A wake up call to the conscience of the nation

The murder of renowned rationalist Narendra Dabholkar is an attack on the Constitution of India and the principles enshrined in it

By T V Venkateswaran
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

The murder of renowned rationalist Narendra Dabholkar is an attack on the Constitution of India and the principles enshrined in it

Gloom descended as the news of the assassination of renowned rationalist and anti obscurantist crusader Narendra Dabholkar on the streets of Pune  early morning on August 20 reached some of us who were in in Bengaluru at that time attending a workshop on science popularisation. Initially, we were stunned with incredulity. A committed and unrelenting activists he was, but humble and ever gentle always. Who could have even thought of killing him? The disbelief gave way to dismay and despondence. Soon the sad and cruel act only helped us to steel our resolve to take the message of scientific temper widely and bit more vigorously. Yes, Dabholkar galvanised people to arise against blind faith, superstition and stand for social justice, not only while he was alive, but even in his death.

Dabholkar, who hailed from a family of moderate means, completed his degree in medicine, won laurels as an accomplished kabaddi player in his college days and won medals for the Indian team; inspired by Baba Adhav's “One Village, One Well” campaign in Maharastra, he renounced the comforts and security and turned his attention towards social reform. Thereafter he never looked back and went on to found the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (blind belief eradication organisation) and edited the progressive magazine Sadhana. Having gathered evidence on the prevalence of gruesome and superstitious practices such as witchcraft and human sacrifice, he wrote more than 12 books, mainly in Marathi, presenting scientific and rational arguments against the different belief systems and practices. His tireless efforts saw the growth of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti throughout the state, with more than 180 branches getting established. Inspired by its success, many movements sprang in other parts of the country.

Dabholkar always stated that he was not against anybody’s faith, but was against social evils like superstition and black magic. When he mooted the idea of a Bill to prohibit sorcery, there were many, even amongst the rationalists, who wondered whether it would be possible to make a clear distinction between ones' faith and blind faith from the point of view of enforceable law. While he himself had definite and strong views on religion, Dabholkar effectively articulated a Bill to proscribe and curb perilous but common superstitions such as Karni and Bhanamati.

The draft Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill spearheaded by him aimed to ban performance of alleged magical acts in the name of supernatural powers such as offer ash, amulet and charms for the purpose of exorcism. It also aims to forbid claims of supernatural powers and/or advertise such a claim as well as alleged godmen making claims that they are incarnations of erstwhile saints/gods. The Bill has deterrent penalties and punishments and makes practices such as black magic cognizable and non-bailable offences. Vigilance officers are to be appointed under the provisions of the Bill who are to prevent and detect such offences and also aid the state in collecting evidence against the offenders. The draft Bill that did not see the light of the day for eight long years, kept pending in the Maharastra Assembly because of opposition, mainly from right wing parties.

Voicing protest against the growing menace of caste panchayats, intolerance to other/alternate views, bigotry and the rampant superstition Dabholkar took on the obscurantist forces. In his mission to expose the alleged godmen and question the obscurantist practices he was but a follower of a long tradition of Indian reformers. The Charvaka-Lokayatika philosophers of ancient India were highly critical of Vedic religion and Bharaminism and said that the compilers of the Vedas were hypocrites and swindlers. Invoking the Vedas, the priests dupe the simple people with meaningless jumbles of words, living in luxury at the expense of the poor people bringing them offerings. But who are these offerings for? Gods were non-existent and had never existed. Should there be offerings to the deceased relatives? But these became dust and needed no food. Just as a lamp that became extinguished would not be rekindled if oil was added to it, a dead person would not rise from the dead after a sacrificial ritual. Siddhars, the rebel philosophers of yesteryears chided the rituals and blind beliefs: “What is this mantra that  you mumble again and again; going round and round  about a stone installed on the ground and offering it flowers?; do you think a mere stone can talk while really the Lord is within you,” they would say.

In recent times, Swami Vivekananda, aghast at the prevalence of blind faith, advised on one occasion that it is better to be an atheist than be a superstitious person who blindly believes in tradition and rituals. From EVR Periyar, Jothiba Phule to social reformers like poet Subramaniya Bharathi, all had preached against superstition and obscurantism. It is this spirit that got enshrined in our constitution as Article 51A (h) which mandates as duty of all its citizen to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. Is it possible to develop scientific temper when obscurantism is rampant? Does not the spirit of reform enjoin us to critically question practices that go against gender equality and social justice? How can one keep away religion or any other cultural baggage from rational examination and inquiry? Dabholkar had dedicated his life only to perform these duties better than the rest of us.

He had been receiving threats in the recent past that "he would meet the same end as Mahatma Gandhi", if he did not stop exposing the fraudulent methods of babas, tantriks and self styled godmen, suggesting that perhaps the dastardly murder was committed by extremist Hindu Taliban groups. We do not know at this point who actually committed this cowardly murder, but it is certain that it could be work of only debased people.

The reported spontaneous uproar in Pune and various parts of the country is heartening. The Pune bandh that got organised was not with iron hand enforcement or by veiled threat or violence. In his home district, Sangli, people rallied in large numbers with grief and anger against the gruesome murder; not all of them perhaps share his views on religion. The attack on him is not just an assault on an individual or a particular movement, but it is an onslaught on the Constitution of India and the principles enshrined in it. We should see this as an act undermining the nation and its consciousness and not just as a mere murder case.  From exemplary instances, as in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination investigation, it is clear that a determined government can bring out the truth and uncover the nefarious plot. It is the fervent hope of all those who cherish democracy and reason in public life that the perpetrators are exposed and punished according to the law.

This ghastly murder is but a sign of the dark days that we are passing through with a throw back to the barbaric middle ages with no room for decent and critical opinions. His killing is a wake up call to the conscience of the nation. Are we going to give up on reason and justice without a fight? Are we going to be placid and docile when talibanism (green and saffron) is growing all around us? Are we going to abandon all values and ethos that we have been celebrating until now? If this alarm bell does not wake us up from the stupor and make us fight for reason and social justice, not even the (non-existent) God can save us!

T V Venkateswaran is science communicator with Vigyan Prasar, New Delhi. The views expressed in the article are personal 

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