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Death of a Rationalist: Govind Pansare Baptised by the bullet for questioning the politics of religion, caste and class

19, Feb 2018 | Deborah Grey

A rationalist is a person who chooses to believe the scientific explanation for the occurrence of natural events rather than attributing them to faith or fate. Often rationalists openly renounce and denounce religion in favour of reason and logic. This, unfortunately, also often puts a bull’s eye on their backs. In fact, since late 2013, four of India’s most vocal rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh, have been murdered in cold blood. Not only has the modus operandi been the same, there has been a similar lack of competence and motivation displayed by investigative authorities in each case and none of the killers have been caught, let alone brought to justice. Here’s a look at the life and work of Govind Pansare, who was baptised by the bullet three years ago.

 

Govind Pansare (November 24, 1933 – February 20, 2015)

On February 20, 2018, it would be three years since Govind Pansare breathed his last. He was attacked by bike borne gunmen while out on a walk with his wife Uma, on February 16, 2015. The men stopped the couple on the pretext of asking for an address, and then shot them five times at close range. Uma sustained a head injury and fell into a coma. However, she regained consciousness a few days later and survived despite a fractured skull. Govind who was shot in the nape of his neck and chest, initially regained consciousness on February 17, but had to be airlifted and taken to Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai due to fluid accumulation in his lungs. He succumbed to his injuries on February 20, 2015. Uma claimed that her husband was killed for his progressive thoughts. A few years ago, when rationalist Narendra Dabholkar had been shot dead in similar fashion, Pansare had stood by his body and shouted slogans condemning right wing forces. The Times of India quoted him the next day as saying, “Dabholkar’s assassination is an indicator that there’re fundamentalists and fascists among us who want to quell all rational voices with violence.”

Who was Govind Pansare

Govind Pansare was a highly respected socialist leader, author and rationalist. He is perhaps best known for his Marathi book Shivaji Kon Hota, a biography of the 17th century Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji. The book became controversial as Pansare claimed that Shivaji was a secular ruler who appointed Muslims as his generals. This busted the carefully constructed myth of Shivaji that right wing Hindutva groups and political parties like the Shiv Sena, have been peddling for decades in a bid to polarise the vote bank, along communal lines. He also examined class, caste and community based power structures in his other books. He was also a vociferous advocate of inter-caste marriage and gender equality. All of this earned him the wrath of right wing fundamentalists, even leading to death threats.

Early Life and Introduction to Socialism

Pansare’s early life was difficult. His mother worked as a farmhand and his father did odd jobs. He had four other siblings. The family had lost their land to money lenders. Early in life, Pansare joined the Rashtra Seva Dal, a socialist organisation founded by Sane Guruji. A member of the organisation, Govind Patki, helped Pansare get a high school education. Then he moved to Kolhapur where he obtained a BA and an LLB. Pansare read a lot of left wing literature and was inspired to join the Communist Party of India in 1952. He participated in the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement and was arrested in 1962 as he was presumed to be a China sympathiser due to his communist ideology. He practiced labour law and represented various labour unions and slum dwellers.

The Murder Investigation

Following the shooting, an FIR was filed at Kolhapur’s Rajarampuri Police Station. As no eyewitnesses came forward, the police started looking at CCTV footage from the area. According to Retd. Justice BG Kolse Patil, Pansare had received death threats after organising an event to discuss the book Who Killed Karkare by retired policeman SM Mushrif. On February 18, 2015, RTI activist Ketan Tirodkar, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court, claiming that police were aware of threats to Pansare’s life, but failed to act. On February 22, 2015, the police offered a reward of Rs 5 lakhs for any information leading to capture of the attackers. This figure was later increased five fold to Rs 25 lakhs. Uma gave her statement to the police on March 15, 2015 as earlier, her head injury was making it difficult for her to recall anything clearly and with certainty.

Biting the Bullet

The ballistic report said that five bullets were fired using two revolvers, but none of the guns matched the one used in the murder of Narendra Dabholkar. This proved to be controversial as there was a contradiction the findings of two forensic science laboratories (FSL). While the Mumbai FSL said the guns were the same, the Bangalore FSL disagreed, leading the CBI to tell the Bombay High Court that they needed a third FSL to weigh in on the findings. Infact, the petitoner’s lawyer Abhay Nevagi pointed out that since bullets in both, Dabholkar and Pansare murder cases came from Khadi Ammunition Factory and all sales have to be recorded against licenses, it would be wiser and quicker for the investigation agencies to trace the murder weapon’s owner that way.

The CBI however, wanted to rope in the Scotland Yard and seek their expertise in ballistic examination. However, the Scotland Yard declined the request saying no legal agreement existed between the two countries to share forensic data. A Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the state CID formed to investigate the matter was castigated by the Bombay High Court, that said it was “very unhappy” with the slow progress in the investigation.

Finally, in September 2017, a sealed ballistics report from the Ahmedabad FSL was submitted before the Bombay High Court. This contained ballistic analysis from the murders of not just Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, but also MM Kalburgi who was gunned down in Karnataka in September 2015. The court directed the agencies to keep findings confidential as previously findings had been leaked to the media.

A shade of Saffron

In September 16, 2015, a 32 year old man named Sameer Gaikwad, a member of Sanatan Sanstha was arrested from Sangli. Police had been tapping his phone as he resembled a person caught on CCTV. Gaikwad had allegedly boasted about the murder to a female friend over the phone. The next day the police arrested the female friend from Mumbai, a man from Pune and two other men from Goa. However, during investigations it turned out that Gaikwad was in Thane at the time of the murder and police could not find any other evidence linking him to Pansare’s murder. Interestingly, court rejected the appeal for brain mapping and lie detector tests to be carried out on Gaikwad. On September 20, 2015 a joint manhunt involving Maharashtra and Karnataka Police began for a suspect identified as Rudra Patil who was also a Sanatan Sanstha member. Patil was also an accused in the 2009 Goa blast.

In September 2016, CBI named Dr Virendra Tawde, an alleged commander of the Hindu Janjagruti Samilti, as a key conspirator in the Narendra Dabholkar murder case based on emails exchanged with key Sanatan Sanstha member naming rationalists who posed a threat to Hindutva and comparing them to demons or ‘rakshasas‘. Tawde who was arrested back in June 2016, was subsequently investigated for his involvement in the death of Govind Pansare as well. Two of Tawde’s alleged associates Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar, who had been named in the Dabholkar murder, were also investigated for their involvement in the Pansare murder case. However, a Kolhapur court granted Tawde bail in the Pansare murder case in January 2018.

The case today

Following a plea by the widow of MM Kalburgi, another rationalist, for a Supreme Court supervised special investigation into his murder, fresh interest has been sparked into the murder cases of Pansare and Dabholkar. However, no real headway has been made in the Pansare murder and it is still ‘unsolved’.

 

Feature Image by Amir Rizvi

Related:

Our Gauri: A Tribute to Gauri Lankesh

Dissent and Democracy in India

 

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