In October 2009, I had written an investigative report on the Sanatan Sanstha for Tehelka, a week after a low intensity bomb went off in Goa, for which members of the right wing organisation were chargesheeted. The piece, titled "Deceptive Piety", followed the Goa Police's investigation of the blast in Goa's Madgaon district on October 16, the eve of Diwali. Two activists of the Sanstha had succumbed to injuries when an improvised explosive devices (IEDs) they were carrying in a scooter - also owned by a Sanstha member - exploded prematurely.
Before this event, Sanatan Sanstha had grabbed headlines after the Panvel, Thane and Vashi blasts that took place in Maharashtra in 2007. The Mumbai ATS had chargesheeted six members of the Sanatan Sanstha and its front, the Hindu Janjagriti Samiti, in connection with the blasts. Up until then they were merely dismissed as a small-time cult. According to the then DIG Rajendra Yadav of the Goa Police, the organisation had spread rapidly and had a strong network in Goa, Pune, Sindhudurg, Kolhapur, Sangli and Karnataka. Among the six who were chargesheeted, Ramesh Gadkari and Vikram Bhave were convicted.
Today as I write this, the Maharashtra Police has gathered important information that points towards the Sanstha possibly being responsible for the murders of rationalists and activists like Narendra Dabholkar in 2013 and Govind Pansare two weeks ago. Last week members of the intelligence and ATS in Maharashtra had cautioned the anti-superstition group in the state on possible attacks and advised them safeguards.
Readers may find it interesting to note that the Sanatan Sanstha had also issued warnings to those who were in favour of the anti-superstition bill in the state and had issued threats to activists in the past. While Pansare was not a rationalist himself, he was a great admirer, friend and mentor to Narendra Dabholkar in his fight against superstition and communal hatred.
Raghunath Kamble, general secretary of Kolhapur unit of the CPI, had said a day after the attack on Pansare, that the leader had a rift with Sanatan Sanstha. They had filed a defamation suit against Pansare. "In 2009 in Goa, Pansare's speech against Sanatan Sanstha was reported in a Marathi daily. Sanatan Sanstha filed a defamation suit of Rs 10 crore against Pansare in Madgaon court. Pansare had also received a threat letter which read: "Tumcha Dabholkar karoo ka?" (You could meet the same fate as Dabholkar). The Sanstha had also registered an FIR against Narendra Dabholkar for supporting the anti-superstition bill and opposing the Sanstha as a cult which promoted radical Hindutva.
Investigating agencies believe that the attackers involved could be among the four members of the Sanatan Sanstha on which an Interpol notice had been issued earlier (names withheld on request). These four members are proclaimed offenders and chargesheeted in the Madgaon blasts case. Investigating agencies have various evidences to back up their claim while the investigation is underway. This journalist happens to have access to some of those details.
1) The background and the age group of the two victims is similar and both received threats from the Sanatan Sanstha. The angle which leads to both the murders is the stand of the victims on religious hatred and the pro anti-superstition bill.
2) Narendra Dabholkar's son Hamid considered Pansare his grandfather and approached him at various occasions for help in the campaign against superstition.
3) Both the victims belong to western Maharashtra (ie Kolhapur and Satara) where the Santan Sanstha is most active. The four accused listed by the Interpol belong to Pune, Sangli, Kolhapur and Mulki.
4) There is evidence that Sanatan Sanstha has been receiving weapons training in the last four years. The police have gathered evidence of fired weapons and purchase of ammonium nitrate and detonators by the Sanatan Sanstha. The Goa police chargesheet of 2009 also mentions that weapons training by the Sanatan Sanstha members was undertaken at Sangli and Satara in August 2009.
5) The sketch provided by eyewitnesses of the assassin of Narendra Dabholkar who was on the bike matches with one of the Interpol suspects.
6) Used weapons have been discovered from Sanatan members (whose identities are being withheld) which could possibly have been used to shoot both Dabholkar and Pansare.
7) The Goa Police had recovered gelatine sticks, timer clocks and a plastic box with circuits from the blast site in which the Sanatan Sanstha was involved in 2009. The IEDs showed striking similarities to the devices used in the Panvel blasts as well as the Malegaon blasts of 2008.
Investigating officials claim they have been asked by the BJP government in Maharashtra to carry on a swift investigation in the state as there is tremendous pressure on the Fadnavis led government to project a clean image. A government which is concerned about the safety of its people. The Shiv Sena taking up Devendra Fadnavis for his inability to track down the killers has weighed tremendously on the government. An official investigating the case quipped, "If we had got the same liberty as we did while investigating the Indian Mujahideen the case would have been solved by now"
With the evidence that has come to light, it is most surprising that the previous Congress government and the present day government has taken no concrete steps to ban the Sanatan Sanstha, which agencies tell us are a hardline terror outfit, functioning brazenly from their Goa headquarters. Agencies had requested earlier Congress government to ban the Sanatan Sanstha and declare it a terror outfit. The last appeal was put forward by then ATS chief Rakesh Maria. But clearly the Congress led Union government had elections in mind.
In the report I wrote in 2009, in which I had to pose as a follower of a cult, I had discovered the following facts which I recall from the said piece: 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. It's a known fact that other Hindu outfits in the state, including RSS and VHP allegedly have bitter differences with the Sanatan Sanstha. Sanatan members who have been arrested and detained in the past have told investigating agencies that the RSS is a soft Hindu organisation.
The Sanstha's newspaper, Sanatan Prabhat that has a circulation of 5,000, calls for the formation of a "Hindu Naxal force". The Sanstha's literature 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 earlier been questioned by the Goa Police in connection with the Madgaon blasts.
With incriminating leads and evidence coming up, it will be interesting to see how investigating officials and the Maharashtra government act on this case. Dabholkar and Pansare's legacy will prevail only when the culprits and the organisation responsible for it are given the harshest possible sentence and are banned for good.