Gauri Lankesh, the journalist and spitfire whose every word, every sentence was a barrage against injustice and inequality, was felled one year ago this week, at her home in Bengaluru, by a lone gunman.
The fact that she didn’t end up as just another crime statistic, a forgotten footnote was not just down to her status as one of a handful of women journalists who railed against the right-wing, her biting prose fashioned to wound, draw blood, as much as the manner in which the Special Investigation Team went from zero leads to a series of clues, that blew the case wide open.
As the Gauri Lankesh murder investigation comes to a close, with 12 men including the man who actually pulled the trigger, all linked to right-wing fringe groups, in custody, we pause to salute a remarkably brave voice amid a growing nationwide clamour over how other intellectuals are being intimidated into silence.
The SIT is yet to find the kingpin Nihal, the 7.65mm contraband pistol which claimed her life and the black motorcycle used by the alleged shooter Parshuram Waghmore that fateful night.
Either way, Gauri's first death anniversary, could well blow the lid off the link to a much larger right-wing conspiracy to silence all those who dare to voice dissent. Bala Chauhan and Mujahid Deputy report.
In December 2003, a young journalist with fire in her belly and a tongue of steel, arrived with a memorandum for then Chief Minister S.M. Krishna. Flanked by writers Girish Karnad and K. Marulasiddappa was Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who left behind a promising career in Delhi to take over her father’s legacy, Lankesh Patrike. After a rift with her brother, she started Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a platform as bold and fiery as its founder. Here, right-wing extremists and Hindutva-forces were in for daily lashings from an acerbic Gauri Lankesh.
At the heart of this memorandum was the Baba Budangiri Dargah in Chikkamagalur, one of the oldest Sufi centres in the world and the focus of much communal tension. Although it was under the protection of the Muzrai, a vested ‘Hindutva conspiracy’ to turn the shrine into a Hindu temple and rid it of its Muslim priest were underway. Those who opposed it, Gauri included, were quickly branded Naxal-sympathisers. Her association with people like Naxal leader Srimane Nagaraj, didn’t appease her critics either, despite the fact that he surrendered to the state in 2015.
SEPTEMBER 5, 2017
The sound of gunfire tore through a quiet suburban evening in R.R. Nagar on September 5, 2017. The family who rushed out of their homes, terrified, found their evening had just begun. On the verandah opposite, lay the body of firebrand journalist Gauri Lankesh, riddled with bullet holes and now, in death, suddenly frail.
Is there such a thing as a perfect murder? To investigators on the case, the sensational murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh certainly came close enough. Grainy CCTV footage, weeks of chasing down suspects based on artist impressions and a country made pistol was all they had to go on. A vast network of suspects, from kin to critics of her politics to angry readers and co-workers: everybody was brought into the net of the Special Investigation Team. Rumours flew thick and fast across the country, for Gauri Lankesh’s leftist bent and her vocal criticism of the Hindutva and right-wing politics through Gauri Lankesh Patrike, had earned her plenty of enemies.
At 9.30 a.m. on September 6, a team of elite officers huddled together with the Chief Minister, who had convened an emergency meeting. Kempaiah, security adviser to then CM Siddaramaiah and a former IPS oficer, then Principal Secretary L. Atheeq, then DG-IGP R.K. Dutta, A.M. Prasad, former DGP, Intelligence, then DGP and ADGP of the CID - Kishore Chandra and Pratap Reddy were all present.
The CM already had an inkling of the public outcry that would follow, that the unsolved 2015 murder of rationalist M.M. Kalaburagi would cast long shadows. Three rationalist-thinkers had been killed in as many years, all the cases still unsolved.
So the SIT was brought into being. Two hours later, police chief Dutta summoned Bijay Kumar Singh, the Inspector General of Police, Intelligence, at the time and told him he would head the special force. “You can choose your team,” Dutta told him. “Start work now.”
On September 7, the autopsy report sent in by the post-mortem department provided the first real lead. Four bullets had been fired at Lankesh, three of which made their mark, piercing her lung, the left atrium of her heart and lacerated her liver. “This fatal bullet injury is not a trademark of a conventional or branded weapon,” the report declared. This was the SIT’s first inkling that something more sinister was at play: The ballistics report, sent from the Forensic Science Lab in Bengaluru, also proved that cartridges from the 7.65 mm pistol matched those found after the deaths of M.M. Kalaburgi, Narendra Dhabolkar and Comrade Govind Pansare.
The involvement of right-wing extremists was the focus of investigation and much speculation. There were eyewitnesses who had witnessed the bike-borne assailants fleeing the scene. None of them wanted to come forward, fearing for their own lives.
Over 15 days had passed since the murder, when a student living in a paying-guest accommodation just meters from Gauri’s house, finally mustered the courage to approach police. He told the police: “the two killers on a bike gave me an angry look as they passed by. They were stepping out of Gauri’s house after killing her.” The student was able to provide police with a description of the bike and a vague recollection of the suspects, both of whom were wearing helmets. On October 14, 2017, a month after the murder, the SIT released three sketches of two suspects.
MARCH 2, 2018:
THE FIRST BREAKTHROUGH
The SIT’s investigation deserves much praise but it must be said that Providence also played its part.
On February 18, 2018, Naveen Kumar, or Hotte Manja as he was known in his circles, was arrested from Kempegowda bus stand in Bengaluru. His crime? Selling bullets in the black market. Kumar, who happened to be the chief of the Hindu Yuva Sene, was picked up by Upparpet Police with a firearm and 15 rounds of .32 calibre bullets he had brought all ready for his client. Once detained, he quickly came under suspicion for involvement in Gauri Lankesh’s death.
The probe had inadvertently hit the jackpot. Six months after it was constituted, the SIT made its first breathrough with the arrest of Naveen Kumar. This time, Naveen was detained for alleged links with the Hindu Yuva Sena in Maddur, Karnataka. Naveen, the founder of Hindu Yuva Sene, the SIT found, tended to be rather boastful and had been talking about his connection with the killings of Gauri. Naveen’s arrest led to 12 more in rapid succession, including the two assailants who had arrived at her house, riding a black Pulsar. Further investigation led to the arrests of Sujith Kumar on May 20, 2018, Amol Kale, Amit Degwekar alias Pradeep Mahajan, both from Maharashtra and Manohar Dundappa Yavade from Vijayapura, on May 21, 2018.
Sujith Kumar, aliaas Praveen, spearheaded the execution plan. He recruited Parashuram Waghmore, a member of the Ram Sene and the man who allegedly pulled the trigger. In his confession, Waghmore said that he killed Gauri and named two associates: Ganesh Miskin and Amit Baddi. While Miskin rode the bike to Gauri’s house on the evening of the murder, Baddi joined them later that night, to help destroy evidence.
On July 18, the seventh accused in the case, Mohan Naik, was picked up based on Waghmore’s confession. Four days later, the SIT cracked down on Ganesh Miskin and Amit Baddi, arresting them in Hubbali on July 22. The next day, SIT brought in Rajesh D Bangera, who was the personal assistant to a Congress MLC in Madikere. Suresh L, who was arrested from Kunigal on July 26, reportedly played a major role in destroying the evidence and helping hide the accused by lending them his house. Bharat Kurne was the last to be brought into custody, for being a part of the conspiracy and providing land in Khanapur for weapon training to the other accused. He was arrested on August 9, 2018.
An extremist connection?
K.T. Naveen’s association with the Hindu Yuva Sena, the Sanatan Sanstha and Hindu Janagruti Samiti were revealed during the probe. His interrogation not only helped crack the Gauri murder but also helped prevent the murder of rationalist and writer, K.S. Bhagwan from Mysuru.
Shyam Manav, the anti-superstition activist and president of the Andhsraddha Nirmulan Samitha in Maharashtra had declared Sanatan was a terrorist organisation. A one-time friend of the well-known hypnotheraipst and founder of Sanstha, Jayant Balaji Athavale, Manav now accused him of using hypnosis to indoctrinate and brainwash people into targetting those who opposed their ideology. Their masterplan: to establish an Ishwariya Rajya by 2025.
Sanstha, however, strongly opposed Manav’s charges and denied all involvement in the four murder cases. The spokesperson, Chetan Rajhans, says the Sanstha is a spirtitual organisation and works towards the spiritual empowerment of Hindus. “None of the accused is associated with the Sanstha. the SIT has not named us anywhere. There is a poltiical conspiracy to target us,” he said.
The slew of arrests in May sparked off another round of searches across Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa. A number of vital discoveries were made, including 42 mobile phones belonging to Kale and Sujeet and a diary found in Kale’s possession. With this, the SIT had hit gold! The handwritten diary was a Pandora’s Box of information, written in code, on the covert network that had hired 60 people from across Karnataka to create communal violent.
Playwright and actor Girish Karnad, nicknamed Kaka, was found on the deadly list of rationalists. Scores of phone numbers were recovered, all belonging to members of the conspiracy, details on monies given for work on hand and other instructions. The diary had cleared up a lot of questions investigators had but the big on eremained: Where were the men who signed the black warrant?