The Bombay High Court on Thursday slammed the Maharashtra government when it learnt that the CBI, probing the killing of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, could not search for weapons in Thane creek for want of necessary permissions.
A bench of Justices SC Dharmadhikari and GS Patel said that in the face of such crimes where the attempt was to silence dissent, the government should decide if this was how it wanted the affairs of the state to continue.
Counsel of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Anil Singh informed the court that it had sought permission from the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) to put up a temporary platform at a creek in Thane district, so that divers could search for weapons used in the killing.
As per the CBI, one of arrested accused dismantled the weapons and threw them into the creek.
The MCZMA, however, showed some hesitation and laid down a few conditions for setting up the platform, he said.
The court asked if there was an untoward incident in the creek, would the probe agencies carry out rescue operations immediately or await a nod from the MCZMA. "We do not see how laws relating to ecology and environment are affected by such operation," the court said.
The bench directed government pleader P Kakade to speak to the Director (Environment department) and Member Secretary of MCZMA on the issue.
"We would not hesitate to draw appropriate inferences, including that the state-level functionaries are not rendering necessary logistical support and assistance to the investigating agencies to probe the case," the court said. "We would also not hesitate to summon the officials," the court added.
"Such crimes have a global impact. These are not crimes committed on account of some family disputes or past rivalries. These are not gang-wars and are not crimes committed for property and so on," the bench said.
"The perpetrators of these crimes have ensured that dissent is silenced, at least temporarily... if you voice a different and distinct opinion than that of the majority then your fate will be like that of these eminent persons. It is this chilling message which the state must take note of," the court said.
The government should decide if this state of affairs should continue in states like Maharashtra and Karnataka (which has witnessed similar killings), the judges said, adjourning the hearing to August 9.
The court was hearing petitions filed by the family of Mr Dabholkar and that of communist leader Govind Pansare seeking court supervision of the probe being carried out by the CBI and the state CID, respectively.
Mr Dabholkar, a well-known anti-superstition activist, was shot dead on August 20, 2013 in Pune. Mr Pansare was shot on February 16, 2015, near his house in Kolhapur in western Maharashtra. He died four days later.
In neighbouring Karnataka, Kannada scholar MM Kalburgi was killed in August 2015, while journalist Gauri Lankesh was killed in September 2017.