Court pulls in Maharashtra Police, CBI for botched investigation

Mumbai: A special CBI court in Pune has sentenced two persons to life imprisonment for the shooting death of rationalist and social activist Narendra Dabholkar 11 years ago. The gunmen – Sachin Prakashrao Andore and Sharad Bhau Saheb Kalaskar – were convicted under Sections 302 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code for murder and premeditated murder. The goal, however, was not proven.

In the absence of a motive, three other accused – alleged mastermind Dr Virender Singh Sharad Chandra Tawde, lawyer Sanjeev Panalikar and his aide Vinay Bhave – were acquitted. In a detailed 171-page judgment, Special CBI Judge Prabhakar P Jadhav acquitted the trio, clearly mentioning that the acquittal was not because they had played no role but because the investigating agency – earlier Maharashtra Police and then. CBI failed to do its job. The court delivered its judgment on May 10 and a copy of the judgment was made available a day later on May 11.

The special court criticized the investigating agency and state authorities for procedural lapses in obtaining proper sanction orders for prosecution of the accused under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. In the absence of these restrictions, the prosecution failed to prove that Dabholkar's killing was an act of terrorism, not only in this case but also in the subsequent killings of other rationalists and activists.

Failure to Prove Purpose.

Prosecutors had examined 20 witnesses in the case, including two eyewitnesses and two close associates of the Sanathan Sanstha, which is involved in many terror-related activities. However, this organization has not yet been declared a terrorist organization by the Ministry of Interior. Among those who testified in the case were Dabholkar's son Hamid, a psychologist who had studied the mental state of the accused and an activist of Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmulan Samiti, an organization founded by Dabholkar.

Dabholkar, 69, was shot dead by Indore and Kalaskar on the morning of August 20, 2013, at VR Shinde Bridge in Pune. Both the assailants had performed a reiki a few days before the murder and on the day of the murder. The incident took place on a motorcycle. His killing was the first in a series of killings in Maharashtra and Karnataka. After Dabholkar, leftist thinker Govind Pansare, educationist and activist MM Kalbargi and journalist Gauri Lankesh were shot dead.

Although Dabholkar was killed in 2013, both Indore and Kalaskar were arrested only in 2018 when their role in Lankesh's murder came to light. The duo was arrested by Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) with the help of Karnataka Police's Special Investigation Team (SIT) in connection with the 2017 murder of Lankesh at his Bangalore residence. was doing

Indore and Kalaskar, however, were only foot soldiers. Their mastermind, as the CBI court also pointed out, was someone else. The court observed that: “The murder was carried out with a well-prepared plan, executed by accused Nos. 2 (Indore) and 3 (Kalaskar). Economic and social status of accused Nos. 2 and 3 Considering, they are not the mastermind of this crime. The real mastermind behind the crime is someone else. Along with Pune police, they have failed to find out the mastermind themselves Whether it is their failure or deliberate laxity on their part due to the influence of any person in power.

In the chargesheet, both the Pune police and the CBI had identified Tawde as the “mastermind”. Tawde was a practicing doctor until 2000 when he gave up his practice to fully join the Sanathan Sanstha and its affiliated organization Hindu Janjagarti Samiti. He reportedly had a “personal enmity” with Dabholkar. The CBI's chargesheet highlighted this aspect and also framed the “motive” of the murder. However, when it came to bringing evidence against Tawde, he failed.

A witness, Sanjay Arun Sadwelkar, formerly associated with the Sanathan Sanstha and a close associate of Tawde, claimed in his statement that Tawde had a falling out with Dabholkar in 2004 when Dabholkar went to Kolhapur for a public function. Dabholkar, a critic of the extreme Hindu right wing, criticized these organizations for spreading superstitious beliefs among the people. He was also the driving force behind the drafting of the Anti-Superstition Bill, which was passed only after his assassination in 2013.

Sadvelkar, who ran a silver shop, also testified that Tawde had approached him a few days before Dabholkar's murder and asked him to make a pistol. Sadvelkar claims that when he agreed to build it, he apparently told Tawade that he could not possibly build a pistol without a reference. Sadvelkar, growing suspicious of Tawde's intentions, had apparently decided not to help him further. Sadvelkar claims that Tawde came to his shop in Kolhapur on two occasions to express his displeasure. It was only after Dabholkar's murder, Sadvelkar says, that he found out what Tawde intended to do to him.

Since Sadvelkar was not an eyewitness in the case and was not able to directly link Tawde to Dabholkar's murder, his testimony was inconclusive. Sadvelkar is also a witness in the Pansare murder case.

'Destruction of Evidence'

Punalikar, a practicing lawyer in Mumbai who has represented Hindu fundamentalists in several terror cases, including the 2008 police station and Panwal blasts, was accused of destroying evidence. His role is significant as the convicts claim they went to him after Lankesh's murder in 2017 when Ponnalekar allegedly instructed them to “throw the pistol in the drain”. But since there was no independent witness to substantiate the claim, Ponnalekar was also acquitted.

Vikram Bhave who was Ponnalekar's assistant. Punished for his role. In the 2008 Thane auditorium bomb blast case, more serious charges were leveled in the Dabholkar case. Bhave had reportedly contested a race with Indore and Kalaskar. However, the investigating agency failed to bring any evidence to show him along with the convicts in the case. Even a simple CCTV footage, which should have been readily available, considering that Dabholkar was killed on a road in Pune, was not collected by the police as evidence.

Judge Jadhav made an important observation on the agency's failure to investigate and close the case. He observed:

There is evidence against accused No. 1 Dr. Virendra Singh Tawde of motive for the murder of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar. Accused No. 4 Sanjeev Panalikar and Accused No. 5 have reasonable suspicion. Vikram Bhave, showing his involvement in the current crime. However, the prosecution has failed to prove the involvement of accused Nos. 1, 4 and 5 so that there is credible evidence to turn the motive and suspicion into evidence to show his involvement in the crime.”

As already observed, the prosecution has not proved the offense under Section 16 of the UAPA Act against any of the accused. Similarly, the crime of conspiracy is not proved against any of the accused.

Although the judge was unable to convict the three main men in the case, he continued to make important observations. The judge noted: “The present case is very serious and is of national importance. Not only is Dr. Narendra Dabholkar killed, but an attempt is made to destroy his ideology.”

Judge Jadhav also took strict notice of the behavior of the defense lawyers in the court. During closing arguments, lawyer Prakash Salingekar, appearing for the accused, cited artist MF Hussain and his paintings of Hindu deities to justify the attack on Dabholkar. While cross-examining a witness, Salangekar asked, “Do you know why Taslima Nasreen lives in India?” Do you know for what reasons Salman Rashidi was receiving threats? These questions were not directly related to Dabholkar's case but Salangekar, through these questions, was trying to show that Dabholkar was “hated” because he had “insulted Hindu gods”. On this, Judge Jadhav said:

“Not only from the statements of PW4 and PW8 but also from the suggestions made by them and the arguments of the defense lawyers for the accused, it is very clear that Sanatan Sanstha, Hindu Janjagarti Samiti and affiliated Hindu organizations are bitter against him. It has been admitted in the cross-examination that the accused are connected with the Sanatan Sanstha.

He further indicated:

“The charge-sheeted accused and the defense lawyers have not merely tried to enhance the defence. The unnecessary and irrelevant lengthy cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses and also in the closing arguments have been an attempt to tarnish the image of the victim. At the same time, the defence The approach was to justify the killing of the slain Dr. Narendra Dabholkar by calling him anti-Hindu.

…This approach is very strange and reprehensible. As already observed, this is not a special act of accused Nos. 2 and 3, but definitely pre-planned by the masterminds. Unfortunately, the prosecution has failed to expose these masterminds.”

'Lackadisical Approach'

From the beginning, the manner of investigation of this case was suspicious. Dabholkar's family had to repeatedly plead before the high court pointing out the apathetic attitude shown by the state in such an important matter. Ultimately, the hearing of the case was supervised by the Bombay High Court. It was only in December 2022 that the High Court finally stopped monitoring the case on a day-to-day basis, claiming that it was satisfied with the way the trial was being conducted.

Soon after the verdict, Hamid told the media that the family would contest the verdict in the high court.

It was only after Lankesh's murder and the work of the Karnataka police that both the Maharashtra ATS and the CBI swung into action. Initially, the local police had arrested two separate persons – Manish Ramdas Noguri and Vikas Ramavatar Khandelwal – for their alleged role in the case. However, the police failed to file the charge sheet in time. Finally, when the CBI took up the case, they also arrested three other people – Amul Arvind Kale, Amit Ramchandra Deghwekar and Rajesh Bangera. But when the CBI filed its final report on May 31, 2023, the central agency claimed that since it had not been able to collect enough evidence against the three, they too were not chargesheeted.

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