Even though the self-styled godman Asaram Bapu has been finally arrested and sent to two weeks of judicial custody on charges of sexually assaulting a school girl in one of his ashrams, India’s obsession with blind faith and faux spirituality is not likely to diffuse any time soon. Despite sufficient evidence against the alleged rapist masquerading as a man of faith, the popular opinion is still very much divided and any rational discussion on issues like superstition, black magic and other modes of pseudoreligious practices still invite vicious opposition from too many quarters, particularly the hardline practitioners of these obsolete rituals. The fact that Asaram, despite being in police custody, still had enough clout to enjoy the VIP lounge at Jodhpur airport, where he was booed and hooted by secular protesters, indicates the extent of idol worship that these spiritual fraudsters are used to. It’s unfortunate that the 75-year-old scamster, who cleared a medical potency test, is still being shielded by politicians, particularly members of BJP, who vouch for his purported innocence despite mounting evidence pointing to the contrary, while his supporters beat up journalists and stop trains on their tracks to express their discontent. Evidently, the godman has connections that have been protecting him from the ire of law until now, when, at last, even that had to give in to the rising public demand to see the spiritual swindler and alleged rapist behind bars.
Clearly, the treatment doled out to Asaram Bapu before his arrest attests to the fact that India, at least swathes of it, is still living in the dark ages as far as the religious discourse is concerned. In stark contrast to Asaram Bapu, is the case of the recently slain anti-superstition activist Narendra Dhabolkar, who was not only a tireless champion of rationality and a fearless crusader against all forms of faith-based exploitation, but also an acclaimed journalist and writer, who published the weekly Sadhna for over six decades. The assassination of Narendra Dhabolkar is not only a blow to the cause of secular liberalism and enlightenment that stems from good education, but also yet another sociocultural grave dug by the forces of fanatical intolerance, superstition, irrationality and abuse in the name of faith. Obviously, Narendra Dhabolkar and Asaram Bapu occupy the opposing poles in the spectrum of conflicting religious understandings and viewpoints, one ceaselessly propagating the benefits of learning, scholarship and rationality, while the other, misusing the vulnerable and gullible to carry out nefarious business interests of his own, including land grabs, intimidation, black magic, sorcery, forgery, political and corporate brokering and mis-selling Hindutva-laced spirituality to make unimaginable profits. While one exploited to the hit the unholy nexus between politicians, godmen and businessmen, duping gullible folks who came to them to seek solace or respite from pressing problems, the other spent over 18 years trying to get the anti-superstition bill tabled in Maharashtra cabinet, which brought out an ordinance the day after Dhabolkar was brutally gunned down in Pune. And while the self-proclaimed godman worked up a web of political support across the parties that hitherto acted as an impenetrable shield, his insurance policy as it were, the rationalist braved murder attempts to condemn powerful pseudoreligious bodies that made money by playing with the faith of millions. Clearly, despite having a proactive media working round the clock and holding newsroom telegenic trials, India still has miles to go before it can truly measure Dhabolkar’s worth or prosecute Asaram for all his crimes, reported or unreported.