Following the murder of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh outside her Bengaluru home, 18 writers and activists in Karnataka have been given police protection to address fears that others may be on her killers’ radar. Such swiftness has not been in evidence in joining the dots, at the investigative level, between the killing of Lankesh and three other prominent rationalists and critics of Hindutva and campaigners against superstition and orthodoxy: Narendra Dabholkar (killed in August 2013), Govind Pansare (February 2015) and M.M. Kalburgi (August 2015). There is still no closure in these cases.
The manner in which all four were killed is eerily similar : bike-borne men firing at them at close range using a country-made gun.
All four intellectuals had challenged the core of social beliefs and customs that divisive political ideologies are built on and political parties claim to represent. Their work was at the grassroots. The common link in all these cases has given rise to the suspicion that the murders were a part of a well-planned conspiracy to target intellectuals with a particular leaning and capacity to mobilise people. Thus there is a fear that more such rationalists could now face danger.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is probing the Dabholkar case while a Maharashtra special investigation team (SIT) is inquiring into the Pansare murder. They have arrested one activist each linked to a Goa-based radical Hindu organisation, the Sanatan Sanstha. With the arrest of Virendra Tawde , the organisation is under the scanner for links in both cases.
The criminal investigation department of the Karnataka police is probing the Kalburgi case while an SIT of the State police has been formed to look into the Lankesh murder. Given the similar nature of the crime, it is bewildering why these investigations have not been clubbed together. Even the Bombay High Court observed recently that there appeared to be a “clear nexus” between the “well planned” murders of Dabholkar and Pansare.
A larger conspiracy?
Forensic analysis in Maharashtra of the cartridges used in the Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi cases has shown that the weapons used could be the same, the key word being same and not similar. The CBI wants further verification and has sought the help of Scotland Yard, but this request hasn’t been met as yet.
Despite these facts, the prime intent of the individual probes has been to look at them as individual murder cases. There has been no dedicated probe into the probability of a larger conspiracy. The four cases need to be seen in tandem by investigators as there is a suspicion of a common thread, and that is what makes them seem far more serious than a murder.
In the absence of material evidence, investigations are all about finding evidence to prove or disprove a theory. In the absence of having a probe looking at all four cases as one, as in cases of terror, a perception of weakness in response to that possibility is created.
For a credible investigation
Condemnation of such incidents cannot be restricted to statements. The strength of the response to these cases must be weighed by the action taken. One measure of that action to start with would be the seriousness with which the probability of a larger conspiracy is probed. But which agency can be trusted to carry out such a probe? The CBI may have the ability to carry out such an investigation, but the political leanings of the slain activists and the ideological position of the dispensation in power at the Centre, unfortunately, raise questions about the independence of its work.
It is incumbent on the Central and State governments to come up with a solution. This could be in the form of an inter-State task force or a judicial commission, or even an investigation monitored by the Supreme Court, but one that seeks to probe the probability of a larger conspiracy in a dedicated way.
A history of violence
India has had a long history of political and ideological murders and assassinations; the way we lost Mahatma Gandhi is a prominent example. Journalists and activists at the grass-root level are always under the threat of physical intimidation or annihilation.
Data from the National Crime Records Bureau show that there have been over 140 attacks — this includes over 70 murders — against journalists, since 2015. Unlike Lankesh, Pansare, Dabholkar and Kalburgi, several social activists have perished in anonymity.
Irrespective of ideological persuasion, political workers brazenly perpetrate acts of violence, physical intimidation and annihilation. The use of violence to silence political or ideological opposition and inhibit the freedom of expression is a reality, and there is no moral high ground any side can take on this.
In the case of right-wing groups, there hardly seems to be any action against those who put out abusive messages or even celebrate murder. The absence of powerful condemnation and subsequent action by major political parties has created a perception of permissibility for such acts.
While each such case, wherever it happens in India, demands the strongest condemnation, the Lankesh, Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi cases have given rise to a worrying possibility of a hit list, of brutality against those seeking to raise their voice.
This underlines the need for the state to send out a clear message that there will be “zero tolerance” of such acts. This starts by beginning a genuine search for the guilty. Till this happens, the question ‘who is next’ will hover over civil society.