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Millennium Post

Tribute to a rationalist

The assassination of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar in Pune is an ugly black mark on Indian society. The forces of fanatical intolerance, superstition, irrationality and social reaction which killed Dabholkar murdered him not because he threatened their faith or freedom to propagate their views, but because he believed that it’s wrong to exploit people through black magic, sorcery, and cheap sleights-of-hand while invoking supernatural powers.

The killing is unlikely to have had anything to do with personal rivalry. As those knew Dabholkar would testify – including this writer, who had the pleasure of knowing him and writing for the his remarkable weekly Sadhana—he was too amiable and disarming a man to inspire a personal animus. He came from a highly regarded family of scholars, educators and activists. Dabholkar was eliminated because he was an independent intellectual with anti-superstition views, which are anathema to obscurantists, religious bigots and reactionaries. A society in which rationalist intellectuals are killed, but witchcraft and violent rituals to exorcise ‘evil spirits’ are condoned, cannot be called minimally civilised. Shamefully, India is hurtling towards just that status: over the last 15 years, 2,500 women were killed in witchcraft rituals, according to anti-superstition activists. The police still haven’t determined who planned Dabholkar’s killing, but it would be no surprise if caste panchayats or fanatical Hindutva groups like Sanatan Sanstha and Hindu Janajagriti Samiti – which scarcely hid their hatred for his Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (committee for the eradication of superstition) – plotted it or were complicit. Some Hindutva organisations formally deplored the killing. But Sanatan Sanstha founder Jayant Athavale wrote a sinister obituary: ‘instead of dying bedridden through illness, or a painful death following a surgery,’ Dabholkar died instantly: this was, ‘in a way, a blessing of the Almighty.’ This crudely rationalises murder, however revolting, including Dabholkar’s.

Three days later, activists of the Akhil Bhrartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing) broke up a memorial meeting for Dabholkar at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, and assaulted members of the Left-wing music band Kabir Kala Manch. They branded the organisers ‘Naxalites’ because one of them refused to chant ‘Jai Narendra Modi’ when ordered to do so – to prove he wasn’t a Naxalite. It’s not ruled out that wealthy jewellers, who have recently grown like a rash in Maharashtra, had a role in Dabholkar’s killing: they couldn’t have been pleased with his imminent campaign against gemstones, wearing which ‘miraculously’ protects you against ‘malevolent’ stars. At any rate, the goon tactics displayed in Pune were typical of highly politicised religious fanatics. Another pointer to fanatics’ involvement is the last anonymous threat that Dabholkar received: ‘Remember Gandhi. Remember what we did to him.’ This lays claim to Nathuram Godse’s legacy – with brazen, pathological, hubris. Even the normally mild-mannered Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said that Dabholkar’s killers have ‘the same mindset’ as Gandhi’s assassins. One must sincerely hope that the police investigation is scrupulous, thorough, and ‘gets to the bottom of the conspiracy’, as Chavan promises. The assassination is the latest in a series of explosions of intolerance witnessed in Pune, including numerous fanatical attacks on liberal institutions, ransacking of the prestigious Bhadarkar Oriental Research Institute by the Maratha-chauvinist Sambhaji Brigade in 2004 over James Laine’s book on Shivaji, killing of five social activists in 2010, and the cancellation of a screening of Sanjay Kak’s film on Kashmir in February 2012 under the ABVP’s pressure. The killing marks a new low in Maharashtra’s cultural retrogression. This is the more tragic because Maharashtra was the crucible of India’s progressive social reform movement for a century, led by Shahu Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, D K Karve, MG Ranade, Ramabai Ranade, and not least, BR Ambedkar, with thousands of followers among working people.

Although social reform was pioneered at the level of ideas in Bengal by Ram Mohun Roy, it took roots among ordinary people mainly in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, where its leaders articulated the aspirations of the plebeian masses. The mobilisation of Dalits and Other Backward Classes, which followed later in North India, owes a great deal to this early movement.
Maharashtra saw the flowering of India’s first Bahujan Samaj mobilisation against religious orthodoxy, casteism, barring of temple entry to Dalits, sati, gender discrimination, and other social evils. The movement championed girls’/women’s education and widow remarriage. It firmly embraced the values of the Enlightenment, with an emphasis on reason, critical inquiry and science. 

Sane Guruji, a Socialist who founded ‘Sadhana’ 65 years ago, belonged squarely to this tradition. Dabholkar formed a direct link with the social reform legacy, both personally and through the editorship of ‘Sadhana’ which he reinvigorated after it fell on bad days in the 1980s and 1990s. The reformists always faced venomous opposition, including social boycott and expulsion, from diehard traditionalists and upper-caste status quoists. But they heroically resisted – and at times succeeded in pushing through pro-people reform measures.

The balance changed in the 1960s with the rise of the chauvinist and communal Shiv Sena, which worked to reverse the gains of social reform, with support from the Maratha-dominated ruling Congress. With this, says social and cultural critic Shanta Gokhale, the needle that had oscillated ‘between Maharashtra’s progressive and regressive heritage stopped on the side of regression.’
Dabholkar was a rationalist and probably an atheist. But he didn’t campaign against faith per se, only against blind faith and exploitation of gullible people through witchcraft, tricks passed off as ‘miracles’. IPA
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