Members of Gauri Lankesh Balaga taking out a procession in Shivamogga on Tuesday.VAIDYAVAIDYAMembers of Gauri Lankesh Balaga taking out a procession in Shivamogga on Tuesday.VAIDYAVAIDYA

Nearly half of them are from Karnataka and the rest from Maharashtra & Goa: SIT

Investigations have pointed to an unnamed gang, some of whose members have in the past been associated with the right-wing Hindu organisation Sanatan Sanstha and its affiliates, killing four rationalist thinkers — Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh — in Maharashtra and Karnataka between 2013 and 2017. Though most of its key members have been arrested, investigators say they are only the tip of the iceberg.

The Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the murder of activist-journalist Gauri has identified over 60 recruits who were radicalised and trained to use firearms. Nearly half of them are from Karnataka, while the rest are from Maharashtra and Goa, said sources. “This is an army of highly radicalised youth trained in arms, to ‘protect Hindu dharma’,” said a senior SIT official. Many of them have no direct links to Sanatan Sanstha or its affiliates.

The gang’s large base of recruits comes from a tri-junction region of south west Maharashtra, Goa and Bombay Karnataka, and from a loose network of Hindu extremist fringe outfits. The hit teams on Kalburgi and Gauri, and the one put together to kill Mysuru-based professor K.S. Bhagavan, were drawn from organisations such as the Sri Ram Sene, Hindu Yuva Sene, Shivapratishthan Hindusthan, and the recently formed cow protection forums. “There seems to be an osmosis of ideas and workers taking place within this network. Even if this gang is eliminated, there are chances of radicalised persons or groups, trained in arms, turning into lone wolves. It is a serious concern,” an official said.

Recruiters target youngsterswith a leaning towards violence and those involved in past communal cases. Parashuram Waghmore, the alleged shooter of Gauri, was a Sri Ram Sene worker accused of hoisting a flag of Pakistan in hishome town, Sindhagi, in 2012 to stir up communal tension. He was recently acquitted of the charge.

“To keep in touch with them, the recruiters give them a mobile phone with a SIM card procured using fake documents. They speak of the dangers the Hindu dharma is facing and instigate them to work to protect it. The recruits are called for indoctrination meetings. They are trained to fire pistols only if the recruiters feel they are ready to commit an act of violence in defence of the dharma. It takes years for the recruit to graduate to this level. Waghmore was recruited in 2014, but trained to kill Gauri Lankesh only in 2017,” an official toldThe Hindu . To date, the SIT has identified 13 camps held by the organisation, for both arms training and indoctrination.

Though there are more than 60 trained youth, most have not been involved in any hits till date. The governments of Karnataka and Maharashtra are yet to decide on the course of action on this matter. For now, most of them are under surveillance by intelligence agencies. The thinking in Karnataka, sources said, was to file a new suo motu FIR and arrest all the gang members for sedition and promoting insurgency, under the Karnataka Control of Organized Crime Act, 2000. However, no such action has been initiated yet.

Leadership change

The gang, kept unnamed to avoid being targeted, is said to have been formed in 2011. It was allegedly led by Veerendra Tawde, an ENT surgeon from Pune, now charge-sheeted in the murders of Dabholkar and Pansare.

Hindus speaking against the faith were considered the biggest enemies and were targeted. All the people on the hit list recovered by the SIT were Hindus.

In the past, members of the organisation would lay low for as long as two years after a murder, but that changed in 2017. Investigations now indicate that their pace of work quickened once they assassinated Gauri. Two months after that, they were preparing to kill Prof. Bhagavan. “Apart from buying a large cache of firearms, they were assembling crude bombs to carry out multiple attacks, not just assassinations. This indicates an expanding base, availability of resources, and multiple modules,” a senior investigator said.

Following Dr. Tawde’s arrest in June 2016, the gang regrouped by December that year, under the surgeon’s lieutenant Amol Kale, and began preparations for Gauri’s assassination. Though the arrest of most of the key players is a body blow, a regrouping by remnants of the gang cannot be ruled out, a senior investigator said.