The recent arrests by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) have once again put the Sanatan Sanstha at the centre of controversy. The chorus for a ban on the right-wing Hindu organisation is once again gaining momentum.
Even though the demand for a ban on the outfit has been on for some time now, the government may be facing more pressure this time around, given the current political equations.
In the past one decade, Sanatan Sanstha's name has cropped up in several instances of right-wing extremism. The recent arrests of Vaibhav Raut, a self-proclaimed cow vigilante and a ‘Sadhak’ (truth seeker) of Sanatan Sanstha, and two others have once again given the Opposition enough ammunition to demand a ban on the Sanstha.
So, why would such a demand put the government in a more precarious position this time?
Well, the fact that the Sanatan Sanstha's name has cropped up in a similar case for the nth time. The first time the Sanstha faced similar allegations was after the blast in Gadkari Rangayatan in Thane in 2008.
Two Sanatan Sanstha sadhaks, Ramesh Gadkari and Vikram Bhave, were arrested by the ATS for their alleged role in planting bombs at theatres in Thane and Vashi. Seven persons were injured when a bomb went off in the parking lot of the Thane theatre on June 4 that year.
The motive behind the blasts was to deter the producer of Amhi Pachpute, a Marathi play, from staging it. The Sanstha had earlier objected to the play, saying that Hindu mythological figures were being shown in poor light.
In 2009, two Sanatan Sanstha workers, Malgonda Patil and Yogesh Naik, had died when a bomb they were ferrying to Margao city in Goa, where the Sanatan Sanstha is headquartered, accidentally exploded.
Following the two separate arrests and similar incidents allegedly involving the Sanatan Sanstha came to the fore, the Maharashtra government in 2013 sent a proposal to the Centre seeking a ban on the organisation.
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But more serious allegations against the right-wing outfit came to the fore when names of people associated with the Sanatan Sanstha were linked to the murders of noted rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and veteran Communist leader Govind Pansare. While anti-superstition activist from Maharashtra, Narendra Dabholkar, was shot dead in Pune in 2013, rationalist and communist leader Govind Pansare was killed in a similar manner in Kolhapur in 2015. While scholar and rationalist MM Kalburgi was murdered in 2015 at Dharwad in Karnataka, journalist Gauri Lankesh were shot in Karnataka in 2017.
In September 2015, Sanatan Sanstha activist Samir Gaikwad, was arrested from Sangli in connection with the murder of Pansare. He was later granted bail by a sessions court in kolhapur in 2017.
In June 2016, the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested Virendra Tawde in connection with the murder of Dabholkar. Tawde was an alleged western commander of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), an offshoot of the Sanatan Sanstha.
Virendra Tawade, arrested by CBI for his alleged involvement in rationalist and author Dabholkar's murder case, was produced in Pune Court in 2016. (Credit: PTI photo)
Rudra Patil, a key suspect in the murder of Kalburgi, is also believed to be associated with the Sanstha’s Goa Ashram. Amol Kale, who allegedly planned Lankesh's murder, is a former Pune convenor of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. What made the investigating agencies join the dots between the murders with the right-wing organisations were the striking similarities between the weapons used in the murders of Pansare, Dabholkar, Kalburgi and Lankesh in the ballistic reports.
With the arrest of Vaibhav Raut, Sudhanva Gondhalekar, and Sharad Kalaskar, the ATS has also seized a huge cache of explosives. The Opposition leader in Maharashtra Assembly, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, has claimed that the Sanatan Sanstha had plans to carry out attacks on Bakrid day to create communal tension. On the other hand, NCP leader Jitendra Awhad has alleged that the explosives recovered from Vaibhav Raut's home were meant to carry out attacks during the Maratha protests.
Both the Congress and the NCP have demanded an immediate ban on the organisation.
However, when in power, both the Congress and NCP did little to act on the proposed ban on the right-wing outfit.
While the proposal to ban the Sanatan Sanstha was recommended in 2011 by the-then Maharashtra home minister, the late RR Patil, there were whispers in the corridors of power that the then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram looked the other way.
Later, when Sushilkumar Shinde became the home minister, replacing Chidambaram, the proposal was again ignored owing to the cold vibes between Shinde and the then CM Prithviraj Chavan.
I remember a senior Congress leader telling me about the ego war between the two reaching a pinnacle when Chavhan claimed in private that the MHA didn't care to look at the ban proposal, while Shinde , a source claimed, said that the chief minister should personally speak to him if the proposal was so important.
Maharashtra wasn’t the only state that proposed a ban on Sanatan Sanstha. But here too, internal politics and the desperation to save the government resulted in the proposal being ignored. The Goa government under Digambar Kamat had proposed a similar ban on the Sanstha. Even the locals residents of Ramnathi in North Goa district where the Sanatan Sanstha is headquartered, had demanded a ban on the right-wing outfit and urged the state government to ensure that the ashram is shifted out of their village.
However, many believed that Ravi Naik, the then home minister of Goa, was trying to settle political scores with his cabinet colleague Sudin Dhawalikar by proposing a ban on the Sanstha. Even Dhawalikar had accepted it on record that his wife and other family members are ‘sadhaks’ of the Sanatan Sanstha. But many say antagonising Dhawalikar would have meant disturbing the already delicate equilibrium of the Goa government and was, therefore, seen as bad political move by the central leadership of the party and the proposal of ban was brushed under the carpet.
The controversy surrounding Sanatan Sanstha started resurfacing with more serious allegations after the coming of a new government to power in Maharashtra. Questions are being raised why despite such serious allegations and the haul of explosives, the government is not initiating a proposal to ban the outfit.
Many are drawing parallels with the ban on Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was banned in 2001, citing dangerous activities and a threat to security. The recent arrests and demand for a ban on Sanatan Sansthan will gain prominence precisely in the light of the SIMI precedent.