At around 7 am on 11 June, the Special Investigation Team (SIT) reached the doorstep of a house in Sindagi, a town in North Karnataka’s Vijayapura. After a nine-month long investigation, the men arrived at the house in search of 26-year-old Parashuram Waghmare, the man they believe pulled the trigger on activist-journalist Gauri Lankesh on the evening of 5 September 2017.
There was little resistance from Waghmare. According to a senior SIT officer, he was relieved that the inevitable was finally over. Waghmare confessed to the murder and provided the information he had about the killing.
But that is not enough for the SIT.
Three Labourers, a Journalism Student and Evidence
Even though Waghmare confessed to murdering Lankesh, a confession of crime to police is not admissible in the court of law. Since Waghmare didn’t carry a mobile phone to the scene of crime, there was no digital evidence pinning him to the crime scene. But for the SIT, fortune came in the form of three labourers and a student of journalism.
According to the SIT officers, Waghmare attempted to kill Lankesh on 4 September, but she came home early, and they missed the window to shoot her before she entered her house. To avoid a repeat of such a situation, Waghmare and the motorcycle rider came much earlier the following day.
The two men waited for Lankesh at an empty property, not far away from her house. As they waited, they were spotted by three labourers from Raichur, who were working at a construction site nearby. The men, who did not have their helmets on at the time, were also spotted by a journalism student who had come to talk to the three labourers. The four also saw the attackers flee the crime scene.
While combing through the CCTV footage, police stumbled upon footage showing the four men walking on the road as the bike-borne assailants passed them by. The pillion rider on the bike was seen looking back at the four. The SIT was able to track down one of the labourers, as well as the journalism student.
They confirmed that they had seen the two men without the helmets. In an identification parade that followed, they identified Waghmare.
Apart from these two eyewitnesses, the SIT has the statement from Suresh, the man who rented out his house to one of conspirators in the murder – Praveen. It was at this house in Seegehalli, that Waghmare made several visits to Praveen, who provided logistical support for the assassination. The owner had seen Waghmare, and said that Praveen vacated the house hours after the murder.
The SIT says they have also conducted some forensic tests, the results of which will be provided as evidence against Waghmare. However, they refused to share more details.
The Diary That Led to Waghmare
So far, the SIT has six people in custody: Parashuram Waghmare, 26, the alleged gunman; Naveen Kumar, 37, the man who provided the bullets to kill Lankesh; Praveen Kumar, 37, the man who recruited Naveen and Amol Kale, 39, the chief handler of the assassination. Also in SIT custody are Amit Degwekar, 39 and Manohar Edave, 28, the two men tasked with killing rationalist KS Bhagwan.
“Waghmare was among the six people arrested for raising a Pakistan flag in front of the tehsildar’s office to create communal tensions in Sindagi town in 2012,” an SIT officer told The Quint.
The hunt for the shooter was a wild goose chase for the SIT, but things began to fall into place following the arrest of Amol Kale, the suspected handler of the assassination plot. A diary recovered from his house, contained a few crucial details – code names and numbers, two hit-lists of targets from Karnataka and across the country, and some information regarding the assassination of veteran communist leader Govind Pansare.
From the numbers and details found in Kale’s diary, SIT tracked down Waghmare on 11 June.
The Wild Goose Chase
But getting Kale, his diary and eventually Waghmare, took several months of chasing leads. For the first two months, the SIT was clueless. The SIT had put several suspected right-wing extremists under surveillance and the breakthrough came in November 2017, when the team intercepted one phonecall. Naveen Kumar, a gunrunner, who hails from Chikmagalur, and the founder of the Hindu Yuva Sene, was heard bragging to his friend about going underground after Lankesh’s murder.
Police kept him under further surveillance and learned about another person, Praveen, who was the link between operators in Maharashtra. After two months, Naveen was arrested by the SIT. Based on the information he provided, the police laid out a trap to arrest Praveen at a wedding he was scheduled to attend in Chikkamagalur district on 25 February 2018.
But to the SIT’s dismay, a news channel flashed the story of the trap at the wedding, and Praveen escaped.
Following this, over 300 coin-booth phones were kept under surveillance by the SIT. They finally managed to arrest Praveen in May 2018. At his house, the SIT found a diary with phone numbers and code names, as well as sketches of routes to Lankesh’s house.
The information eventually led to the arrest of three others, including Amol Kale, the chief handler of the operation.
Hunt for the Rolling Weapons
The 7.65 mm country-made pistol used to kill Lankesh holds the key to unraveling the mystery around the other murders. The SIT suspects that the same weapon was used to kill MM Kalburgi and Pansare. The SIT says there are two pistols, both of which were used to fire at Pansare. One of the pistols were used to kill Lankesh and Kalburgi.
But the whereabouts of the pistols are still unknown. During his interrogation, Waghmare said that the man he rode the bike with on the day of Lankesh’s killing, handed him the weapon 15 minutes before the murder. Following the assassination, the biker travelled with him for a distance before taking the pistol away from him and riding away. The SIT is yet to catch the biker in question.
More Arrests to be Made
Two weapons used in the three murders and hit-lists recovered from the arrested men prove the existence of a larger conspiracy, an SIT officer told The Quint. The police are on the lookout for the two men who masterminded the murders. Those engaged in planning a larger conspiracy to murder rationalists are scouting for right-wing activists to carry out the assassinations, police said. “They went out looking for potential candidates [like Waghmare] to kill rationalists,” the officer said.
But at present, the bigger task for the SIT is to recover the pistol used for the murder. The key, they say, is to find the biker.