The revelation of the connection between the Sanstha and the murders might have shocked the world but the organization is flagrantly unapologetic. ‘Our opposition to Dabholkar and Pansare is at the intellectual level,’ Abhay Vartak, the spokesman of the Sanstha, said in an interview in October 2015. ‘There is absolutely no violence and extremism in our ideology. We believe in elimination of the root cause rather than treating the symptoms.’
Equally striking is the Sanstha’s manic persistence in suing its critics for libel. A strong band of lawyers, organized under the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad (HVP), appear to constitute a vital aspect of Athavale’s ‘spiritual’ mission. ‘These lawyers work very hard to protect sadhaks who are caught in various blast or murder cases and try to intimidate journalists and critics through a large number of defamation suits they have filed against them,’ says Vijay Namdeo Rokade, whose Public Interest Litigation from 2011 seeking a ban on the Sanstha is still pending in the Bombay High Court.
Before they were murdered, Dabholkar and Pansare had to attend to a whole lot of defamation cases filed against them by the Sanstha. Eighteen defamation cases – both criminal and civil – had been registered against Dabholkar. ‘Though none of the criminal cases against him led to a conviction, six civil suits were still pending in August 2013 when Dabholkar was killed,’ says Rahul Thorat, who is also fighting a number of such cases. According to him, the Sanstha does not appear to be interested in pursuing these cases, it simply means to intimidate those who dare to write or speak against them.
‘They have filed eleven cases against me for my writings. A few cases I have won, while others are pending. Sometimes they file a criminal case as well as a civil suit on the same issue.’
Though Athavale had earlier been surrounded by a band of lawyer disciples, the decision to organize them under the HVP was taken in 2012, when the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti – a Sanatan Sanstha outfit intended to eventually grow into an umbrella organization of all Hindu groups – held its first annual convention on the premises of the Ramnath Temple at Ramnathi. ‘Providing legal service to the Guru is part of their sadhana,’ says a lawyer who was once attached to the HVP. ‘Every effort made in the courtroom by a Sanstha lawyer gets counted when his sadhana is measured by the Guru. There are plenty of them and so there is no need to outsource the Sanstha’s legal requirements,’ says the Mumbai-based lawyer while requesting anonymity for fear of reprisal.
An article published in the Hindu on 27 September 2015 examines how the Sanstha lawyers use defamation as a tool to harass critics and opponents. The bulk of the litigation, according to the article, is in the courts of Mumbai and Panjim, though a good number have been filed in several other places in Maharashtra and Goa. Much of these are defamation cases against publications, journalists, editors and activists. The Sanstha’s common tactic is to register a case outside the base of a publication or a reporter on the grounds that a particular article was read elsewhere. Asim Sarode, a Pune advocate who briefly represented journalists in a defamation case involving the Marathi magazine Chitralekha, describes the Sanstha members as employing intimidation tactics against defendants and their lawyers. ‘The sadhaks gather outside court premises, they laugh at you, taunt you and even threaten you…I experienced this when I was appearing in the Goa court. I used to change my route while travelling to Goa, avoiding the Ponda mountain pass.’ Sarode eventually had to write to the Maharashtra Home Department seeking protection.
‘[These are] the same tactics the Sanstha used in Ramnathi to silence villagers who were demanding, after the Madgaon blast in 2009, that its ashram be shifted from the village,’ says Basant Bhatt, the priest who led the agitation. ‘They filed three cases against me. All of them were meaningless. One of them is still pending in the court.’
The cases against Bhatt seem to have scared the villagers and dampened the agitation against the Sanstha. Sheker Naik, the former sarpanch of the Bandora Panchayat and another leader of the agitation, has also been bogged down with lawsuits. ‘There was resentment against the ashram, but the fear of legal harassment made the villagers inactive for a while,’ he says.
The murder of rationalists like Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi once again brought the Sanstha into focus and revived the villagers’ efforts to get rid of the ashram. The lead this time was taken by the Ramnath Yuvak Sangh, a local social outfit of village youth. In a press conference on 30 September 2015, a few days after the arrest of Samir Gaikwad in the Pansare murder case, the outfit’s president, Saurabh Lotlikar, demanded that the Sanstha’s ashram be removed from the village. ‘People here do not want them in the locality because no one knows what they do,’ he told mediapersons. Alleging that the Sanstha trained people to target others, he said: ‘With all the news appearing, people are suspicious and do not want them to be here.’
Excerpted with permission from Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva, Dhirendra K. Jha, Juggernaut.
Follow @htlifeandstyle for more.