Murder Can’t Silence Dr. Narendra Dabholkar’s Fight

Anti-superstition activist and rationalist Dr. Narendra Dabholkar (65) was shot dead on 20th August in Pune, while on his morning walk. The shooters were two youth on a motorcycle. Dr. Dabholkar had been campaigning for an anti-superstition law that would hurt the interests of godmen and conmen who promote and profit from irrational superstitions. Various militant Sangh outfits had issued threats to him for his activism. His murder was followed by protests in Pune, his hometown Satara and other parts of Maharashtra. When the Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan arrived in Satara for Dr Dabholkar’s funeral, he was heckled by activists from Andha Shraddha Nirmoolan Samiti – the Committee for Abolition of Superstition, who demanded that the State pass the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Bill for which Dr. Dabholkar had been campaigning. The Government has since promised to pass the Bill, but it remains to be seen if it’s an empty promise.

Dr Dabholkar was born in a family with a socialist outlook. As a young man he had been active with the ‘Samajwadi Yuvajan Sabha.’ He was a doctor by training, and after practicising medicine for a decade, dedicated himself to social awakening. He worked with socialist leader Baba Adhav on the ‘One Village One Well’ movement in 1983 and in 1989 set up the Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. He took the campaign against tantriks, Babas, quacks and conmen/godmen to schools, colleges and villages, striving for the past 30 years to promote a scientific world view. He wrote more than 30 books, edited the socialist Marathi weekly Sadhna, founded by Sane Guruji, and established an de-addiction centre at Satara.

In 2000, he led a remarkable struggle for women’s entry into the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmadnagar. He issued open challenges to powerful godmen and godwomen like Nirmala Devi and Narendra Maharaj. This year, when Asaram Bapu played Holi with thousands of litres of drinking water in drought-ridden Maharashtra, Dr. Dabholkar challenged it and eventually the Government had to step in to stop it. He was a fierce opponent of the mis-called ‘honour crimes’, and a defender of inter-caste marriages.

Dr. Dabholkar mobilized a team of socially oriented dramatists including Sreeram Lagu, Nilu Phule, and Rohini Hattangadi to organise 100 performances of a Marathi play in different parts of the state, thereby creating a fund through the sale of tickets and through donations, to support full time social activists in Maharashtra. One of his associates reports that 45 progressive social activists are supported by this fund now, which amounts to more than Rs 1 crore.

In a country where feudal survivals are strong, and where corporate media channels shamelessly promote superstitions and unreason daily, where politicians, bureaucrats and moneybags promote a thriving industry of godmen, where superstition and fear are peddled as a panacea for the poor, where stories of women being killed as witches and human sacrifice can be heard daily, and where mental and physical ailments are treated by quacks and witch-doctors routinely, Dr. Dabholkar’s work was anything but easy. But he inherited Maharashtra’s sturdy rationalist legacy, of which the best examples were Jotiba Phule and Dr. Ambedkar.

Dr. Dabholkar had faced many threats of violence. One of the latest was when the Sanatan Sanstha warned him publicly at Azad Maidan to “Remember Gandhi. Remember what we did to him.” The Sanstha is a Sangh militant outfit, a breakaway of the the Hindu Janjagriti Samiti, and is implicated in four bomb blasts. Their office, according to a reporter, has “a painting that has an image of India surrounded by four villains – including ‘people who oppose black magic’ and Mayawati’s BSP.” The Sanstha’s publication the Sanatan Prabhat has issued threats to journalists Kumar Ketkar, Nikhil Wagle and Rana Ayyub. Former ATS chief Hemant Karkare who was investigating the 2008 blasts had recommended a ban on the Sanstha.

The questions for the Maharashtra Government are many: why did they not arrest and prosecute the Hindu fundamentalists who openly made death threats to Dr. Dabholkar? Why have they been so reluctant to pass a Bill to curb conmen who profit from superstition?

Those who killed Dr. Dabholkar continue their intimidation spree. At a screening of Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bhim Comrade in Pune organized by the FTII, which had dedicated the screening to Dr. Dabholkar’s memory, the ABVP attacked FTII students and Kabir Kala Manch activists who perform anti-casteand progressive music in the tradition of Ambedkarite and Marxist rationalism.

Dr. Dabholkar’s legacy however cannot be silenced with bullets. The robust tradition of rationalism which he so ably represented will continue to thrive.

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