eventually, in May 2019, Mumbai-based lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar was arrested along with his close aide Vikram Bhave, who was earlier convicted for his role in the 2008 Gadkari Rangayatan Theatre bomb blast in Thane. All the accused were allegedly linked to the Sanatan Sanstha.

According to the CBI, Bhave allegedly participated in a recce along with Andure and Kalaskar about 15 days before the murder. In its chargesheet, the agency claimed that Punalekar had advised Kalaskar to destroy the firearms used in multiple murders — including that of Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh. On Punalekar’s instructions, Kalaskar had allegedly thrown four country-made pistols into a creek near Thane on July 7, 2018. The agency later told the trial Court that efforts to recover the murder weapon had been unsuccessful.

On September 15, 2021, charges were framed against the five accused by the special CBI Court, marking the beginning of the trial. In April last year, the Bombay High Court decided to discontinue its monitoring of the probe.

The verdict

In a detailed 171-page judgment, the Court minced no words in asserting that the investigating agencies had failed to nab the “mastermind” of the crime. “The murder is committed with very well-prepared plan, which is executed by accused Nos. 2 (Andure) and 3 (Kalaskar). Considering the economic and social status of the accused Nos. 2 and 3, they are not the masterminds of the crime. The main mastermind behind the crime is someone else. Pune police as well as CBI has failed to unearth those master minds. They have to introspect whether it is their failure or deliberate inaction on their part due to influence by any person in powers,” it underscored.

Emphasising further that Tawade, Punalekar and Bhave were being acquitted only due to the shoddy investigation conducted by the CBI, the Court observed, “There is evidence of motive for murder of Dr Narendra Dabholkar against accused No.1 Dr Virndrasinh Tawde. There is reasonable suspicion against accused No. 4. Sanjiv Punalekar and accused No.5. Vikram Bhave, showing their involvement in the present crime. However, the prosecution has failed to establish the involvement of accused Nos. 1, 4 and 5 by leading reliable evidence to convert motive and suspicion into the form of evidence showing their involvement in the crime.” Accordingly, terror charges under Section 16 of the UAPA and charges of criminal conspiracy were dropped against the three accused.

The Court also criticised the state authorities for procedural lapses in obtaining appropriate sanction orders for the prosecution of the acquitted accused under the UAPA. The Rules prescribed for the law mandate that the competent authority must submit its recommendation for sanction to the Central or State Government within seven working days of receiving evidence gathered by the investigating officer. However, during the proceedings, it was revealed that Shirish Nagorao Mohod, then Deputy Secretary and Sanjay Kumar Shyamkishor Prasad, then Additional Chief Secretary of the Mumbai Home Department had failed to process the sanction orders on time.

“Considering the status of deceased this case is of national importance. Despite the said fact, casual and negligent approach of PW15 (Shirish Nagorao Mohod) and PW19 (Sanjay Kumar Shyamkishor Prasad), is not only shocking but requires condemnation. It shows that even through this case is of national importance, officers on high posts PW15 and PW19 have not shown utmost care and caution expected from them.”State of Maharashtra v. Virendrasinh Tawde and Ors (2024)Sessions Case No.706/2016

“Present case is very serious and is of national importance. Not only was Dr. Narendra Dabholkar assassinated but an attempt was made to finish his ideology,” judge Jadhav grimly noted. He also implicated Sanatan Sanstha and its affiliates—Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, Warkari Sampraday, and others, for “nurturing bitter enmity” against the rationalist.

Notably, the Court expressed serious reservations over the conduct of defence counsels during the proceedings. It pointed out how attempts were made to imply that Dabholkar was “hated” because he had “insulted Hindu gods.” Calling this approach “very strange” and “condemnable,” the Court further highlighted, “The chargesheeted accused and defence counsels have not merely attempted to raise the defence. From unnecessary and irrelevant lengthy cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses and even in final argument, an attempt is made to tarnish image of the deceased. At the same time, the approach of the defence was to justify the killing of the deceased Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, by labelling him as anti-Hindu.”

After perusing the testimonies of eyewitnesses, the Court concluded that Andure and Kalaskar had indeed shot Dabholkar dead. 

What happens next?

Reacting to the verdict, Dabholkar’s kin said that the conviction of Andure and Kalaskar had reaffirmed their faith in the judiciary but they intended to appeal against the acquittals of the remaining accused.

Speaking to The Hindu, Dabholkar’s son and daughter, Hamid Dabholkar and Mukta Dabholkar said, “We are satisfied that the two accused have been convicted and sentenced to life, but the masterminds also need to be punished. We are determined to pursue justice and take the case to the Supreme Court. The chargesheets, including those related to murders of Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh reveal alarming connections, indicating a broader conspiracy spanning multiple cases. All the cases have a common thread, which is what investigation agencies have been saying. Until the conspirator in all these cases is apprehended, the safety of all rationalists remains in jeopardy.”  

Highlighting that “Dr. Tawade and his aides have been acquitted,” Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee president Nana Patole too demanded that the masterminds be brought to justice. Meanwhile, Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis on Saturday said that the State government would take cognisance of the Court’s observations and decide if an appeal should be filed against the acquittals.

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