16, Jun 2018 | CJP Team
On Tuesday, September 5, 2017, journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh, 55, was shot dead outside her home in Bengaluru by a bike-born assailant. On Monday, June 11, the sixth accused in the case, Parashuram Waghmore, 26, was arrested. With the murder investigation still unfolding, it remains to be seen if Gauri Lankesh will get justice.
Lankesh, had previously worked for the Times of India, then taking over as editor of Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada publication that her father had first launched. She then went on to publish her own weekly, called Gauri Lankesh Patrike. An anti-establishmentarian, Lankesh repeatedly spoke out against discrimination on the basis of gender and caste. She played a key role in the Citizens’ Initiative for Peace, which believed in the end of the Maoists’ armed struggle, and felt that the government should intercede on their behalf. She also aided Naxals who had surrendered. Lankesh spoke out for a separate religion status for the Lingayat community, and also lent her support to India’s growing student movement.
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The first arrest
On March 2, 2018, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) investigating Lankesh’s assassination made its first arrest, apprehending right-wing activist K. T. Naveen Kumar, 37, of Maddur, who in 2015 founded the Hindu Yuva Sene. Kumar reportedly confessed to Lankesh’s murder. had previously been arrested in February 2018 in relation to a case involving illegal arms. The SIT also named one Praveen as the second accused in the case, who at the time was not arrested. Investigating Officer M. N. Anucheth told The Hindu in March that Naveen Kumar and Praveen “aided and assisted the furtherance of the conspiracy”. In March, the SIT, when scrutinising Kumar’s cell phone records, found that he had received numerous calls from a Mangalore number that were traced back to public phone booths. The police were investigating if Kumar and his “handler” were plotting to another writer and rationalist, K. S. Bhagwan, who is based in Mysuru. After Lankesh’s murder, Bhagwan was given police protection. Investigations reportedly found that those responsible for Lankesh’s murder tasked Kumar with killing Bhagwan because they were impressed with his support for plot against Lankesh.
Another murder plot
In late May 2018, the SIT arrested four more people with ties to right-wing group Sanatan Sanstha for a January 2018 conspiracy to kill K. S. Bhagwan. The four individuals also had ties to Sanatan Sanstha’s sister outfit, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), and were also connected to Kumar, in 2017 had attending multiple HJS meetings. The four individuals are named Amol Kale alias Bhaisab, 39, an HJS activist from Maharashtra, Amit Degwekar alias Pradeep, 39, a Sanatan Sanstha activist from Goa, Manohar Edave, 28, of Karnataka, and Sujeet Kumar alias Praveen, 37, an activist with Sanatan Sanstha and the HJS from Mangalore. The SIT reportedly also broadened its investigation to look into whether Praveen and his accomplices had any ties with the past murders of Kannada scholar and rationalist MM Kalburgi, as well as those of rationalists Govind Pansare, author and socialist leader, and Narendra Dabholkar, medical doctor and author.
On May 30, the SIT filed a 650-page chargesheet in the Lankesh murder case. It alleges that Naveen Kumar obtained the bullets that were used to kill Lankesh, and that he allegedly supplied logistical support to her killers and directed them to her residence and office in Bengaluru. It alleges that the bullets were from an ammunition store called Bangalore Armoury, and that Kumar purchased them around eight years ago. Syed Shabeer, who works at City Gun House in Kalasipalya, claimed to the SIT that he sold Kumar 18 bullets for Rs. 3,000 about eight years ago. Sources told The Hindu that the chargesheet contained witness statements, call recordings of Naveen speaking to his associates, as well as a statement by his friend, Anil Kumar from Maddur, about Kumar boasting about his involvement in Lankesh’s murder. Kumar has been charged with several sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Sections 118 (concealing design to commit offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life, 114 (an abettor being present when offence is committed) 120B (criminal conspiracy), 35 (when such an act is criminal by reason of its being done with a criminal knowledge or intention), as well as Sections 3 and 25 of the Indian Arms Act.
The SIT, in the chargesheet, stated, “The accused were angry with her for speaking against Hindu dharma, Gods of Hindu dharma and insulting Hindu dharma”. Kumar’s wife, Roopa C. N., gave the SIT a statement, which indicated that Kumar was associated with the Sanatan Dharma Sanstha, largely in 2017.
On Monday, June 11, the sixth accused in the case, Parashuram Waghmore, 26, was arrested. On Thursday, June 14, police reportedly interrogated Waghmore and the previously arrested Amol Kale, according to an SIT officer who spoke to The Hindu. Waghmore had allegedly claimed that Kale instructed him to carry out the killing, and gave him a country-made pistol. The officer said, “He claims that he returned the gun to Kale, but the men keep changing their statements”. The officer also said that four teams, led by handler were engaged for one year in plotting Lankesh’s murder, and that the teams had different assignments, ranging from collecting information, reconnoissance, and intelligence gathering. “They were assigned tasks by the handler on a need-to-know basis. The fourth team carried out the hit,” the officer said. An unidentified senior SIT official told PTI that the weapon used to murder Lankesh was the same one used to shoot her fellow rationalists Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi. Waghmore’s arrest has spotlit Sri Rama Sene, a pro-Hindutva group, and its head, Pramod Muthalik, who appears in a photograph with his arm around Waghmore. Muthalik has denied knowing Waghmore, and said many people take photographs with him.
Lankesh’s murder as a symptom of a worrying trend
Gauri Lankesh’s assassination prompted protests and a widespread outcry, and made national as well as international headlines. The tragedy also drew a response from three United Nations human rights experts–Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression, and Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Days after Lankesh’s murder, the experts called on Indian authorities to “unequivocally condemn the killing of Gauri Lankesh, investigate it, bring all the perpetrators – including the master minds – to account, and take seriously the safety of journalists”. They said, “We urge the authorities in India to take active steps to reverse a political climate that in recent years have become increasingly polarized and hostile, especially to the media and those exercising the freedom of expression. Governments have a responsibility to build a safe environment for independent voices, including those of journalists critical of the authorities,” adding, “India cannot afford to go on creating victims of hatred and intolerance. We urge the authorities to take steps to ensure a culture of diversity, in which everyone, including an independent media, can be safe to express their opinions”. In April 2018, press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its annual World Press Freedom Index, in which India slipped two places to 138. The organisation’s report cited “physical violence” against journalists for India’s rank, highlighting Lankesh’s murder.