Dabholkar Case: Court pulls up Maharashtra police, CBI for shoddy investigation

The special court criticised the investigating agencies for lapses in obtaining sanction orders for the prosecution of the accused under UAPA, leading to their failure to prove Dabholkar's killing as an act of terror.

BySukanya Shantha

Published May 12, 2024 | 7:11 PMUpdatedMay 12, 2024 | 7:12 PM

Vinay Bhave, lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar and Virendrasinh Sharadchandra Tawade.

This article was originally published in The Wire.

A special CBI court in Pune sentenced two men to life for gunning down rationalist and social worker Narendra Dabholkar 11 years ago. The gunmen – Sachin Prakashrao Andure and Sharad Bhausaheb Kalaskar – were convicted under sections 302 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code for murder and common intention. The motive, however, was not proved.

In the absence of a motive, the three other accused – alleged mastermind Dr Virendrasinh Sharadchandra Tawade, lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar and his assistant Vinay Bhave – were acquitted. In a detailed 171-page judgment, the special CBI judge Prabhakar P. Jadhav, while acquitting the trio, categorically mentions that the acquittal was not because they didn’t play a role but because the investigating agency – first, the Maharashtra police and then the CBI, failed to do their job. The court passed the verdict on May 10 and the judgment copy was made available a day later, on May 11.

The special court criticised the investigating agency and the state authorities for procedural lapses in obtaining appropriate sanction orders for prosecution of the accused under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. In the absence of these sanctions, the prosecution failed to prove that Dabholkar’s killing was an act of terror, a crucial aspect not just in this case but also in the killings of other rationalists and activists that followed.

Failure to prove motive

The prosecution had examined 20 witnesses in the case, including, two eye witnesses and two close associates of the Sanathan Sanstha, a far-right organisation implicated in many terror-related activities. The organisation is, however, yet to be declared a terror outfit by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Among those who deposed in the case were Dabholkar’s son Hamid, a psychologist who studied the mental state of the accused and activists from Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, an organisation founded by Dabholkar.

Sixty nine-year-old Dabholkar was shot dead by Andure and Kalaskar on the V.R. Shinde bridge in Pune on the morning of August 20 in 2013. The two assailants had carried out a recce a few days before the murder and on the day of the incident had come on a motorbike. His murder was the first among the series of killings that were carried out in Maharashtra and Karnataka. After Dabholkar, leftist thinker Govind Pansare, academic and activist M.M. Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh were gunned down.

Although Dabholkar was murdered in 2013, both Andure and Kalaskar were arrested only in 2018 when their role in Lankesh’s killing came up. The Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) had apprehended the duo with the help of Karnataka Police’s Special Investigation Team (SIT) that was investigating Lankesh’s killing at her residence in Bangalore in 2017,

Andure and Kalaskar, however, were only the foot soldiers; their masterminds, as also pointed out by the CBI court, were someone else. The court has observed that: “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.”

In the chargesheet, both the Pune police and the CBI had identified Tawade as the “master mind”. Tawade was a practicing doctor until 2000 when he gave up his practice to be fully involved with Sanathan Sanstha and its associated organisation Hindu Janjagruti Samiti. He allegedly had a “personal enmity” against Dabholkar. The CBI chargesheet harped over this aspect and made the “motive” for the killing too. However, when it came to bringing evidence against Tawade, they failed.

One of the witnesses, Sanjay Arun Sadvilkar, who was earlier associated with Sanathan Sanstha and a close associate of Tawade, claimed in his deposition that Tawade had broken into an altercation with Dabholkar in 2004 when Dabholkar had visited Kolhapur for a public event. Dabholkar, an outspoken critic of the radical Hindu right-wingers, criticised these outfits for spreading superstitious beliefs among people. He was also the main force behind the drafting of the Anti Superstition Bill, which was passed only after his killing in 2013.

Sadvilkar, who ran a silver shop, also testified that Tawade had approached him a few days before Dabholkar’s killing and asked him to make a pistol. Sadvilkar claims that while he agreed to have it made, he had apparently told Tawade that he couldn’t possibly make the pistol without a reference. Sadvilkar, growing suspicious of Tawade’s intent, had apparently decided to not help him any further. Sadvilkar claims that Tawade had come to his shop in Kolhapur on two occasions to express his displeasure. Only after Dabholkar’s killing, Sadvilkar says, he found out what Tawade was intending to make him do.

Since Sadvilkar was not an eye witness in the case and was not able to directly link Tawade to Dabholkar’s killing, his testimony didn’t prove useful. Sadvilkar is also a witness in Pansare’s murder case.

‘Destruction of evidence’

Punalekar, a practicing lawyer in Mumbai and who has represented Hindu fundamentalists in many terror cases, including the Thane and Panvel bomb blast of 2008, was accused of destruction of evidence. His role is crucial since the convicted persons claim to have gone to him after Lankesh’s killing in 2017 when Punalekar allegedly directed them to “throw the pistol in a creek”. But since there was no independent witness to prove the claim, Punalekar too was acquitted.

Punalekar’s assistant Vikram Bhave, who was convicted for his role in the 2008 bomb blast case in a Thane auditorium, was accused of more severe charges in the Dabholkar case. Bhave had allegedly participated in a recce along with Andure and Kalaskar. However, the investigating agency failed to bring any evidence to show him with the convicted persons in the case. Even a simple CCTV footage, which should have been easily available, considering Dabholkar was killed on a frequently accessed street in Pune, was not gathered as evidence by the police.

Judge Jadhav made an important observation on the shoddy investigation and the agency’s eventual failure to nail the case. He 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.”

As already observed, the prosecution has not proved the offence under section 16 of the UAPA Act against any of the accused. So also, offence of conspiracy is not at all proved against any of the accused.”

Although the judge was not able to convict three main persons in the case, he went on to make important observations. The judge notes: “Present case is very serious and is of national importance. Not only, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar is assassinated but an attempt is made to finish his ideology.”

Judge Jadhav also took a serious note of the defence lawyers’ conduct in the court. During final arguments, lawyer Prakash Salsingikar, appearing for the accused, had made reference to artists M.F. Husain and his paintings of Hindu goddesses to justify the attack on Dabholkar. While questioning one of the witnesses, Salsingikar had asked “Do you know why Taslima Nasrin is residing in India?; Do you know for what reasons Salman Rashdi was receiving threats?” These questions had no direct connection with Dabholkar’s case but Salsingikar, through these questions, was trying to imply that Dabholkar was “hated” because he had “insulted Hindu gods”. On this, Judge Jadhav has observed:

“Not only from depositions of PW4 and PW8 but also from the suggestions put to them in cross examination and from the arguments of advocates defending the accused, it is crystal clear that Sanatan Sanstha, Hindu Janjagruti Samiti and allied Hindu organisations were nurturing bitter enmity against deceased Dr. Narendra Dabholkar. It is further admitted in cross-examination itself that the accused are connected with Sanatan Sanstha.”

He further pointed out:

“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.

…the said approach is very strange and is condemnable. As already observed, it is not an exclusive act of accused Nos. 2 and 3, but definitely, there is preplan by master minds. Unfortunately, the prosecution has failed to unmask those master minds.”

‘Lackadaisical approach’

Since the very start, the manner in which the investigation in the case was questionable. Dabholkar’ family had to petition time and again before the higher court pointing at the lackadaisical attitude shown by the state in such a crucial case. Finally, the hearing in the case was monitored by the Bombay high court. Only in December 2022 did the high court finally stop monitoring the case on a day-to-day basis claiming that it was satisfied with the manner in which the trial was being carried out.

Soon after the verdict, Hamid told the media that the family would be contesting the verdict in a higher court.

It was only after Lankesh’s killing and the work done by the Karnataka police, that both the Maharashtra ATS and the CBI had sprung into action. Initially, the local police had arrested two separate persons – Manish Ramdas Nogori and Vikas Ramavtar Khandelwal – for their alleged role in the case. The police, however, had failed to file the chargesheet on time. Eventually, when the CBI took up the case, they too arrested three other people – Amol Arvind Kale, Amit Ramchandra Dighwekar and Rajesh Bangera. But when the CBI filed a final report on May 31, 2023, the central agency claimed that since they were not able to gather sufficient evidence against the three, they too were not chargesheeted.

(Republished with permission. Access the original article here.)