Karnataka: Sri Ram Sene’s chequered past back under lens after hate crime
Bengaluru: Over nine months have passed since the Special Investigation Team (SIT) are on the trail of the assassins who were involved in the murder of journalist turned activist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru.
Until the first of June, police had arrested several accused in the murder conspiracy, including the mastermind – Amol Kale. But the man who pulled the trigger on Lankesh was still at large.
The suspects in the custody remained silent on the identity of the shooter even after weeks of interrogation. Finally, a breakthrough came in the form of a codeword in Kale’s diary – builder. One of the suspects finally told police that it was the builder (bodybuilder) who pulled the trigger, but he didn’t know his name.
Armed with a forensic report that showed that the shooter was around 5.1 feet tall, an SIT team reached Sindagi town in North Karnataka’s Bijapur, based on a mobile number found next to the code name ‘builder’. They conducted an identity parade of people with a criminal past. Among them was a muscular man who was 5.2 feet tall. His photo was sent back to SIT and a suspect in custody confirmed that it was the shooter.
On June 11 morning, the team arrested Parashuram Waghmore, the man who shot Lankesh dead.
The SIT investigation on the conspiracy found that the syndicate that murdered Lankesh was recruiting young men from various right-wing organizations, who had a tussle with the law in the past. Waghmore was recruited from Sri Rama Sene.
During this time in the organization, in 2012, Waghmore along with his associates hoisted a Pakistan flag in front of tahsildar’s office in Sindagi on January 1. They alleged it was done by the Muslim community and communal tension prevailed in the city. He was later acquitted by a lower court citing mistakes and technical errors in the charge sheet.
Sri Ram Sene was founded in the late 1960s by Kalki Maharaj, the right-hand man of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, and a former member of the Bajrang Dal and the Vishva Hindu Parishad. In Karnataka, controversial right-wing activist Pramod Muthalik held the top post in the organization, and over the years, it became infamous.
The incident in Singadi was not the first time Sri Rama Sene was entered in the record books of the Karnataka Police. On January 24, 2009, a group of 40 activists of the Sene barged into a pub called “Amnesia — The Lounge” and allegedly trashed a group of young women and men, claiming the women were violating traditional Indian values. Two of the women were hospitalized.
In the latest incident, on Thursday, police arrested members of a group ‘Sri Ram Sene Hindustan’ for murdering and decapitating a 24-year-old Muslim man who was in a relationship with a Hindu girl. According to police, Sri Ram Sene Hindustan’ is an offshoot of Sri Ram Sene headed by Muthalik.
A senior officer who was part of the Gauri Lankesh investigation pointed out the rise of right-wing Hindu organisations like Sri Rama Sene is a matter of concern. “During the Gauri Lankesh investigation, we learnt that around 22 Karnataka youths went through firearms training so they could carry out assassinations of intellectuals. All of them were recruited from organisations like Sri Rama Sena. It is a dangerous trend. These right-wing organisations often act with impunity across the state, which attracts a lot of youth,” said a senior police officer who didn’t want to be named.
“Even though members organisations like Sri Rama Sene is involved in crimes, like the Gauri Lankesh murder (Bengaluru, 2017), intentionally creating communal tensions (Bijpiur, 2012), Pub attack (Mangaluru 2012) and now the murder of this young man (Belagavi 2021). There is no proposal to ban the organisation. In fact, in the Gauri Lankesh case, the government didn’t even appeal when the petition was filed to drop charges of organised crimes against the some accused,” the officer added.
According to another officer, a criminal past of the organisation, from moral policing to organised murder, is a cause for concern. “Moral policing is a big problem in coastal regions and to some extent in north Karnataka as well. They are often dismissed as vigilantes but these incidents show why the trend is alarming,” said an ADGP rank officer who was posted in the coastal Karnataka region.
As per Karnataka Communal Harmony’s records, there have been 1,288 instances of communal violence including moral policing, cattle vigilantism, and hate speech since 2010 in coastal Karnataka alone. Out of this, 322 instances were of moral policing by vigilantes.
According to Vidya Dinker, a Mangaluru based activist who has been fighting moral policing known as “love jihad”, a term used by some Hindu groups to describe relationships between Muslim men and Hindu women, came to Karnataka way before it became familiar across the country. “The Hindu-Muslim divide was often used (by political/religious outfits) to convince people that there was an attempt to steal girls to convert them. This thought has been institutionalised over a period of time and this is now resulting in such brutal murders,” she said.
Sri Ram Sene Hindustan chief Ramakant Konduskar earlier distanced his organisation from the alleged murder, saying the members had been targeted for “being Hindutva workers”. “Our members don’t indulge in murders. We do charity work. The men who have been arrested acted on their own,” he said on Friday.