Dabholkar’s anti-superstition war demanded a level of introspection of which we are incapable

In December 2003, Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was vandalized by 150 attackers destroying irreplaceable manuscripts. Why? Because the Institute’s staff provided some research material to Dr. James Laine whose claims about Shivaji “hurt their sentiments”.

Let’s look at a snapshot of Pune in these 10 years: hate crime and religious fanaticism on the rise; mushrooming deemed universities churning out mediocrity; municipal corporators mastering the art of fistfights while we excel in using more and more refined ways of bribing our bureaucrats and evading taxes; even red lights at traffic junctions are ignored. On January 13, 2010, RTI activist Satish Shetty was assassinated in Talegaon, about 40 km away from Pune. In the same year, out of nine social activists killed all over India, five were murdered in the areas neighbouring Pune. While this escalating violence is manifest in our daily routine, what is worse is the diminishing tolerance for each other’s thoughts, the apathy of the intelligentsia and the unabashed acceptance of helplessness.

So why are we all crying over Dr. Narendra Dabholkar’s assassination? The shameful words expressed in the editorial of Sanatan Prabhat, just the day after Dr. Dabholkar’s brutal assassination — “one gets what one deserves” — are actually applicable to all of us. Sorry Doctor, but we did not deserve a maverick like you.

Nine years before the time slice that we just saw, Dr. Dabholkar — the most humble crusader striving for eradication of blind faith, a radiant rationalist and an articulate man of incessant faith in human values — was relentlessly trying to have a rational dialogue with those saying no to a proposed anti-witchcraft Bill. And thirty years before this time slice, he had waged a war against exploitation of victims of superstitions at the hands of fraud babas, tantric-mantriks and self-proclaimed godmen.

Dr. Dabholkar’s war was non-violent. But the sharpness of his words, thoughts and deeds were so supremely powerful and unbearable as to have invoked the despicable brutality that martyred him. His conviction and articulation made most politicians uncomfortable. Unlike many other intellectuals, Doctor was also an activist. He had the vision and capability to lead a grassroots-level mass movement. His personal rapport with thousands of activists across rural Maharashtra was unparalleled. His 15-year contribution as an editor of the 66-year-old weekly Sadhana resulted in a substantial increase in its subscribers.

Still with all these credits, his movement was restricted to lakhs, not crores. His two decade-long call could not gather the popular momentum that Anna Hazare managed in a few months. Why didn’t we see crores of young people following Dr. Dabholkar, in the way we saw them come out in support of Nirbhaya?

Let’s think of the ‘we’-centric reasons behind this.

Dr. Dabholkar’s campaign against superstition and inhuman rituals needed a certain level of intellectual introspection. It compelled us to check our position on an abstract concept like faith as opposed to concrete issues like corruption and rape. By ourselves, we do not think there is darkness in our beliefs and thoughts that need to be eradicated. We are just not used to such intellectual abstraction and lack the discipline to challenge our own ‘faith’. Do we realise that many of those young protesters are queuing up for darshan in front of Saturn temples on Saturdays, Sidhdhivinayaks on Tuesdays and Datta temples on Thursdays? Do we get disturbed seeing more youth becoming religious? Do we even observe that most of our neighbours have some spiritual gurus/matas from whom they seek solace? Do we question in our own minds (let alone challenge it publicly) the sponsored, vulgar celebrations on the occasions of Dahi hundi, Ganeshotsav, or Navratri? Do we frown to see our friends’ fingers being adorned with astro-crystals and gemstone rings prescribed by astrologers and godmen? Are we ready to accept that religion and practicing rituals are proving to be our cumulative catharsis? Actually, Dr. Dabholkar did not ever challenge our faith and religious belief. He merely challenged the superstitious practices and unscientific claims of godmen. Yet we simplistically labelled him as anti-Hindu. We did not even attempt to understand the provisions of the Bill proposed by him. If we do not find anything objectionable in scientists like Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam or icons like Sachin Tendulkar visiting a “miracle man”, why should we expect the media to engage in an enlightened debate on the bill proposed by Dr. Dabholkar?

Sorry Dr. Dabholkar, we failed you! We are ashamed that we may fail to find your assassins! We are ashamed that we will move on expediently! We are ashamed that we are lethargic bystanders of the present! Sorry Doctor, we never deserved you!

(Sandhya Gokhale is a social activist; Amol Palekar is a filmmaker and actor.)

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