Why the Sanatan Sanstha came into the limelight following the murder of Narendra Dabholkar

The rationalist Narendra Dabholkar lived from 1945 to 2013. courtesy maharashtra andhshraddha nirmulan samiti
08 September, 2016

Three years after the murder of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar in Pune on 20 August 2013, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed the first charge sheet accusing Virendra Tawade of murder and hatching a conspiracy. Tawade, a Panvel-based doctor and member of the Sanatan Sanstha offshoot Hindu Janajagruti Samiti was named a key conspirator and was arrested on 10 June 2016 after investigators discovered coded emails exchanges between him and another senior Sanstha member where they discussed killing Dabholkar.

In our last month’s issue, Anosh Malekar reported on the murders of Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi.

On the day [Narendra]  Dabholkar was murdered, after the news had broken, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, or HJS, a group affiliated to the Sanatan Sanstha, uploaded onto its website a photograph of the activist with a red “X” over his face. The move drew sharp criticism, and the cybercrime cell of the Pune police directed the HJS to take the image down. The matter ended there.

The Sanstha had long kept up an attack against Dabholkar, disrupting his public meetings, criticising him in its publications and on its websites, and terming him a “Hindudrohi,” or traitor to Hindus. But this image echoed the many anonymous threats that Dabholkar received while he was alive. Perhaps the last of these read, “Remember Gandhi. Remember what we did to him”—a threat that his family told me he received often, sometimes even at public functions. Dabholkar chose to ignore these warnings, and declined police protection.

A day after Dabholkar’s death, the Sanstha published a statement by its founder, Jayant Athavale, on the front page of its website. It read, “Births and deaths are pre-destined and everybody gets the fruit of their karma. Instead of dying bedridden through illness, or after some surgery, such a death for Dabholkar is a blessing of the Almighty.” Athavale added that though “Dabholkar was an atheist and did not believe in god, the same god would give solace to the departed soul.”

These sinister remarks were widely reported, and left many speculating about possible links between the organisation and the murder. The Sanstha was already suspected to have had a hand in several acts of violence. In 2008, several of its “seekers” were arrested in connection with explosions of crude bombs that had taken place that year. Two blasts occurred at auditoriums—in Navi Mumbai and Thane—that were staging the play Amhi Pachpute, which the HJS claimed hurt Hindu sentiments; and one blast took place at a movie theatre in Panvel that was screening the Bollywood film Jodhaa Akbar, which the organisation claimed showed a Hindu woman in a poor light. Two Sanstha members—Vikram Bhave and Ramesh Gadkari—were convicted for the first two blasts, and sentenced to ten years in prison. But the Bombay High Court later granted them bail and suspended their punishment—their appeals are pending before the court. The Sanstha denied having any role in the incidents, and claimed that the arrested men had been acting independently.

But the Sanstha’s discourse suggested that it had a tendency towards violence. In a July 2008 article titled ‘Spiritual as Criminal?’ for the website Countercurrents, the journalist Subhash Gatade wrote that while most of the organisation’s texts deal with purportedly spiritual subjects, “a very important text in the training of the seekers is ‘Texts on Defence.’” Through it, Gatade pointed out, Sanstha seekers were “imparted training with air rifles.” He also cited several instances in which Sanstha texts appeared to condone violence. Athavale, for instance, wrote in his book Science and Spirituality, “Destroy evildoers if you have been advised by saints or Gurus to do so. Then these acts are not registered in your name.”

A website that promotes Athavale’s work describes him as a “psychiatrist and clinical hypnotherapist” from Mumbai, who discovered the limits of modern medicine when he saw that some of his own patients were cured only after they sought help from “a holy person or place.” He founded the Sanstha in the neighbouring state of Goa in 1999, to, according to the group’s website, “impart spiritual knowledge to the curious in the society.” The organisation also sought to cultivate religious tendencies in people, and provide “personal guidance to seekers for their spiritual uplift.” From 1985 onwards, Athavale, a slight, bespectacled man, dedicated himself to the spiritual realm, and, the site says, soon started showing signs of divinity—his hair reportedly began to turn golden in colour, and the Devanagari symbol for “Om” appeared on his fingernails, his tongue and parts of his skin.

Sanstha officials maintain that Athavale is no longer involved in the activities of the organisation. “Since year 2006, because of various ailments and old age, he has remained confined to His room,” Abhay Vartak, a spokesperson, told me over email. “Therefore, all the activities of the Sanstha and management of various Ashrams are looked after by the seekers and trustees of Sanatan Sanstha.”

The organisation had drawn the suspicion of the state government several years ago. I obtained a copy of an April 2011 letter from the home ministry of the Maharashtra state government—then headed by a Congress and Nationalist Congress Party coalition—to the central home ministry—then headed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. The letter said, “You are informed that three cases are registered against activists of Sanatan Sanstha regarding Bomb Blasts. The arrested accused have taken encouragement, incitement, motivation, from the writings in Sanatan Prabhat”—the Sanstha’s official publication. Enclosing “a detailed report” on the blasts, the letter said, “this government has reached the conclusion that the aforesaid organisation is liable to be banned with its affiliated sister concerns/trusts.” But the request was never implemented, and the Sanstha remained active.

Also ineffective in curbing the Sanstha’s activities was a petition to the Bombay High Court by a group of families from Nashik, Pune, Osmanabad and Ahmednagar districts. The petitioners complained that young female members of their families had abandoned them and joined Sanstha ashrams. One submission said that the Sanstha, “for achieving their goal of Ishwari Rajya,” or a divine kingdom, published material that “directs, canvasses its members to overthrow the system established as per Constitution of India, 1950.” The petitioners contended that this amounted to “waging a war against the Indian state,” and asked the court to declare the Sanatan Sanstha a terrorist organisation, and ban it.

At the end of November 2013, a few months after Dabholkar’s murder, his family met the Maharashtra politician Sushil Kumar Shinde, then the UPA government’s home minister, to also seek a ban on the organisation. When I met Shinde at his home in Mumbai on 30 September last year, he refused to accept responsibility in the matter, saying, “Yes, I met them. But we were voted out.”

As investigations into the murders of Dabholkar and Pansare have progressed, disturbing links appear to have emerged between the organisation and the killings. On 16 September 2015, a special investigation team of the Maharashtra police arrested a seeker named Sameer Gaikwad in Sangli on suspicion of his involvement in Pansare’s death. And on 10 June this year, the CBI arrested another seeker, a Panvel-based doctor named Virendra Tawade, on suspicion of his role in Dabholkar’s killing.

Rather than retreat in the face of such scrutiny, the Sanstha has gone on the offensive. On 23 September 2015, a battery of 31 lawyers, led by Sanjiv Punalekar, who is associated with a group known as the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad, appeared to defend Gaikwad when the SIT presented him before a Kolhapur magistrate to seek his custody. In his email, Abhay Vartak, too, supported Gaikwad, claiming that the police was “struggling to find evidence” against him. He insisted that “Sameer is innocent and the so called investigation is a conspiracy.” He described Tawade’s arrest, too, as a conspiracy, and said that it had “only delayed Sameer’s release on bail; else he would have been out of jail by now.”

In a brief report on 7 October 2015, accompanied by a photograph, Sanatan Prabhat announced that 30 people, including Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal activists, had met at Omkareshwar temple three days earlier to pledge their support for the Sanstha. The groups pledged to “co-operate” and “communicate Sanatan’s true position to the people, through social media,” it said. Dabholkar’s son Hamid, who was alerted to the report by an email, was astonished that the group—organised under the banner of the HJS—could meet so brazenly, just metres from the spot where Dabholkar was murdered.

Meanwhile, the Sanstha continues to spew violent rhetoric. The September edition of Sanatan Prabhat carried a press release from the HJS on the hanging of Yakub Memon, convicted in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. The release called for stricter action against “anti-national” elements. Citing a seventeenth-century saint and spiritual poet especially revered in his home district of Satara, the release said that, according to “Samartha Ramdas Swami’s teaching, anti-nationals are like dogs, they must be killed.”

I asked Vartak about the Sanstha’s relationship to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, which has been the subject of some speculation. In his email, he said, “The spread of activities of the RSS has been phenomenal; however, they lack spiritual base. Sanatan Sanstha is trying to provide the missing link. End of the day, RSS and Sanatan Sanstha are organisations that are closely associated with Hindutva; needless to say that there could be some common threads.”

Anosh Malekar is an award-winning journalist based in Pune, who prefers traveling in rural India and writing about people living on the margins of society. He has worked with publications such as The Week and the Indian Express.