Dabholkar, dissent and democracy

Anti-superstition campaigners will not only pay tribute to Narendra Dabholkar, their acclamation will also be an indictment of the government’s utter failure to find his killers

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:22 pm IST

Published - August 20, 2014 12:19 am IST

RELENTLESS RATIONALIST: Narendra Dabholkar was fearless in his dogged single-minded ddrive against blind faith. Picture shows a candlelight vigil in memory of the anti-superstition campaigner in Bangalore in 2013. Photo: K Murali Kumar

RELENTLESS RATIONALIST: Narendra Dabholkar was fearless in his dogged single-minded ddrive against blind faith. Picture shows a candlelight vigil in memory of the anti-superstition campaigner in Bangalore in 2013. Photo: K Murali Kumar

At 7.20 a.m. on August 20, supporters of the courageous and gritty rationalist Narendra Dabholkar will gather near the Omkareshwar Temple in Pune, where >he was gunned down while on a morning walk exactly a year ago. Through street plays and songs, anti-superstition campaigners will pay tribute to one of India’s foremost critics of charlatan godmen and black magic.

The tribute will also be an indictment of the government’s utter failure to find his killers. Dr. Dabholkar’s daylight murder was initially probed by the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government in Maharashtra and then transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). So far it has yielded nothing.

Ironically, a month ago, Outlook magazine ran an investigation claiming that the Pune police had resorted to planchet and tantriks to trace the killers of the very man who had opposed such forces all his life. The police have denied this and have even threatened a defamation case.

However, there is widespread disillusionment with both the Centre and the State’s inability to push the probe. “It is very distressing. We are hurt and anguished. Are they trying to hide something and shield someone?” asks his son Hamid Dabholkar. “There were groups which had consistently been attacking and defaming him. They had filed many cases against him. The investigation should have focussed on that,” he emphasises.

Dabholkar’s legacy Dr. Dabholkar was both fearless and relentless in his single-minded drive against blind faith. He had braved vilification and death threats, even physical attacks. His programmes were routinely disrupted.

Yet, he continued to challenge godmen, often on their own turf surrounded by mobs of followers. His targets included the influential Sathya Sai Baba and his claims of producing “miracle ash” out of thin air.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Dabholkar had taken on Ratnagiri’s Narendra Maharaj at his own ashram. The godman, who claimed miracle cures for ailments, arrived with 20,000 followers for a tense face-off with Dr. Dabholkar and his group of 15. Narendra Maharaj finally conceded defeat after a debate monitored by an anxious District Collector.

In 2000, Dr. Dabholkar led a massive campaign demanding the entry of women into the Shani Shingnapur temple trust in Ahmednagar. The issue finally ended up in court.

Hindu right-wing groups were among his fiercest critics, mainly the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti and Sanatan Sanstha. Both organisations have vehemently denied any hand in his murder. However, the Sanatan Sanstha proclaimed in an editorial just a day after the murder that it was “God’s wish.” One member of the organisation was briefly questioned by the police before being let off for lack of evidence.

Dr. Dabholkar’s greatest victory — a law against superstition and black magic — came posthumously, after a dogged 18-year struggle. One day after he was killed, the Maharashtra government cleared an ordinance, and in December 2013, a law against superstitious practices.

The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013 is a diluted version of the ambitious draft Dr. Dabholkar had championed. It does not allow third parties to lodge complaints. Only the affected party has that right.

However, the law has already had a massive impact with nearly 80 cases being registered across the State in less than a year. These include cases against human sacrifice, the sexual exploitation of women by local godmen and the fleecing of the gullible by promises of instant wealth. However, the cases have mostly come to the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) set up by Dr. Dabholkar and then been registered with the police.

“In the last year, we have received nearly one such complaint daily,” says MANS working president Avinash Patil. The survival of the organisation, founded nearly three decades ago, has been critical to continuing his campaign.

The deceptively gentle activist had built a robust movement across all the districts in the State, drawing on students and volunteers to propel the battle against superstition. Even today, MANS has nearly 250 branches and 5,000 volunteers. “Sustaining the organisation was a challenge. With his death we lost our security cover. But we have survived and passed the test,” says Mr. Patil.

The perils of activism Dr. Dabholkar was well aware of the risks he faced by questioning obscurantism in a country steeped in superstition. “In this movement, even expressing a thought is sometimes a fight,” he would say. Indian rationalists have long walked a vulnerable path, even though under our “Fundamental Duties”, citizens are obliged to “develop a scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

Yet it’s not only rationalists who have the odds stacked against them. Whistle-blowers who have exposed corruption, now increasingly through the Right to Information (RTI) Act, have been targeted, sometimes paying with their lives.

Close to Pune city itself, RTI activist Satish Shetty was murdered in 2010. Last week the CBI filed a closure report in the case saying it had not found evidence against any of those accused of his murder. The probe into his father’s killing, Hamid Dabholkar feels, fits into this larger pattern.

“This is an issue which goes beyond my father. If voices which stand for social causes are silenced and no action is taken against the perpetrators, it is an attack on democracy,” he says. And on simple rational thinking itself.


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