Killing for a Hindu nation: behind the murder of Indian rationalists

Investigation into the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh has thrown light on the network of far-right Hindu extremists, who recruit activists, train and indoctrinate them to carry out acts of terror and assassination

August 23, 2018 by Pavan Kulkarni
(Image: Newsclick)

The confessions made to the police by the suspects arrested in connection with the murder of Gauri Lankesh – a veteran Indian journalist and activist who was relentless in her criticism of the far-right Hindu extremists and caste and religious violence – have provided vital clues to help solve the case.

Further, these confessions have revealed links that might assist in nabbing, or at least identifying, the killers of other prominent rationalists. It has also thrown more light on the network of far-right Hindu extremists, who recruit activists, train and indoctrinate them to carry out acts of terror and assassinations. The targets of these groups are those who oppose the idea that India is exclusively a country for the Hindus and those belonging to other religions that have had its birth in India.

The organizations that are believed to be responsible for these acts share the same ideology as that of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization modelled on Mussolini’s Black Shirts, which has penetrated deep into the social fabric of the country. Its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently heads the Central government, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a member of the organization.

It was in the State of Maharashtra that these groups first struck with the assassination of 67-year-old Narendra Dabholkar – a doctor, who had dedicated his life to social work, with a particular focus on fighting blind faith.

Through the organization he founded – the Maharashtra Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith, better known by its acronym MANS – Dabholkar reached out to the vulnerable people in poor communities in order to debunk the ‘miracles’ of ‘godmen’ and warn potential victims about the dangers of falling prey to their machinations .

Dabholkar, whose work put him on an inevitable collision course with far-right Hindu extremists, had been receiving threats since the 1980s.

“If I have to take police protection in my own country from my own people, then there is something wrong with me, I’m fighting within the framework of the Indian constitution and it is not against anyone, but for everyone,” Dabholkar had said while rejecting police protection. In August 2013, while out on his morning walk, he was shot at by two assailants who fired four rounds at point blank range and fled on a motorcycle.

His assassination caused a scandal, and a day after his death, the State government.cleared the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Ordinance, which Dabholkar had campaigned for, but had been held back due to opposition from the BJP, which is now in power. Though two arms dealers were arrested by the police, based on examination of the ballistic reports and its comparison with the weapons they sold, no links were found to any organization.

“There are ideologies in the societies active against the work of the MANS. Such ideologies are behind the killing of Dabholkar.. [MANS] workers need to step up to fight such ideologies collectively and with rational thought. It looks that the MANS is lacking to reply to criticism, which is obstructing workers from reaching out to masses. The MANS will have to draft an aggressive plan. One of the organization’s objectives should be explaining the anti-superstition ordinance to citizens,” said communist leader Govind Pansare, shortly after the assassination. Pansare had worked, among other things, to disrupt the caste hierarchy by promoting inter-caste marriages.

With belief in astrology deeply rooted in Indian society, including among the educated middle and upper classes, numerous jewellers make a fortune by selling rings with different kinds of embedded stones, which promise wealth, happy marriages etc. By mobilizing to spread awareness about this scam, Pansare held the potential to disrupt the profits of the wealthy and powerful jewellers’ community.

It was after Pansare’s opposition to Putra Kameshti Yagya – a Hindu ritual performed to have a male child instead of female – and after he organized an event to discuss the book ‘Who killed Karkare?’ – which dealt with involvement of Hindu extremists in a number of bomb blasts and killings -.that he began receiving threats.

A violent precedent

In February 2015, when Pansare and his wife were returning from a morning walk, two youngsters arrived on a motorcycle and fired five rounds at close range at the defenseless old couple and fled the scene. While his wife recovered after being hospitalized, 81-year-old Pansare died four days later. After identifying one of the suspects in the CCTV footage as Sameer Gaikwad – a member of the far-right Hindu extremist organization, Sanatan Sanstha, which had previously been under the police radar for suspected involvement in bomb blasts – the police tapped his phone.

On hearing him boast to another female member of the same organization about his  involvement in Pansare’s murder, the police arrested him. But their request to carry out a lie detector test was denied by a court after his defense lawyer argued that he was not in the right state of mind to permit brain mapping. Gaikwad was released on bail in June 2017, while two other accused from the same outfit remain absconding.

Six months after Pansare’s death, across the border, in the State of Karnataka, renowned writer M. M. Kalburgi was the next target. A giant in Kannada literature who had authored over a hundred books, Kalburgi had been under pressure for his scholarly writings that unearthed certain details of the history of the Lingayats – a politically dominant community in the State – which proved inconvenient to the temple seers. However, it was his relentless campaigns against blind beliefs and superstition that cost him his life.

Speaking at an anti-superstition campaign, Kalburgi made a reference to a passage in a book published in 1996, in which U. R. Ananthamurthy, another iconic Kannada writer, explained his childhood struggle with the fear of god embedded by scriptural traditions, by recollecting an incident when he was a child:

“I had to breach the Puranic [scriptural] traditions in which I had been brought up. I wanted to ascertain that there was no greater supernatural power than me. So I urinated on the Devva (a village deity) stones of our village. I still remember the fear I had that night. The themes of the stories I wrote in my youth were about the dilemma of transgressing the notion that everything was sacred.”

A case was filed against Kalburgi and Ananthamurthy in February 2015 for “hurting religious sentiments”. Defending the rationale behind filing a complaint nearly two decades after the book was published, the complainant said, “Even if he has done it in his childhood, why should he say it? It hurts the sentiments of Hindus. Why should he say that there is no need to fear the idol and that it has no power, no (ability to perform) miracles?”

Ananthamurthy had died in August of the previous year. The hearing was scheduled for October. However, six months after the complaint, on August 30, 2015, two youngsters knocked on the door of Kalburgi’s residence. When he arrived at the doorstep, one of them shot him in between his eyes at point blank range and the duo fled the scene on a motorcycle.

When the news of his death broke out, a co-convenor of the Bajrang-Dal – a radical Hindu outfit known for the prominent role it has systematically played in communal riots in which thousands have died – tweeted, “Then it was UR Ananthamurthy and now MM Kalburgi. Mock Hinduism and die dog’s death”, adding a threat to another rationalist, “And dear KS Bhagwan you are next.” Bajrang Dal is associated with the RSS.

Degeneration of a society

The following month, the country was witness to another the horrific incident in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where a mob – after hearing a temple priest accuse a Dadri city resident, Mohammed Akhlaq, of consuming beef – barged into the 52-year-old’s house and beat him to death, while severely injuring his 22-year-old son. In a Kafkaesque turn of events, the police who arrived at the scene after he was killed, confiscated the meat in the refrigerator, and sent it for forensic testing to confirm whether it was in fact beef.

Few back then knew that this kind of mob killing in the name of saving the cow (which is considered holy by a section of Hindus), was also going to become a trend, just like assassinations of those left-leaning rationalists, who by their command of various Indian languages, could reach out to the masses unlike those writing in English.

The next month, in October 2015, as a mark of protest against the ruling BJP’s systematic use of hate  speech and fear-mongering – about Muslims and about Hinduism being under attack – which had created an atmosphere that encouraged such murderous acts, a large number of prominent writers in the country came together to return the awards conferred on them.

Key among them was Nayanthara Segal, a leading literary figure who said that the current “Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology.”

Police investigations that had started into Kalburgi’s murder failed to make any significant progress, and the trail had run cold two years later. In September 2017, radical journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh – who had riled up the right-wing fanatics with years of scathing criticism of the brahmanical socio-religious order which continues to perpetuate hierarchy and oppression – was shot with seven bullets as she was entering her home.

In the two years between the murder of Kalburgi and Gauri, much had changed. Major news channels, a plethora fake news websites and a trained army of online hate-mongers, with the overt and covert backing of the ruling party, amplified daily, through evening television news and Twitter and WhatsApp, an atmosphere of mass-hysteria in which a terrifyingly large portion of the country’s population were convinced that Hinduism – which was clubbed with nationalism by the use of the word ‘hindu-nationalism’, was under attack by Muslims and left-wing intellectuals.

Mob-lynchings, ostensibly to save cows, have become a common phenomenon. Brutal killers were in many cases honoured by members of the ruling party. A relentless campaign to portray left-leaning intellectuals as seeking to defame Hinduism and break the country by encouraging separatists and armed maoist guerrillas in the jungle continues unabated.  Attacking the dead Gauri Lankesh on Twitter, using the most unsavoury language, is now regarded as almost a demonstration of patriotism and nationalism.

“A bitch has died a dog’s death and all the puppies are wailing in a common tune”, tweeted a person of no eminence, except for the fact that his Twitter account was followed by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As the first anniversary of Gauri’s death approaches, the PM continues to follow him on Twitter. To an Right to Information enquiry, it was previously clarified by the Prime Minister’s Office that Modi operates his Twitter account himself.

Civil society fights back

At the same time, the consistent degeneration of society overseen by the ruling party’s ideology has also politicized progressive-minded people. Large protests against Gauri’s assassination saw the participation of journalists, students, academicians and other common people, many of whom were in complete disagreement with her views.

The enormous pressures also led the State government to take forward the investigation. Karnataka was ruled by the Congress party till elections earlier this year, following which a coalition government including it came to power. The Congress is the main opposition party in the country.

In less than a year, 12 suspects were arrested in connection with Gauri’s murder, among whom was Parashuram Waghmare – a former member of a far-right Hindu extremist organization called Sri Rama Sena, with a known history of being involved in communal disturbances – who has reportedly confessed to being the shooter.

Also arrested was Ganesh Miskin, also a member of the same organization, who is suspected to have driven Waghmare to Gauri’s house. The duo was reportedly recruited by Amol Kale, a former convenor of Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, which is a front of the Sanatan Sanstha. Recently, an associate of the organization was arrested after a raid found him to be in possession of explosives.

In a recent confession, Miskin reportedly told the police that it was his recruiter, Amol Kale, who had assassinated Kalburgi.

This reported confession, if accurate, would mean that the shooter of Kalburgi is already in prison as he was arrested in June over suspicion of being involved in Gauri’s killing. In the course of the investigation, a total of 34 names of prominent figures who had opposed the far-right Hindu project was found in his possession, marked for assassinations. Further, a local news report also indicates that the henchman of the person at whose order Kale shot Kalburgi, was the mastermind who planned the assassination of Gauri.

The police affirmed on August 16 that a total of five out of the 12 suspects arrested in connection with Gauri’s murder were also involved in the assassination of Kalburgi. The investigating officers in the State of Maharashtra are exploring the strong possibility of involvement of the same people and network in the killing of the communist leader Pansare.

It has also been established previously, by comparing the ballistic reports and the marks left on the firing pins of the cartridges found at the two different murder sites, that the same gun was used in the assassination of Kalburgi and Gauri.The weapon was reportedly recovered last Thursday and has been sent for forensic examination.

Whatever be the result of the forensic examination, the Sanatan Sanstha and affiliated organizations – under no clear enforceable registry maintenance obligations – remain in a position to evade organizational responsibility by claiming that the accused was an ex-member. This is reminiscent of the tactic used in defense of the RSS when Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse, was termed as only a former member.

Godse’s brother and co-conspirator Gopal Godse, once released from prison, admitted that the brothers had never quit the RSS. In this case, the RSS will undoubtedly claim that they have nothing to do with Sanatan Sanstha and affiliated organizations – even if both espouse the same philosophy of working towards the creation of a Hindu nation and members of the former are known to attend the meetings of the latter. At the same time, it is undeniable that the RSS has tirelessly worked to villainize Gauri and other rationalists. This has created an atmosphere where once they are killed by outfits more radical than the RSS itself, a significant portion of the country would give justifications, at best, and celebrate, at worst.