The historically progressive state of Maharashtra, which has a history of radical movements, is fast gaining notoriety for the snuffing out of political leaders and intellectuals vocal about religious fundamentalism, cultural policing and superstition. The recent murder of CPI leader Govind Pansare and the murder of activist Narendra Dabholkar a year and half ago are two instances that give the state a dubious reputation. Religious fundamentalists have allegedly carried out both the murders.
On 16 February, 82-year-old Pansare and his wife Uma were attacked in Kolhapur near their house while returning from a morning walk. The manner of killing was uncannily similar to the way suspected Hindutva extremists had attacked and killed anti-superstition activist Dabholkar in Pune.
Pansare and his wife were shot from a close range by two unknown motorcycle-borne assailants at around 8.30 am. Pansare received three bullet injuries on his neck, leg and armpit while his wife suffered a bullet injury on her neck. After the attack, the couple was admitted to Aster Adhar hospital in Kolhapur. Later, Pansare was shifted to the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai on 20 February, where he succumbed to his injuries on the same day, whereas his wife survived the attack. It is to be noted that Dabholkar was also attacked by two unknown motorcycle-borne assailants while he was taking a morning walk. Clearly, the two murders bear a stark similarity.
The central office of the CPI in a statement condemned the murderous attack on Govind and Uma Pansare. The statement mentions that “Pansare was under threat from the communal forces over his latest move to organise a discussion meeting on a book on the slain chief of Maharashtra ATS Hemant Karkare, Who Killed Karkare”.
The book, written by former inspector general of Maharashtra Police Shamsuddin Mushrif, claims that Karkare, who was killed during the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, was actually killed by extremist groups such as Abhinav Bharat, who synchronised a parallel attack at that time on him. Abhinav Bharat and some extremist elements in the Intelligence Bureau, Mumbai Police and ATS wanted to eliminate Karkare as he was about to expose them. During the investigation of the 2008 Malegaon blasts, he had recovered three laptops that had the blueprint of the “Aryavrat Hindu Rashtra” and was going to expose their intentions in public.
Under the leadership of Karkare, the ATS arrested 11 suspects, including Lt Col Prasad Purohit, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur and Dayanand Pandey, in the Malegaon blasts case.
Mushrif told Tehelka, “Pansare initially read a slim Marathi volume on the death of Karkare in which the reference of my book was given. He was furious with the findings and then through a common friend and retired judge BG Kolse Patil, we came in contact. He told me that he will organise a discussion on the book in Kolhapur on 30 December 2014 so that the truth can be brought to light.”
Mushrif informed that a week before the scheduled discussion on the book, Pansare held a press conference in Kolhapur regarding it. But the very next day, some right-wing groups organised a press conference and demanded that the event be scrapped. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti complained to the police that the event could disturb communal harmony. Pansare, however, stood his ground and went ahead with the discussion, for which people turned out in large numbers. He argued that the book had been published in 2009 and was not banned anywhere, so if anybody had a different view, they could publish another work challenging Mushrif’s conclusions.
A Pune-based organisation, the Rashtriya Seva Dal, had also volunteered to hold a discussion on Mushrif’s book in the city on 12 January. But, on 8 January, they cancelled the discussion due to some official reason and told Mushrif that they will hold the discussion in February, but that never happened.
“The Rashtriya Seva Dal chickened out and cancelled the discussion on the book. This enraged Comrade Pansare and during our state council meeting on 31 January, he appealed that the party should fight back such extremist forces and arrange for 50 discussions on the book’s findings,” says CPI state secretary Bhalchandra Kango. “All of us agreed and planned to start the discussions after our national conference in March.”
Megha Pansare, Govind Pansare’s daughter-in-law and the district secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women (the CPI’s women’s wing), told Tehelka, “My father used to get many threatening letters but he never used to pay attention to them. In 2013, he had received a letter accusing him of treason against Bharat Mata as he believed in an ideology different from Hindutva.”
Megha says that most of these threat letters had been sent from Pune. “A month ago, when I told him that he should take these threats seriously, he replied, ‘I am 82 years old. Who is going to kill me now? I will keep working as long as I am alive’,” she says.
“Recently, an ABVP activist objected to his speech in Shivaji University where he had criticised the glorification of Nathuram Godse by the fundamentalists. I am sure he was murdered because of his stand against religious extremism and cultural policing,” she adds.
Pansare was one of the tallest communist leaders in Maharashtra and worked for the CPI for more than 50 years. He was a writer, lawyer and political leader all rolled into one. He came from a very humble background. While studying law, he used to work as a peon in a municipality school and also as a newspaper hawker. He participated in the Goa liberation movement and the ‘Samyukt Maharashtra’ movement in his youth. After becoming a lawyer, he served as the president of the Kolhapur Bar Association.
In recent years, Pansare was in the forefront of the anti-toll tax agitation. He led various movements in the unorganised sector for the welfare of farm labourers, slum-dwellers and domestic workers. He wrote 20 books in his career. His most famous book, published in 1984, was titled Shivaji Kaun Hota? (Who was Shivaji?). In that book, he projected the Maratha warrior king as a secular ruler, who took care of his people irrespective of their caste, creed and religion. This projection by Pansare went against the standard image of Shivaji as a Hindu king. This book became so popular that it was translated into 14 languages.
Initially, it was speculated that Pansare was murdered as he was in the forefront of the anti-toll movement in Kolhapur. “I don’t buy that theory as many other leaders were also involved in the anti-toll campaign,” says Kango. “Right-wing extremists propagated that speculation to mislead the people.”
On 11 March, more than 40,000 people participated in a protest march in Mumbai demanding the arrest of the killers of Pansare and Dabholkar. Pansare had been an ardent supporter of Dabholkar’s campaign against superstition. Last May, the CBI was asked to probe Dabholkar’s murder. A three-member CBI team is working on the case but is yet to reach any conclusions.
“We suspect that the same group that killed Dabholkar could be behind Pansare’s murder as well,” says social activist Vivek Sundara, who participated in the protest march in Mumbai. “The police has been lax in probing the case and apprehending the murderers. There seems to be little hope for justice.”
Kolhapur Additional Superintendent of Police Ankit Goyal told Tehelka, “We are probing the case and are trying our best. But as it is ongoing, we cannot disclose the direction it is taking.”