Deceptive piety

Scrapped Plans Wreckage of the Sanatan Sanstha member’s scooter that was being used to transport IEDs.
Photos: Arvind Tengse

A HINDU ORGANISATION, the Sanatan Sanstha, is once again in the public eye after a low intensity blast that took place in Goa’s Madhgaon district on October 16, the eve of Diwali. Two activists of the Sanstha were badly injured and later died when improvised explosive devices (IEDs) they were carrying in a scooter — also owned by a Sanstha member — exploded prematurely.

Situated next to the famous Ramrathi temple in Goa’s Ponda district, the sprawling complex of the Sanatan Sanstha appears to be in a different world altogether. On display in the complex are burnt and stained clothes (results of spiritual magic by the gurus, we are told), placards exhorting Hindus to fight their enemies and a painting that has an image of India surrounded by four villains – including ‘people who oppose black magic’ and Mayawati’s BSP, an anti-Hindu party for the Sanstha. As I walk on, I bump into a worker who has laminated pieces of paper stuck over the upper half of his body, including the forehead, nape and back. The pieces of paper have mantras inscribed on them. Asked what it’s all about, the worker — or sevak as he calls himself — says it’s like an amulet to ward off evil powers.

A group of young children, women, teenagers and well-to-do people walk past the room, wearing the magic patches. I spy an ex-Miss India and former Lakme model, Sharon Clarke among them. I attempt to talk to Sharon, but she hurriedly walks on. When I ask the ashram in-charge why she did so, I’m told that Clarke is tired and hence, unable to talk. She and thousands like her are a part of the Sanatan Sanstha, denizens of what their literature calls a divine kingdom, which will be fully formed by 2020. Ten years ago, Sharon left her husband and child to join the Sanstha. The Sanstha also counts the wife of Goa’s transport minister, Sudheen Dhavlikar, as an active member.

The Sanstha calls on members to go to any extent to bring forth the ‘divine kingdom’

Sanstha member Malgonda Patil being taken to hospital after the IEDs he was transporting exploded

This group grabbed headlines after the Panvel, Thane and Vashi blasts that took place in Maharashtra in 2007. After the Mumbai ATS chargesheeted six members of the Sanatan Sanstha and its front, the Hindu Janjagriti Samiti, in connection with the blasts, it could clearly no longer be dismissed as just another small-time cult. According to DIG Rajendra Yadav of the Goa Police, the organisation has spread rapidly and has a strong network in Goa, Pune, Sindhudurg, Sangli and Karnataka.

However, the Goa Police believe it will be a difficult job to nail the organisation for the Madhgaon blast, as the evidence is insufficient. Moreover, the death of Malgonda Patel and Yogesh Naik, the Sanstha members who were on the scooter when the blast occurred, reduces possible leads in the case. However, investigations are continuing. “We have reached out to the Maharashtra ATS. Their members are here to investigate links between this blast and the Panvel blasts,” said SP Atmaram Deshpande of the Special Branch.

THE POLICE recovered gelatine sticks, timer clocks and a plastic box with circuits from the blast site. The IEDs showed striking similarities to the devices used in the Panvel blasts as well as the Malegaon blasts of 2008. Although the police say that this similarity alone is not conclusive evidence, they maintain that there is a likelihood of a common link between the blasts and, yes, a common agenda for the organisations involved – Abhinav Bharat and the Sanatan Sanstha-Hindu Janjagriti Samiti.

The Sanatan Sanstha’s well-appointed ashram in Goa’s Ponda district

Maharashtra and Goa ATS officials have also discovered that Vikram Bhave, one of the accused arrested in the Panvel blasts, was in touch with Malgonda Patil up to the time Bhave was arrested. An investigating official also revealed to TEHELKA that the gelatine sticks that were used in the Panvel and Madhgaon blasts were made in Nagpur.

The Sanstha’s newspaper, Sanatan Prabhat, which has a circulation of 5,000, calls for the formation of a ‘Hindu Naxal force.’ The Sanstha’s literature is also quite revealing. It talks of Kshatriya Dharma (the dharma of the warrior) and of “destroying evil by all means, even by laying down one’s life” so that the Sanstha’s followers, under the guidance of their guru Jayant Athavale will be able to convert the country into a divine kingdom ruled by them. Athavale, a doctor by training, spent six years practicing hypnosis in London and formed the Sanatan Sanstha in 1990 after his return to India in 1988. He has been questioned by the Goa Police in connection with the Madhgaon blasts.

The man who revealed troubling truths about Athavale would only speak to TEHELKA on condition of anonymity. A medical professional himself and a veteran of the organisation, he used to work closely with Athavale in running the organisation. He quit the Sanstha after he found out that Athavale, who had, by then, successfully managed to indoctrinate many people, was venturing into dangerous territory. “He wants to become God and believes he may be an incarnation of Arjun, as he has written in his texts. In order to bring about the socalled ‘divine kingdom,’ Athavale can do anything. He has convinced his followers that he can see Gods and that they are directing him in a fight against evil. Many defence personnel would come to the organisation to run commando training classes and deliver speeches.”

Strong circumstantial evidence connects the Madhgaon, Malegaon and Panvel blasts

Police raid the Sanstha’s printing press during the course of investigations

Athavale’s growing popularity and his desire to be worshipped led to his estrangement with major Hindu groups such as the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, which disassociated themselves from the Sanstha after the Panvel blasts. A senior leader of the VHP — not on good terms with Narendra Modi — told TEHELKA that the VHP ousted the Sanstha from Gujarat where it was trying to establish itself by inviting Modi to its functions. Speaking to TEHELKA, Goa Home Minister Ravi Naik said the government was considering a ban on the Sanstha and would decide after it received the SIT report. It would be interesting to see if a link between the Sanatan Sanstha and other Hindu organisations like Abhinav Bharat emerges. After all, both organisations talk about forming a kingdom in India on the lines of Israel. The IEDs that exploded prematurely in Madhgaon were intended to go off in a market full of people celebrating the burning in effigy of the demon Narakasura – a practice widely observed by Goan Hindus and strongly objected to by the Sanstha every year but not, oddly enough, this year. Whether the Madhgaon IEDs were part of a planned wave of terror is something further investigations can reveal.


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