How special investigation team unearthed a ‘larger conspiracy’ while probing Gauri Lankesh case
A year ago to the day, journalist Gauri Lankesh was entering her house in Bengaluru’s Rajarajeshwari Nagar after returning from work when she was shot and killed by three unidentified men.
A special investigating team (SIT) formed to inquire into the killing has since claimed to have completed its probe, arrested 12 suspects and unearthed a shadowy nameless organisation it has linked to the crime and the murder of three other individuals, all of who whom campaigned against superstition and espoused rationalism.
Lankesh, who was 55 and ran the eponymous Gauri Lankesh Patrike, was an outspoken critic of Hindu fundamentalism and known for upholding women’s rights. Interviews with SIT officers and documents submitted in court by the police reveal that the plot to kill her had been afoot for a year; the reason why she was targeted were the public comments she made that were perceived to be disrespectful of the Hindu religion, the officials say. It isn’t clear what evidence the investigators have and whether their claims will stand up in court. The lawyer of one of those arrested says there is no evidence.
Progress in the investigation was, at least initially, slow. To be sure, within the first month, detectives claimed that the bullets recovered from the scene matched those recovered from the murder scene of scholar MM Kalburgi, who was shot dead at his house in Karnataka’s Dharwad district on August 30, 2015.
Yet, initial attempts to piece together evidence from the scene of the crime, apart from the bullets, did not yield major breakthroughs. The crime was caught on a closed circuit television (CCTV) camera placed near the door to Lankesh’s house, but few clues surfaced from the footage. The man who shot Lankesh was wearing a helmet and couldn’t be identified.
Attempts to trace phone records in the area in the hope that they would provide clues to the murder led to a dead-end. The police had a call log of around a million phone calls that nearby cell phone towers had recorded.
SIT then decided to concentrate on more traditional methods of surveillance and chasing all possible angles into the murder, many of which led nowhere.
As pressure mounted from the public, the media and from within the police force, SIT got hold of the first vital intelligence input on the murder.
A senior officer, requesting anonymity, said SIT received information in November that a man identified as KT Naveen Kumar had been missing since Lankesh’s murder. Kumar, a native of Maddur in Mandya district, was traced to a village in Chikkamagaluru district, and was put under surveillance.
“We noticed that he was frequenting many coin phone booths. He used as many as 128 coin booths since we began surveillance. We narrowed it down to six booths that he frequented,” the officer said.
Intercepting these calls led SIT to confirm that Naveen Kumar had information on the Gauri Lankesh murder plot. “We also intercepted a call between Naveen and another person that gave us a clue that another murder was being planned,” the officer cited above said.
This was the alleged plot to kill rationalist writer KS Bhagwan, known for his strong views on Hinduism. “We soon realized that this plot was already underway and reconnaissance had been conducted. For this reason we decided to pick him (Naveen Kumar) up,” the officer said.
Naveen Kumar was arrested on February 18 in Bengaluru, allegedly in possession of ammunition that he was about to sell. With this arrest, SIT was able to gather more details of the others suspected of involvement in the plot.
On May 20, the police arrested Sujith Kumar alias Praveen, who they claim was the person liaising with Naveen Kumar from Kolar. “Sujith then led us to the other accused,” the officer said.
According to the officer, the clues Sujith Kumar provided investigators helped SIT arrest Amol Kale, a resident of Pune and believed to be the mastermind of the killings, and Amit Degwekar, also a resident of Maharasthra and the second suspected mastermind, from Davanagere in Karnataka. Additionally, the police also arrested Manohar Edave, a resident of Vijayapura, who it says played a key role in recruiting the killers.
Through interrogations of these persons and using digital analysis of the footage gathered from Lankesh’s house, the police say were able to identify Parashuram Waghmare as the person who shot Lankesh.
Subsequently, Amit Baddi and Ganesh Miskin, who is suspected to have ferried Waghmare to the murder scene in a two-wheeler, Rakesh Bangera, who allegedly trained the shooter, Mohan Naik, Suresh and Bharat Kurane, were also picked up by the police.
The first link in the chain of evidence was the confirmation of the ballistics report that the same weapon had been used to kill Lankesh and Kalburgi. “However, we did not want to follow only that one lead because we did not want to stop our investigation there. We wanted to catch the actual killers, which was our task,” the SIT officer cited above said.
During Kale’s arrest, SIT secured a diary that allegedly belonged to him that proved to be vital in cracking the case. “It wasn’t easy because entries in the diary were made using codes,” the officer said. “Additionally, apart from Kale and Degwekar, none of the other accused knew each other by name,” he said.
As the investigation progressed, the SIT says it became aware of a shadowy organisation, with Kale at its helm, behind Lankesh’s murder.
“We realised that we were dealing here with a well-oiled organisation because the planning was meticulous and everybody knew their roles,” the SIT officer said. According to him, Kale took over as the head of the organisation after the arrest of Virendra Tawde in connection with the murder of rationalist Narenedra Dabholkar on 20 August 2013, when he was out on a morning walk in Pune.
SIT believes the organisation was formed in 2011 by Tawde. Kale and a man identified as Murali were in charge of recruitment in Maharashtra and Edave and Sujith Kumar were in charge of Karnataka. It was around this time that the group came in contact with Bangera, who gave weapons training to the recruits.
“The group targeted extremist members of some right-wing groups, especially those who had cases against them, because this, they felt, proved their daring,” the SIT officer said.
SIT has not yet filed a charge sheet in the case. On August 14, it received six months of custody of the accused under the Karnataka Control of Organised Crime Act.
Lawyers representing the accused say that there is not a shred of evidence that the police have produced so far. A Vedamurthy, counsel for Naveen Kumar, said it had been almost five months since his client was arrested. “Initially it was claimed that Naveen had provided the ammunition for the murder. This was dropped subsequently. Then it was claimed that he had conducted a recce in the area, which was also dropped eventually. So, the SIT is only playing for time here,” he said.
“The only reason the police invoked the KCOCA was to extend the custody of the accused because it is still fishing for evidence,” Vedamurthy said.
Advocates for the other accused condemned the invoking of the Karnataka Control of Organised Crime Act (KCOCA) in the case, comparing the SIT’s claims with television serials. Advocate Amrutesh said no other angle was probed by the SIT other than right wing involvement. “In an attempt to please the left wingers the police has invoked KCOCA, he said.
Senior criminal lawyer CV Nagesh said the duration of this case would depend on when the charge sheet is filed. “If the KCOCA has been invoked, then the police does not have any time limit within which to submit a charge sheet, unlike under sections of the Indian Penal Code, where a charge sheet has to be filed within 90 days if the punishment exceeds seven years,” he said.
Nagesh said while it was difficult to say how long the trial might last, he there were instances when judgment had been passed within two years of a trial beginning. “The high court might also decide to constitute a special court to hear the case,” he said.