The murder of communist politician Govind Pansare only tops off the list of crimes that the ultra-right organisation Sanatan Sanstha has been accused of. Over the years, that roster has come to include transgressions such as the issue of threats and more dangerously, terror activities such as bomb blasts. Though their alleged infractions have pressed multiple state and Central-level investigation agencies into action, it is in the local police stations of Goa that the Sanstha’s infamous story first unravelled. Headquartered in the state’s Bandora-Ponda rural belt, the Sanstha, it would seem, might be guilty of more than weapons training and arson. If complaints of Goa residents and a report by the state police are anything to go by, the Sanstha also resorts to blackmail, brainwashing and sexual exploitation in order to further its declared agenda of Hindu supremacy.
Reporting first information
Light flickers in the small room. Dressed in plain clothes, an inspector sips coffee from a plastic cup. Juniors, and even hardened criminals, fold their hands in his presence. He chastises a constable for sporting a stubble. Known for his courage and progressive outlook, the police official starts sharing his firsthand experiences of investigating the Sanstha, but he insists on anonymity. In a Goa police report that he had helped prepare in 2010, his fears were categorically articulated — “At present the institution [Sanatan Sanstha] appears to be developing into a stage of terror activities and if allowed to grow up in a peaceful state, there is eminent danger to the life, property, communal harmony of the state and the nation.” The inspector confides, “There is so much political pressure on the police when it comes to banning the Sanatan Sanstha. I have information that this report was twice sent to the Director General’s office from the SP’s office.” He goes on to add that the Sanstha is trying hard to exploit the polarised political views in a state where more than half of the population is Hindu.
It is this slender file of approximately 25 pages that seems to summarise the 1,000-page dossier submitted by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad to the Union Home Ministry in 2011. The dossier argues that the Sanatan Sanstha is a threat to state security and is engaged in erecting a terror network in India. In recent times, the Sanstha has had to battle against a number of police and court cases. Many of these now appear incriminatory. Sameer Gaikwad, a devoted Sadhak of the organisation was arrested on September 16. He is accused of having shot Govind Pansare on February 16. Pansare’s murder, in many ways, emulated the August 2013 death of rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar. A Sanatan Sadhak had been detained then too, but a conviction had proved elusive. The Sanstha was also implicated in bomb blasts that had disturbed the peace in Thane, Navi Mumbai and Margao, during the years 2008-2009. Observers are joining dots to draw a pattern of violent terror.
The 2010 Goa police report questions the exponential growth of the Sanstha’s financial and real estate assets. Dubbing the organisation’s literature “unlawful and suspicious”, it says that their writings are pointedly aimed at promoting “communal disharmony”. The report reads, “This organisation is actively participating in unlawful activities and demanding [members of the] Hindu community to be Naxalites/terrorists. Numbers of Hindu people are falling in the trap of Jayant Athawale [founder of Sanatan Sanstha], who is systematically misusing them by using hypnotism techniques.” If the Goa police’s concerns are warranted, then much of India has cause to be worried. The Sanstha has offices across Maharashtra, in Belgaum, Bangalore, Chennai, Gwalior, Jaipur and several other urban areas.
When asked about the fate of this laboriously researched report, Umesh Gaonkar, SP, North Goa, told Mirror, “The report was sent to the government for further action. After the Margao blast, this report was drawn up to take stock of the situation. But our CM Laxmikant Parsekar has clarified that there is no need to ban Sanatan unless its role in wrongful activities can be definitively proven.”
Behind closed doors
It isn’t just the Goa police that had first raised an alarm about the Sanstha’s dangerous activities. Some of the state’s residents too had begun to complain of a terror that was insidiously darkening their lives.
Panjim’s Pushpalata Poyekar, for instance, wrote to the then Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil, demanding a ban on the Sanstha. The 60-year-old told Patil that after having been brainwashed and blackmailed, her son Avinash was staying at the outfit’s Devad Ashram in Panvel. She had written, “There are many single women and men staying in the Ashram. Their parents and family members are trying to get them back, but the Ashram won’t give any information. Sexual abuse and hypnotism happens inside. There is enough evidence if police take complaints seriously.”
Contractor Ramesh Walke, from Amravati, Vidarbha, also wrote to the Maharashtra CM a few years ago, informing him of a police complaint he had made against the Sanstha after Sadhaks at the Devad Ashram refused to let him meet his daughter Dipti alone. He too alleged sexual abuse of young girls, but later withdrew his complaint, fearing his daughter’s safety. Interestingly, the Goa police’s report mentioned that the Sanstha had collected 2,600 condoms from the Ponda Health Centre for its use. “This creates doubt about the so-called spirituality of the Ashram,” it had said.
Four aggrieved parents and relatives – Vijay Rokade, Shobha Chinchkar, Rajendra Swami and Bhanudas Adbhai — had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Bombay High Court in 2011, asking that Sanatan Sanstha be declared a terrorist organisation. Documents in our possession from the hearing clearly show that the Central government has not yet filed an affidavit to make clear its stand on Sanatan Sanstha. On March 11, 2013, the Centre had told the HC that having received communication from the Maharashtra government, it would need more time to verify its position. The state’s chief minister until October 19, 2014, Prithviraj Chavan says, “As per my information, we didn’t get any recommendations from the central government on the report which we had sent. So, we assume the decision is still pending with the Centre. I appeal to the present Maharashtra CM to follow up and add current information about the Sanstha to the report that we had then submitted.”
Arms over alms
The 2010 police report also deconstructs the ‘selfdefence training’ the Sanstha gives to its sadhaks. It mentions, “In the Ashram, the sadhaks have been taught about revolt against other religions. They have been shown films like A Wednesday and Black Friday to inspire them. The activists, who are totally under the control of Athavale, are trained in self-defence at Dhamse, Valpoi and Sattari Goa.”
Evidence of the Sanstha’s ‘self-defence training’ era, a period that is said to have lasted from 2001 to 2008, can be found in a collection of photographs that were printed in the organisation’s brochure Swasaunrakshan Prashikshan. These pictures show Vinay Panvalkar, chief of the Sanatan Satha’s Dharm Shakti Sena, demonstrating how to use weapons like air rifles, tridents and spears. Sunil Dhavat, Maharasthra coordinator of the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (a sister organisation of the Sanstha) says, “We closed our Dharm Shakti Sena long back. Panvalkar is in Delhi now, working as a Sadhak.”
The Goan Observer first published these grainy photographs for public consumption in 2008. A former Sadhak had then worked on a series of stories that exposed the inner workings of the Sanstha. “I was so fed up with the extreme and narrowminded thoughts being advocated by Sanatan that I stopped going for Sadhana. I took to journalism to lay bare their radical brain,” says the young female journalist, while requesting anonymity for fear of reprisal. The weekly’s editor, though, is undaunted. He hasn’t eased up on gritty reportage. “Sanatan has filed many defamation cases against us but that has never stopped us from publishing the truth,” says Rajan Narayan.
Human rights advocate Asim Sarode is demanding an inquiry against the Sanstha by the Charity Commissioner, arguing that its arms training amounts to illegal activity. “This activity is illegal. The Arms Act is very specific. Air rifles and trishuls cannot be used in self-defence training. In the current condition, when the prime suspect of a murder is from the Sanatan Santha, it is only logical that investigating agencies look into Sanstha’s past activity.” NCP MLA Jitendra Ahwad asks, “What kind of spiritual work requires arms training? Did the organisation have licenses for the weapons used?”
No country for other men?
According to sources, Maharashtra police have found that Sameer Gaikwad, who is suspected to have killed Govind Pansare, was communicating with Rudra Patil. A sadhak like Gaikwad, Patil has been on the run ever since the National Investigating Agency issued a red corner notice against him. Incidentally, Patil’s wife is defending Gaikwad in court with other advocates of the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad (legal wing of Sanatan Santha.) The nexus, though, might run deeper. Malgonda Patil, another sadhak who had died in the Margao blast, is said to have been Gaikwad’s friend and Rudra Patil’s cousin. The police are investigating all possible familial and fraternal links.
After having spent three years in prison for their suspected involvement in the Margao blast case, six Sanatan Sadhaks were acquitted because of little evidence. In January 2014, the Sanstha celebrated their release with an open jeep rally and branded each of the six Sadhaks a ‘Dharamveer’. Rajan Ghate, an RTI activist in Goa, is insistent that the organisation disclose the precise present location of these individuals. Even the 2010 Goa police report had expressed a similar concern. It had warned, “Some of the Sadhaks, who are accused persons from Margao bomb blast case, are still absconding, and therefore, there is eminent danger to the society.”
Always dressed in orange kurtas and sarees, the 250 Sadhaks who stay at the Sanstha’s Ponda headquarters are hardly ever allowed to speak to the media. The Sanstha has not inducted any new members since 2007, and though their everyday missions remain secret, Jayant Athavale has made his larger intent clear. By 2023, the Sanstha wants to start a new nation of Hindus. To allay our fears, the one essential question the Sanstha founder needs to answer is this — will a Govind Pansare be able to return home unharmed from his morning walk in the saffron country Sanatan is founding?