Reason must triumph over blind faith, says Praful Bidwai in this tribute to murdered rationalist Narendra Dabholkar.
The assassination of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar in Pune is an ugly black mark on Indian society. The forces of fanatical intolerance, superstition, irrationality and social reaction which killed Dabholkar killed him not because he threatened their faith or freedom to propagate their views, but because he believed that it’s wrong to exploit people through black magic, sorcery, and cheap sleights-of-hand while invoking supernatural powers.
The killing is unlikely to have had anything to do with personal rivalry. As those knew Dabholkar would testify -- including this writer, who had the pleasure of knowing him and writing for his remarkable weekly Sadhana -- he was too amiable and disarming a man to inspire a personal animus. He came from a highly regarded family of scholars, educators and activists.
Dabholkar was eliminated because he was an independent intellectual with anti-superstition views, which are anathema to obscurantists, religious bigots and reactionaries. A society in which rationalist intellectuals are killed, but witchcraft and violent rituals to exorcise ‘evil spirits’ are condoned, cannot be called minimally civilised.
Shamefully, India is hurtling towards just that status: over the last 15 years, 2,500 women were killed in witchcraft rituals, according to anti-superstition activists.
The police still haven’t determined who planned Dabholkar’s killing, but it would be no surprise if caste panchayats or fanatical Hindutva groups -- which scarcely hid their hatred for his Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (committee for the eradication of superstition) -- plotted it or were complicit.
Some Hindutva organisations formally deplored the killing. But Sanatan Sanstha founder Jayant Athavale wrote a sinister obituary: 'instead of dying bedridden through illness, or a painful death following a surgery', Dabholkar died instantly: this was, 'in a way, a blessing of the almighty'. This crudely rationalises murder, however revolting, including Dabholkar’s.
Three days later, activists of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing) broke up a memorial meeting for Dabholkar at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, and assaulted members of the Left-wing music band Kabir Kala Manch. They branded the organisers ‘Naxalites’ because one of them refused to chant ‘Jai Narendra Modi’ when ordered to do so -- to prove he wasn’t a Naxalite.
It’s not ruled out that wealthy jewellers, who have recently grown like a rash in Maharashtra, had a role in Dabholkar’s killing: they couldn’t have been pleased with his imminent campaign against gemstones, wearing which ‘miraculously’ protects you against ‘malevolent’ stars. At any rate, the goon tactics displayed in Pune were typical of highly politicised religious fanatics.
Another pointer to fanatics’ involvement is the last anonymous threat that Dabholkar received: 'Remember Gandhi. Remember what we did to him'. This lays claim to Nathuram Godse’s legacy -- with brazen, pathological, hubris. Even the normally mild-mannered Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said that Dabholkar’s killers have ‘the same mindset’ as Gandhi’s assassins. One must sincerely hope that the police investigation is scrupulous, thorough, and ‘gets to the bottom of the conspiracy’, as Chavan promises.
The murder is the latest in a series of explosions of intolerance witnessed in Pune, including numerous fanatical attacks on liberal institutions, ransacking of the prestigious Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute by the Maratha-chauvinist Sambhaji Brigade in 2004 over James Laine’s book on Shivaji, killing of five social activists in 2010, and the cancellation of a screening of Sanjay Kak’s film on Kashmir in February 2012 under the ABVP’s pressure.
The killing marks a new low in Maharashtra’s cultural retrogression. This is the more tragic because Maharashtra was the crucible of India’s progressive social reform movement for a century, led by Shahu Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, D K Karve, M G Ranade, Ramabai Ranade, and not the least, B R Ambedkar, with thousands of followers among working people.
Although social reform was pioneered at the level of ideas in Bengal by Ram Mohan Roy, it took roots among ordinary people mainly in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, where its leaders articulated the aspirations of the plebeian masses. The mobilisation of Dalits and Other Backward Classes, which followed later in North India, owes a great deal to this early movement.
Maharashtra saw the flowering of India’s first Bahujan Samaj mobilisation against religious orthodoxy, casteism, barring of temple entry to Dalits, sati, gender discrimination, and other social evils. The movement championed girls’/women’s education and widow remarriage. It firmly embraced the values of enlightenment, with an emphasis on reason, critical inquiry and science.
Sane Guruji, a socialist who founded Sadhana 65 years ago, belonged squarely to this tradition. Dabholkar formed a direct link with the social reform legacy, both personally and through the editorship of Sadhana which he reinvigorated after it fell on bad days in the 1980s and 1990s.
The reformists always faced venomous opposition, including social boycott and expulsion, from diehard traditionalists and upper-caste status quoists. But they heroically resisted -- and at times succeeded in pushing through pro-people reform measures.
The balance changed in the 1960s with the rise of the chauvinist and communal Shiv Sena, which worked to reverse the gains of social reform, with support from the Maratha-dominated ruling Congress. With this, says social and cultural critic Shanta Gokhale, the needle that had oscillated ‘between Maharashtra’s progressive and regressive heritage stopped on the side of regression.’
Dabholkar was a rationalist and probably an atheist. But he didn’t campaign against faith per se, only against blind faith and exploitation of gullible people through witchcraft, tricks passed off as ‘miracles’, and infliction of cruel and harmful ‘magical’ rites such as beatings and torture to drive out the ‘evil spirits’ to which people’s health or financial problems are falsely attributed.
He trenchantly opposed tantrik-shamanic practices which harm or endanger life, such as preventing medical treatment of people for illnesses or snake bites while relying on mantras instead; aghori animal and human sacrifice to ward off ill-luck; falsely branding people as satanical agents or carriers of misfortune; or claiming to perform surgery or change the sex of a foetus with one’s fingers.
Dabholkar lobbied hard for the passage of the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill, which has hung fire for 18 years thanks to the Hindu Right’s opposition.
The legislation seeks to prosecute people for claiming supernatural powers; defaming and disgracing saints/gods by claiming to be their reincarnation and thus cheating god-fearing folk; and ill-treating men and women in psychological distress in the belief that they are smitten by evil spirits.
It covers rituals performed to beget a male child, claims to omniscience by virtue of being ‘possessed’ by supernatural powers, and human or animal sacrifice made to appease the gods. After Dabholkar’s killing, the Maharashtra government brought in an ordinance to implement the Bill.
This only completes one part of Dabholkar’s unfinished agenda. The rest lies in enacting similar laws in the whole of India, combating unquestioned faith, and vigorously promoting scientific temper and a spirit of critical inquiry -- not just in classrooms, not only to earn degrees or get jobs, but in daily life, while making crucial decisions about individual freedom, marriage, the family and religion.
This agenda has acquired great relevance and urgency in today’s South Asia. Liberalisation and globalisation in our part of the world have disrupted old social balances and faith systems and given rise to a politicised religiosity -- amidst an explosive growth of viciously anti-rational superstition, especially among the middle class.
In the 1960s, being superstitious was considered incorrect and infra dig among educated Indians. Now it’s fashionable to rely on astrology, wear flashy gemstones, get advice from outright quacks, and worship self-proclaimed holy men like Asaram Bapu.
Why, weird practices like wiccanism (Western witchcraft), regression therapy, and performance of elaborate havans and yagnas supposedly to bring fortune, and even rain, have pervaded middle class life.
As Meera Nanda argues in The God Market (Random House, 2009), this religiosity is cultivated by ‘the emerging state-temple-corporate complex’, which is corrupting secular public institutions and embedding Hindu rituals and symbols in the affairs of the state. Hindu religiosity is also getting fused with national pride and the idea that India’s recent (and alas, fast-eroding) economic success is rooted in the superiority of its ancient (read, Hindu) civilisation.
This religiosity is supported by the state, temple-related bodies, and business groups. It can be easily harnessed to political causes. It’s leading to greater intolerance towards religious minorities. This is nowhere more evident than in Ayodhya, where a new kind of parikrama was invented to sow communal hatred. Opposing such pernicious practices and defending rationality would be the right tribute to Dabholkar.