Until the killings of Pansare, and Narendra Dabholkar two years before him, little attention was paid to the Sanstha, a shadowy religious cult headquartered in Goa, with followers along the south and west of Maharashtra, extending into coastal Karnataka.
What set the Sanstha apart from the various groups and individuals whose practises Dabholkar and Pansare sought to debunk – and made them potential suspects in the killing of both men – was the hyper-aggressiveness of response. As journalist Nikhil Wagle, who, according to the police, is named by Gaikwad in phone transcripts as the next target after Pansare, the Sanstha is capable of ratcheting up the pitch against any one who takes them on.
Wagle claimed he had had several run-ins with them, culminating in a 2011 talk show he hosted on Maharashtra’s proposed anti-superstition bill, during which the Sanstha spokesperson walked out after an altercation with Wagle. This, Wagle said, led to his cellphone number being published by the Sanstha in their journal Sanatan Prabha, and to a deluge of abusive and threatening calls. More ominously, he says that they published photographs of him with his image crossed out, just as they had done with images of Dabholkar and Pansare. The journalist Kumar Ketkar, another reputed Marathi editor and critic of Sanstha, also received the same treatment, said Wagle.
To a certain extent, such bellicosity has not been taken seriously by the state, often dismissed as outrage-inducing actions by fringe groups simply out to grab headlines.
But even prior to the Dabholkar and Pansare killings, this dismissal was increasingly in need of a relook. In two separate but seemingly related incidents, the Sanstha appeared to demonstrate an increased capacity of violence – the first, in June 2008 when when two of their members were arrested after three blasts in suburban Mumbai. Two were against the screenings of the film Jodhaa Akbar, and one against a Marathi play. The two men were sentenced to ten years in jail by a Mumbai court in August 2011, later released on bail. The case against them continues.
The second was October 2009, when an Improvise Explosive Device or IED carried in the boot of a scooter by Malgonda Patil and Yogesh Naik, both Sanstha members, exploded prematurely in Margao, Goa, killing both men. (Their target was an effigy-burning competition held a few days before Diwali every year. The Sanstha felt the competition insulted Krishna, whose idol was placed near the demon Narakasur during the ritual.) Eight men were charged, of whom three are absconding, and five have been acquitted for lack of evidence.
Even so, when the Sanstha ‘s name cropped up after the Pansare/Dabholkar murders, there was skepticisim. The group was clearly capable of aggressive threats, inciting mob fury, perhaps even having as their members those who can assemble and detonate crude bombs. But the killings of Pansare and Dabholkar, the logic went, were cold-blooded assassinations carried out with the cool-headedness of professionals – in both cases, the killers were a pair of men on motorcycles, shooting their targets in broad daylight and riding away. Could this be the next level of the violent potential of fringe groups? Or is this making exaggerated assumptions over their capability?
Across the border in Karnataka, the same dilemma surfaced earlier this month after the killing of MM Kalburgi, the scholar who had skirmished with conservatives in his own Lingayat community as well as with the Hindu right.
Amongst the usual suspects, there is the Sri Ram Sene, another extreme Hindutva fringe group much more public than the Sanstha in its acts of aggression against those perceived to be enemies of Hindu society. In Kalburgi’s case, the protests triggered by his comments last year (not just limited to the fringe – in some cities of Karnataka, the BJP led the protests) included throwing bottles at his home, asking for his arrest, calling him anti-national , asking for his expulsion from India and even holding a mock “shraadh” or funeral ceremony for him.
And yet the Sene, headed by the volatile Pramod Mutalik, has (like the Sanstha after the Pansare and Dabholkar killings) issued vocal denials in its role in the Kalburgi murder, describing its differences with Kalburgi as well within the boundaries of permissible protest. When we were in North Karnataka to report this story two weeks ago, the same doubts were raised over the role of the Sene or similar groups: they are capable of ugly talk, street thuggery, but can they order or conduct executions?
In fact, the theory of a property dispute as a potential motive for the Kalburgi killing carried much greater traction till it was finally discarded by the Karnataka police for sheer lack of evidence. The police now grudgingly say that ideological differences are the most likely reason for Kalburgi’s murder.
Even so, investigators in Karnataka have come up with what are only so far hints of a greater proficiency for violence by the fringe; notably, the questioning of a Sene member known as Veeresh, who according to police sources is a sharpshooter and is said to have imparted training to other sharpshooters in Athani in north Karnataka.
A tenuous Maharashtra-Karnataka link also appears to be emerging. Based on their questioning of Gaikwad, the Maharashtra police are reportedly coming around to identifying a man called Rudra Patil as the key accused in the Pansare murder. Patil was amongst the three Sanstha members who absconded after the Goa blasts.
Patil, while a native of Sangli in Maharashtra, is according to the police originally from Northern Karnataka, not far from where Kalburgi was killed. He is by caste a Lingayat (the same community with whom Kalburgi had skirmished).
These may yet be straws in the wind, even if the straws appear to be getting entangled. The final shape of the weave is in the hands of investigators.
But that we do not even now have conclusive answers is solely not enough reason to continue to dismiss the full violent potential of the fringe. If anything, the tendency to treat such outfits with a lack of seriousness contributes to an investigative blind-spot to their activities, which in turn perpetuates a cycle of dismissiveness by the state and claims of being vindicated by these groups. There is enough of a case to be made to intensify surveillance and penetration of these groups, much as is done with outfits considered more ‘mainstream’ threats. That is a longer term measure.
More immediately, what is appalling is the reluctance by the state to act against the steady stream of violence-inducing (or directly threatening) statements and actions by these groups. These are in the public domain, and require no great investigative heavy-lifting. Till such time as graver charges are established (or not), there is no reason for the argument of the fringe to be invoked to not act. Instead, the consistent, forceful application of the law can serve as a powerful deterrent to these groups to rethink their tactics, and to any followers who individually (as lone wolves) or in a planned manner may want to take the threat of violence to the next level.