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Gauri Lankesh case: How a tip-off helped SIT unravel a ‘murder mafia’ targeting rationalists

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The only piece of the puzzle that remains to be found is a man called Nihal, referred to as dada, who is believed to be the brain behind the assassination conspiracy.

Bengaluru: In cracking the case of journalist Gauri Lankesh’s cold-blooded killing, Karnataka police may have uncovered a murder mafia determined to kill rationalists who speak out against extremism and orthodoxy.

Interrogations of the accused, listed in the 650-page chargesheet filed by the special investigation team (SIT), lay bare a seemingly well-oiled system that peddles an imagined threat to Hinduism to make murderers out of its workers.

At the crux of this alleged network are the Sanatan Sanstha and its affiliate, the Hindu Janajgruthi Samiti (HJS), which reportedly hatch murder conspiracies during seminars in tourist paradise Goa.

In the years to come, the Gauri Lankesh murder will be treated as a game-changer for Karnataka police, with the investigation aided by heavy use of technology to collect evidence.

The only piece of the puzzle that remains to be found is a man called Nihal, referred to as dada, who is believed to be the brain behind the conspiracy to murder several rationalists in the country. His suspected fellow mastermind, Amol Kale, was arrested on 29 May along with three others for an alleged conspiracy to kill rationalist K.S. Bhagwan.

According to the chargesheet, police recovered a list of eight names from Kale — a purported hit-list in which Lankesh was ranked second.

A murder that shocked the nation

Gauri Lankesh, the owner of Kannada newspaper Gauri Lankesh Patrike and a vocal critic of majoritarian politics, was shot dead outside her Bengaluru house on the evening of 5 September 2017.

A bid on her life was also made the day before but was aborted after she returned home late.

The murder followed in the footsteps of attacks on rationalists M.M. Kalburgi in Karnataka, and Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare in Maharashtra — all of them shot dead by unidentified assailants.

The accused arrested for the murders of Dabholkar and Pansare have also been found to bear affiliation to the Sanatan Sanstha and the HJS.

As the union home ministry sought a report on the case in 48 hours, the Karnataka government handed over the probe to a special investigation team (SIT) under inspector general of police B.K. Singh.

Starting out

From the outset, the SIT approached the investigation with the hunch that there might be a link between the murders off Lankesh and Kalburgi.

Days later, a ballistics report suggested the first possible link – the country-made 7.65mm pistol used to murder Lankesh was reportedly the same one Kalburgi was shot with at his home on 30 August 2015, a Sunday.

The SIT then began distributing pamphlets and brochures to residents and house owners across Bengaluru, seeking information about tenants who “seemed suspicious” or had leased houses for a short time.

Pamphlets were also distributed to hotels, religious institutions and apartment complexes. The SIT received several replies before a local informant suggested they question a house owner called Suresh who had “suspicious connections”.

The ‘lucky break’

The SIT struck luck with this tip-off. Suresh, a Tumkuru native, was found to have rented his house at Seegehalli, over 35 kilometres from Lankesh’s house, to two men from July to September 2017.

As he was questioned by police, Suresh reportedly revealed how he had rented his place to the two men after he was contacted by Kale through a common friend.

A few days later, Praveen alias Sujeet Kumar landed at the house, joined by a short, stocky man in his mid-thirties. This man was Parashuram Waghmare, who was arrested last week and is believed to be the one who pulled the trigger.

According to Suresh, the two men, described as reclusive, would converse with each other in Hindi or Marathi. They reportedly stayed out of the house for the better part of the day and returned only to sleep. The landlord said there would be several visitors to the house, including Nihal, Manohar Edave and K.T. Naveen Kumar. Edave is one of the three people arrested along with Kale, while Naveen was caught in March for his alleged role in Lankesh’s killing.

Sometime in July, Kale is believed to have shifted into the Seegehalli house, while Parashuram and Praveen took up another place, possibly one closer to Lankesh’s residence. Police are trying to trace this house.

The CCTV footage from around Lankesh’s house show the suspect reconnaissance carried out ahead of her murder.

On 3 and 5 September, in the hours before the murder, the footage shows a slightly overweight man wearing a full black mask passing through the area several times on a red motorcycle.

Lankesh was killed near the steps of her house around 7.40 pm. According to Suresh, Kale vacated his room on 6 September.

Catch me if you can

Police reportedly questioned nearly 500 arms dealers in their bid to trace the murder weapon, and it was during the pursuit of this lead that a suspicious name popped up: Naveen Kumar from Maddur near Mysuru.

The SIT put Naveen, a member of the Hindu Yuva Sena (HYS), under surveillance for nearly four months and tracked his calls. On one occasion, they found him boasting to his friends about getting a “plum” assignment and knowing about Lankesh’s murder.

Naveen Kumar, the first to be arrested and chargesheeted in the Lankesh case, reportedly traced his links with the alleged ‘murder mafia’ in his confession.

“In June 2017, Mohan Gowda, who belonged to the HJS… called me. He asked me to go to their headquarters in Ponda, Goa, where they were holding a convention,” he said.

It was at the venue of the convention, Radhakrishna Temple, that Naveen allegedly met Praveen, with the two lodged in the same room.

Praveen’s involvement in trying to recruit men for their conspiracy begins here, say police. “A few days after my Goa visit, a man called me from a coin booth (phone booth). He said his name was Praveen… He claimed Mohan Gowda had given him my number. I checked with Gowda, who asked me to go ahead and speak with him,” Naveen is believed to have confessed.

According to Naveen, he met Praveen and his associates at a Belagavi city hotel on 20 November, where they discussed a plan to eliminate Bhagwan. Naveen was asked if he knew how to shoot – when he said no, he was asked to try his hand on one.

Naveen then acquired an air pistol and begun practice sessions in the forest areas near Mysuru. He had 10 rounds of live ammunition when police arrested him.

In his confession, he also reportedly admitted that he had taken the four accused of the Bhagwan conspiracy — Kale, Praveen, Amit Digwekar and Edave — to an isolated forest area near Mandya to practise shooting.

The task of nabbing Praveen proved tough for the SIT for not only did he go underground after the murder, he didn’t use a mobile phone, which made it difficult to track him. Surprisingly, however, police found 22 mobile phones in his possession, and 21 others with Kale. It is believed the phones may have been part of the planning of the conspiracy.

Police came extremely close to catching him at one point — Praveen was supposed to attend a wedding in Bengaluru and the SIT was on his trail. However, Naveen Kumar was arrested the same day as the wedding, and, following news reports about his capture, Praveen slipped under the radar again.

Praveen was traced after police trawled through Naveen’s call detail records and found one made by the former from a booth in Shikaripura. A sketch of Lankesh’s house was reportedly found in his possession.

The man who pulled the trigger

Sources in the SIT said Waghmare had confessed to shooting Lankesh. “Kale and Amit trained Parashuram at various places, including Satara in Maharashtra and Belagavi in Karnataka. Kale constantly monitored the execution plan,” said a SIT source.

Edave, introduced to Waghmare at a Sanathan Sanstha seminar in Goa, was the one who identified Waghmare’s “talent”, said a police source. After a few more meetings, Edave told Kale that he had found a worthy candidate to carry out the murder and close surveillance of Waghmare’s movements began soon afterwards. In early March, he was asked to meet Kale and Nihal in Belagavi, where he was asked to display his shooting skills with an air pistol.

Kale reportedly gave Waghmare three months and told him the next meet would be fixed once they had a concrete plan in place and they were sure of Waghmare’s aim.

According to his confession, on the Lankesh was killed, Waghmare was ferried by one of the accomplices to her house, where he walked up to the journalist as she entered the gates of her house and shot her.

“He said that the gun was taken away from him as soon as the job was done. He suffered injuries on his hand from the recoil of the country-made gun…” the SIT source said.

“Each time he was questioned, he would end up crying and say that he killed Gauri because he was told to do it ‘for the sake of Hinduism’,” the source added.

This is, however, not Waghmare’s first brush with police: In 2012, he was arrested along with five members of the Sri Rama Sene, another Hindutva organisation, for unfurling a Pakistan flag outside the tehsildar’s office at Sindagi.

The road forward

Police say they are on the right track in the case but are waiting for more information on the weapon.

Sources said the accused were yet to divulge any information on where the weapon was hidden, probably because it would link them to the murders of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar as well.

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