Dabholkar's dream of introducing a Bill against superstitions and black magic in the Maharashtra Assembly remains unfulfilled

He took on godmen, temple trusts and even the State government. He was vilified, his events were disrupted and he was even physically attacked. Yet through it all, the diminutive Narendra Dabholkar (65) never lost his composure or sense of humour. He seemed to have a one-liner ready for any occasion. “People often ask me how I stay calm,” he once said in an interview. “They should not forget that I was an international level kabaddi player. I can take a fall in my stride.”

On Tuesday, Dabholkar took a fall he couldn’t recover from. He was shot dead while on a morning walk in Pune by two gunmen.

The deceptively gentle activist — always dressed in a simple khadi shirt — was among Maharashtra’s most prominent rationalists. Persuasive with those he wanted to convince and unrelenting in his campaign against superstition. In a country which celebrates godmen and obscurantists, Dabholkar succeeded in building a robust movement across villages, schools and colleges in Maharashtra.

Born into a socialist family in Satara district, Dabholkar qualified as a doctor and practised medicine for over a decade before being drawn into social work. Initially, he joined movements for social justice with Baba Adhav but found his calling by 1983. By 1989, he founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, targeting exploitative godmen, “miracle cures” and regressive religious practices.

“He always said he was not against God or religion. Just exploitation in the name of faith,” recalls Ajit Abhyankar from the Centre for Indian Trade Unions, an old associate. His targets were often powerful and had a phalanx of supporters but that didn’t deter him. One of his first clashes was with a godman who claimed to have a miracle cure for blindness.

“He challenged him to an open debate in the village. The godman arrived with a large number of his followers but that did not deter Dabholkar,” says Rajiv Deshpande, co-editor of the movement’s magazine.The gritty resolve served him well as his targets grew bigger and more powerful. His agitations against Nirmala Devi and Narendra Maharaj sparked clashes with their supporters. By 2000, he led perhaps his largest campaign — demanding entry for women into the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar. It prompted a backlash from right-wing political groups and finally ended in court.

In fact, Dabholkar routinely had his press conferences disrupted by right-wing groups, say his supporters. But he was well aware of the risks. “In this movement, even expressing a thought is sometimes a fight,” he used to say. His dream of changing the law by introducing a Bill against superstitions and black magic in the Maharashtra Assembly remains unfulfilled, dogged by political opposition.

No anomaly

Yet Dabholkar’s killing is no anomaly. Indian rationalists have long trodden a dangerous and vulnerable path. This, even though the Indian Constitution obliges citizens to “develop a scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

In 2011, Kerala Yuktivadi Sangham president U. Kalanathan was assaulted, even as he was participating in a TV channel discussion on utilisation of the wealth at the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. A few years earlier when CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat clashed with Baba Ramdev, the BJP jumped to his defence.

Ironically, in many cases the government becomes the adversary. Like the case of eminent rationalist thinker Sanal Edamaruku, who debunked a “miracle” at the Our Lady of Velankanni Church in Mumbai in 2012. He found that the tears dripping from the statue of Jesus could be traced to a blocked drain. The result? The police have filed cases against him for inciting religious hatred.

In a country where godmen and tantriks are lionised not just by the public but also by the media and politicians, rationalists have the odds stacked against them. From Chandraswami to Dhirendra Brahmachari, godmen and their cults have peddled political influence and rarely been subjected to public scrutiny. Dabholkar was one of those rare individuals who did subject godmen, cults and miracle-makers and superstitions to unrelenting scrutiny.

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