Rationalist Murders: Slamming CBI’s shoddy probe & failure to nab masterminds, Pune court slams attempt to “finish off Dabholkar’s ideology”

Close to 11 years after anti-superstition activist and crusader Dabholkar was shot dead in cold blood during a morning walk, a Pune court has flagged serious lapses in the probe conducted by the Maharashtra police and the CBI. While 2 assailants were sentenced to life imprisonment, 3 others were acquitted due to lack of evidence

Narendra Dabholkar’s killing in cold blood on the morning of August 20, 2013, when he was out on a morning walk in Pune had shocked and shattered the country. The first of four rationalist murders planned and execusted by the ultra right wing, Sanatan Sanstha, Dabholkar, a keen crusader and leader of the anti-sperstition movement in Maharashtra fell victim to four rounds that were fired at him at close range. Two bullets hit his head while one hit his chest, killing him instantly. A probe by the CBI revealed that his murder was planned by a Hindu group called Sanatan Sanstha.

Over a decade after the tragic murder of rationalist Narendra Achyut Dabholkar, a special CBI Court in Pune on May 10 sentenced his assailants Sachin Prakashrao Andure and Sharad Bhausaheb Kalaskar to life imprisonment for murder. A fine of ₹5 lakh was also imposed.  The court however, acquitted three other accused — alleged mastermind Virendrasinh Sharadchandra Tawade, lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar and his assistant Vinay Bhave due to the failure of both the Maharashtra police and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to procure sufficient evidence.

Harsh words and comments on the conduct of the probe by India’s prime investigative agency, the CBI can be found in the 171 page judgement. While castigating the approach of the defence that has brazenly attempted to justify the killing labelling him “anti-Hindu”, the Court recognised the “pre-planning” behind the daylight assassination by “masterminds.” “Unfotunately,” however, states the court, “the prosecution has failed to unmask those master minds. “An overall shoddy and lackadaisical approach on the evidence gathering by the CBI, including the failure to establish the veracity of the confessional statement of Sharad Kalaskar recorded under the KCOC Act, ensured that such evidence could not be considered.”

“In the present case, the CBI ought to have carried out detailed investigation in that angle… The main master mind behind the crime is someone else. Pune police as well as CBI has failed to unearth those master minds. They have to introspect whether it is their failure or deliberate inaction on their part due to influence by any person in powers.” [Para 108, Page 160]

Sessions Judge Prabhakar P. Jadhav therefore concluded that that while the two convicts executed the murder, “the main mastermind behind the crime is someone else”. The two convicts hail from Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar (then called Aurangabad district) in Maharashtra. Andure worked as an accountant in a private shop and Kalaskar was a farmer.

The 69-year-old Dabholkar was shot dead on August 20, 2013, by two motorcycle-borne assailants on the Omkareshwar bridge near Pune’s Shanivar Peth area when he was out on a morning walk. Dabholkar’s murder along with three other similar murder cases — that of veteran communist leader and trade unionist, Govind Pansare (February 2015), cholar of Kannada, MM Kalburgi (August 2015) and Bengauluru based journalist, Gauri Lankesh(September 2017) had sparked prrotest and national outrage against the targeting of critics of Hindutva and campaigners against superstition and orthodoxy. Activists and stakeholders over the years have demanded a probe into the possibility of a common conspiracy on the ground that the pattern of execution of the killings were similar.

The judgement is a slight setback to the conclusion of investigators in Maharashtra and Karnataka that a right-wing organisation called Sanatan Sanstha was commonly behind the heinous murder of ideological adversaries between 2013 and 2017, although the question is still alive in three other ongoing murder trials.

Virendrasinh Tawde, an otolaryngologist associated with the Sanstha’s activities, is the one acquitted of the conspiracy charge. He was an aggressive opponent of Dabholkar and his Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti Maharashtra, an organisation campaigning against superstitions. Despite the court finding that Sachin Andure and Sharad Kalaskar, young men associated with the Sanstha, were the ones who shot dead the 69-year-old Dabholkar in Pune, it criticised the failure to “unmask the masterminds”. This meant that the role of the Sanatan Sanstha is yet to be legally established in this case, although the court has noted the manner in which the defence lawyers sought to tarnish the image of Dabholkar and his activities.

Additional Sessions Judge P.P. Yadav’s 171-page judgment points out that the existence of a motive will be insufficient to prove a conspiracy, and that reliable and direct evidence is required to show that the accused had acted on the motive. However, the judge does find it strange that the defence was seeking to establish during cross-examination of witnesses that the victim was “anti-Hindu”.

The Sanatan Sanstha’s role, according to investigators in Maharashtra and Karnataka, was seen in the murders of Govind Pansare, a leftist leader at Kolhapur in Maharashtra (2015), academician M.M. Kalburgi (Dharwad, 2015) and journalist Gauri Lankesh (Bengaluru, 2017).

In fact, it was a ballistics analysis of the gun used to kill Lankesh – by the SIT appointed by the Karnataka government – that disclosed that it was the same weapon used in the murder of Kalburgi. Several common features in the four murders have so far been unearthed, leading the police to conclude that a single syndicate has been active in seeking to eliminate adversaries. The governments in Maharashtra and Karnataka must show greater political will in combating such threats to independent thinkers and activists.

Narendra Dabholkar a crusader leader and activist

Dabholkar was a physician, activist, rationalist and author based in Maharashtra. He founded the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith (Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, or MANS) after leaving his decade-long medical practice. He was also the editor of the weekly Marathi magazine Sadhana which championed liberal thought and scientific temperament. As a prominent crusader against religious superstitions, he was highly critical of godmen who promised “miracle cures” to ailments.

Dabholkar also spent decades advocating for a law to ban fraudulent and exploitative superstitious practices and played a crucial role in drafting the Andhashraddha Nirmulan Bill, 2005 (Anti-Superstition Bill) which was pending before the Maharashtra legislature at the time of his death. This law was opposed by various organisations and political parties for being “anti-Hindu”. In a twist of welcome irony, it was finally passed as an ordinance on August 24, 2013 — days after Dabholkar’s death. In December of that year, the State legislature passed the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifive and Other Inhuman, evil and Abhorrent Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013.

The investigation and case

Over the past decade, various investigating agencies have handled the case starting from the Pune police to the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS). In 2014, the CBI took over the case following a Bombay High Court direction. The next year, the High Court began monitoring the probe after  members of Dabholkar’s family complained that there that there had been no progress in the investigation. It was only last year that the Court  decided to discontinue monitoring after expressing some satisfaction with the way the trial was progressing. of the trial.

On Friday, May 10, Sachin Prakashrao Andure and Sharad Bhausaheb Kalaskar were convicted under Sections 302 (murder) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC), along with charges under the Indian Arms Act, 1959. However, the rest of the three accused were acquitted of charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) and Section 120B of the IPC (criminal conspiracy).

During the proceedings, the prosecution examined 20 witnesses which included various close associates of the Sanatan Sanstha, an extreme right-wing Hindu organisation which had expressed strong opposition to the 2005 Anti-Superstition Bill spearheaded by Dabholkar. The Court identified this enmity as the primary motive for the murder. Other witnesses included Dabholkar’s son Hamid and activists from the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti.

The first accused in the case, ENT surgeon Virendrasinh Tawde, was arrested in June 2016 with the CBI claiming that he was a coordinator for Sanatan Sanstha in Kolhapur and had personal differences with Dabholkar. Before his arrest in this case, Tawade had also been arrested by the Maharashtra police for the murder of CPI leader, Govind Pansare. The CBI charge sheet stated that he was the “mastermind” of the conspiracy to commit the murder.

The two convicted assailants — Andure and Kalaskar were arrested only in 2018 when their role in the murder of Gauri Lankesh came up. The ATS apprehended the duo with the help of Karnataka Police’s Special Investigation Team (SIT). They were subsequently named in a supplementary charge sheet filed in February 2019. Eventually, in May 2019, Mumbai-based lawyer Sanjeev Punalekar was arrested along with his close aide Vikram Bhave who was earlier convicted for his role in the 2008 Gadkari Rangayatan Theatre bomb blast in Thane. All the accused were allegedly linked to the Sanatan Sanstha.

According to the CBI, Bhave reportedly participated in a recce along with Andure and Kalaskar about 15 days before the murder. In its charge sheet, the agency claimed that Punalekar had advised Kalaskar to destroy the firearms used in multiple murders – including that of Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh. On Punalekar’s instructions, Kalaskar had allegedly thrown four country-made pistols into a creek near Thane on July 7, 2018. However, the agency later told the trial Court that efforts to recover the murder weapon had been unsuccessful!

It was on September 15, 2021 that charges were framed against the five accused by the special CBI Court marking the beginning of the trial.

The verdict

In its detailed 171 page judgement the Court has called out the CBI for a failure to investigate thoroughly, a lackadaisical approach to the gathered evidence, ensuring that the “masterminds” are not nabbed and that conspiracy is not proven. “The murder is committed with very well-prepared plan, which is executed by accused Nos. 2 (Andure) and 3 (Kalaskar). Considering the economic and social status of the accused Nos. 2 and 3, they are not the masterminds of the crime. The main mastermind behind the crime is someone else. Pune police as well as CBI has failed to unearth those master minds. They have to introspect whether it is their failure or deliberate inaction on their part due to influence by any person in powers”, it underscored.

Emphasising further that Tawade, Punalekar and Bhave were being acquitted only due to the shoddy investigation conducted by the CBI, the Court observed — “There is evidence of motive for murder of Dr Narendra Dabholkar against accused No.1 Dr Virndrasinh Tawde. There is reasonable suspicion against accused No. 4. Sanjiv Punalekar and accused No.5. Vikram Bhave, showing their involvement in the present crime. However, the prosecution has failed to establish the involvement of accused Nos. 1, 4 and 5 by leading reliable evidence to convert motive and suspicion into the form of evidence showing their involvement in the crime.” Accordingly, terror charges under Section 16 of the UAPA and charges of criminal conspiracy were dropped against the three accused.

The Court also criticised the Maharashtra state authorities for procedural lapses in obtaining appropriate sanction orders for the prosecution of the acquitted accused under the UAPA. The Rules prescribed for the law mandate that the competent authority must submit its recommendation for sanction to the Central or State Government within seven working days of receiving evidence gathered by the investigating officer. However, during the proceedings, it was revealed that Shirish Nagorao Mohod, then Deputy Secretary and Sanjay Kumar Shyamkishor Prasad, then Additional Chief Secretary of the Mumbai Home Department had failed to process the sanction orders on time. [Paras 65-66, Pages 115-116]

“Considering the status of deceased this case is of national importance. Despite the said fact, casual and negligent approach of PW15 (Shirish Nagorao Mohod) and PW19 (Sanjay Kumar Shyamkishor Prasad), is not only shocking but requires condemnation. It shows that even through this case is of national importance, officers on high posts PW15 and PW19 have not shown utmost care and caution expected from them.”State of Maharashtra v. Virendrasinh Tawde and Ors (2024)Sessions Case No.706/2016

“Present case is very serious and is of national importance. Not only, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar is assassinated but an attempt is made to finish his ideology”, judge Jadhav critically noted. He also implicated Sanatan Sanstha and its affiliates—Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, Warkari Sampraday, and others for “nurturing bitter enmity against” the rationalist. [Para 72, Page 125]

The Court also expressed serious reservations over the conduct of defence counsels during the proceedings. It pointed out how attempts were made to imply that Dabholkar was “hated” because he had “insulted Hindu gods”. Calling this approach “very strange and is condemnable”, the Court further highlighted, “The charge sheeted accused and defence counsels have not merely attempted to raise the defence. From unnecessary and irrelevant lengthy cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses and even in final argument, an attempt is made to tarnish image of the deceased. At the same time, the approach of the defence was to justify the killing of the deceased Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, by labelling him as anti-Hindu.”

After perusing the testimonies of eyewitnesses, the Court concluded that Andure and Kalaskar had indeed shot Dabholkar dead.

The battle for justice continues

Speaking to the media the day of the judgement, son and daughter of Dabholkar, Hamid and Mukta, stated that the conviction of Andure and Kalaskar had reaffirmed their faith in the judiciary but they intended to appeal against the acquittals of the other five accused.

“We are satisfied that the two accused have been convicted and sentenced to life, but the masterminds also need to be punished. We are determined to pursue justice and take the case to the Supreme Court. The charge sheets, including those related to murders of Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh reveal alarming connections, indicating a broader conspiracy spanning multiple cases. All the cases have a common thread, which is what investigation agencies have been saying. Until the conspirator in all these cases is apprehended, the safety of all rationalists remains in jeopardy.”

The judgement may be read here:


10 years since Narendra Dabholkar’s murder, protest in Mumbai, SC asks CBI to look into ‘larger conspiracy’

Dabholkar murder case trial to begin soon; Pune court frames charges against accused

Bombay HC disturbed at delay in Dabholkar-Pansare murder investigation



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