National

Unravelling the Gauri Lankesh murder case

Conspiracy unfolds: People taking part in a candlelight vigil in Ahmedabad against Gauri Lankesh’s killing last year.

Conspiracy unfolds: People taking part in a candlelight vigil in Ahmedabad against Gauri Lankesh’s killing last year.

On New Year’s Day, 2012, the national flag of Pakistan was hoisted in front of the tahsildar’s office in the sleepy town of Sindagi, where Hindu and Muslim families had been living in harmony for generations. The town, near the Karnataka-Maharashtra border, was on the brink of communal violence as members from the hardline Hindutva group Sri Ram Sene staged protests accusing Muslim residents of disrupting the peace. As many as six people were arrested for hoisting the flag: the very same men leading the protests. One of the Sri Ram Sene members arrested was a 20-year-old undergraduate, Parashuram Waghmore.

Peace returned to Sindagi, and the incident was largely forgotten until a few weeks ago when policemen from the Special Investigation Team in Bengaluru arrived looking for the man they believed had shot journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh on September 5 , 2017: Parashuram Waghmore. Now 26, he was running an Internet cafe in the town.

‘Knew you would come’

Nine months of detective work had led the police to this point. Waghmore was not surprised when they knocked on his door on the morning of June 11. “He seemed resigned to his fate, almost relieved that we had finally come for him. He was expecting us,” said an officer, who was part of this operation.

 

He recalled that moment when Waghmore saw them. “I knew you would come for me,” he reportedly told the police. Even before they could escort him back to Bengaluru, he confessed to pulling the trigger.

Locals blame the Sri Ram Sene and its leader Pramod Muthalik “for misleading and spoiling their youth”.

For the SIT team, the arrest meant that the Gauri case would not suffer the same fate as the probe into the murder of scholar M. M. Kalburgi on August 30, 2015. The case is yet to be closed.

The first lead

Investigators drew up a list of over 200 people, a majority of whom were from hardline Hindu right-wing groups operating in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa. Gauri’s murder, apart from being linked to the Kalburgi case, also shared similarities with two hits carried out in Maharashtra, where those chargesheeted have been linked to the Sanatan Sanstha and the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti. Narendra Dabholkar, a doctor and rationalist, was shot by two men on a bike on August 20, 2013, in Pune. Govind Pansare, an author and politician, was shot by two men on a bike on February 16, 2015 in Kolhapur.

 

“We analysed over 1.5 crore calls but picked up nothing, leading us to the conclusion that Gauri’s killers were not using mobile phones. But we were lucky to pick up a conversation in November 2017,” recounted another officer.

They intercepted a call by K. T. Naveen Kumar, 37, based out of the communally sensitive Chikkamagaluru district to a friend. Kumar — founder of Hindu Yuva Sene and allegedly a participant in programmes of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Sanatan Sanstha — said he had gone underground following the murder of Gauri.

The SIT, however, chose not to pick him up immediately, but started monitoring his calls and trailing him between mid-November 2017 and February 2018. It was a fortuitous decision as they learned that another plot had been set in motion: a hit on the Mysuru-based rationalist K.S. Bhagavan.

“Naveen Kumar was trying to procure ammunition to target Prof. Bhagavan. His call intercepts revealed the role of Praveen, who only used coin booths across Karnataka,” said the officer.

Missed opportunity

The SIT wanted to wait till both men met and arrest Praveen as they inferred that he was higher-up in the chain of command than Naveen. “But the Bhagavan plot seemed to be moving fast, precipitating the arrest of Naveen Kumar on February 19, 2018,” the officer added.

 

With Naveen in their custody, they laid a trap for Praveen.

Praveen was expected to attend the wedding of a Hindu Janajagruti Samiti activist, Mohan Gowda, in Brahmavar on February 25. However, two days before the wedding, a Kannada news channel broke the story of Naveen’s arrest and revealed the SIT’s plan to arrest another accused at the wedding. Praveen’s trail went cold. “But for that report, the case would have been cracked three months ago,” said the taciturn SIT chief B.K. Singh, unable to mask his frustration.

“We had pinned down Praveen’ s voice from several calls we intercepted. We put 126 coin booths across Karnataka under surveillance,” said an officer who was part of this operation.

Working with the local police, the SIT caught a break in May 2018, when 37-year-old Praveen, born Sujeet Kumar, was picked up by the Upparpet police in Bengaluru in connection with an illegal arms case.

He is accused of being the key recruiter of local activists in the Gauri case and the Bhagavan plot. The police seized Praveen’s diary with phone numbers and code names alluding to others in the plot, sketches of routes to Gauri’s house, and other bits of information. This led to the arrest of three more men in Davanagere: Amol Kale, 39, from Pune; Amit Degwekar, 39, from Goa; and Manohar Edave, 29, from Vijayapura district, Karnataka — all previously unknown to the police.

“We recovered a second diary from Amol Kale, which has two hit-lists with a total of 26 names from across the country, drawn up for their perceived ‘anti-Hindu’ stands. Ten of the people in the list are from Karnataka. Gauri’s name was one of them, as also Prof. Bhagavan,” said a senior official, refusing to disclose more names.

It was his diary and call record details that led the police to Waghmore. “Kale was a tough nut to crack. He revealed nothing, until we told him that we had Waghmore. He started banging his head on the wall. It was telling,” said an official who was part of the interrogation team. According to Waghmore, Kale gave him the gun and instructed him to kill Gauri.

One weapon, 3 murders

The SIT is yet to recover the murder weapon — a 7.65 mm bore country-made pistol — reportedly used to kill Pansare, Kalburgi and Gauri. “Ballistic analysis of the bullet cartridges at the three crime scenes has concluded they were fired from the same weapon. Its recovery will prove to be a big breakthrough in uncovering the larger plot behind the murders,” said the police.

Waghmore has told interrogators that Kale gave him the weapon hours before he killed Gauri and he returned it to another person less than 15 minutes after the hit. The case does not end here.

Secretive operations

Those arrested so far have been associated with Hindu Yuva Sene, Sri Ram Sene and participated in events held by the Sanatan Sanstha and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. The police say they have no evidence to date to state that any of these organisations were involved. “The accused claim to be members of an unnamed organisation formed to eliminate those harming Hindu dharma. It operates like a terror cell, where teams are given information on a need-to-know basis,” a senior sleuth said.

While Kale is a key player, there are others suspected to be his handlers, who are yet to be identified. Sources said the CBI and the Maharashtra police have uncovered his links to Veerendra Tawde and Sarang Akolkar, accused of the murder of Dabholkar.

“They are poaching people with extremist views with a bent towards violence from various fringe groups,” the senior sleuth said. Waghmore came on their radar after he was arrested for hoisting the Pakistan flag in 2012.

( With inputs from Firoz Rozindar in Sindagi )


Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 13, 2022 8:22:09 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/unravelling-the-gauri-lankesh-murder-case/article61825374.ece