Reason can’t be silenced

Reason can’t be silenced

Politicians in India have a nasty habit of proclaiming themselves and their State as ‘progressive’. Maharashtra has more reasons to do so....

This crime shocked the State, angered people but the administration has so far failed miserably to trace killers, forget arresting them

Nikhil Gajendragadkar

Politicians in India have a nasty habit of proclaiming themselves and their State as ‘progressive’. Maharashtra has more reasons to do so. As many social thinkers and reformists were born and worked in the State right from the 19th century, it has a long tradition of progressive social thought. And yet the State is not free from reactionary elements. They showed their ugly face by killing one of the most vocal activists who had been relentlessly fighting against superstitions for the past three decades.

Social reformist Dr Narendra Dabholkar was murdered in Pune in broad daylight and in a busy area of the city last week. This crime shocked the State, angered people but the administration has so far failed miserably to trace killers, forget arresting them.

Dabholkar, born in 1945 in a small town called Dabholi in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra, was attracted towards progressive thoughts while studying medicine. A doctor by profession, he soon quit the practice and devoted himself to the cause he loved and believed in. He fought relentlessly against superstition and many customs rooted in it. His passion made him set up the “Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samitee” or ANS (council or committee for removal of superstition) in 1989 to spread scientific reasoning among masses. He was also the editor of Sadhana weekly, established by noted freedom fighter and social reformist Sane Guruji.

However, according to some, who are in large numbers, Dabholkar’s fight against superstition was a crime. Against whom or what? Absurd as it may sound, against established beliefs which are propagated as ‘values’. Conservative and right-wing groups, through their whispering campaign as well as openly, alleged that Dabholkar was against religion of the majority and that he was targeting beliefs of a certain faith. In fact, Dabholkar was not against any religion, but was opposed to customs and godmen and women who took common people for a ride by taking advantage of their beliefs /superstitions. It is observed that the lower strata of society fall prey to such customs out of fear of inviting wrath of gods-- and/or in quest of a better life. He tried to educate these people. But radicals were, and still are, against it.

In a civilized society, if one does not agree with someone, or if one simply cannot agree with the other person’s views then one should counter these with one’s own thoughts—this is the democratic way. Realizing there were opponents to his school of thought, Dabholkar invited them to talk it over, discuss and resolve the difference of opinion. But they do not believe in discussion. They refuse to respect others’ views. They, in short, do not believe in democracy.

If one looks at the social history of India, one finds many saints in almost all parts of India, who opposed discrimination, inequality, rituals that take us away from humanity. They strived for social equality. These saints did not perform stunts to attract people or to earn money. Stories were made up to create ‘miracles’, to further strengthen superstitions. In Maharashtra Saint Dnyaneshwar and later Saint Tukaram denounced established norms and, in a way, Dabholkar chose and sought to take forward their legacy. Ironically, the very society which adored these saints created obstacles in his way.

However, his conviction never made him give up. Thanks to his perseverance, the State Government introduced a Bill to eradicate superstition and magical practices nearly 18 years ago. However, both the Bill and Dabholkar were opposed vehemently by astrologers, religious groups and many others; this at a time when there has been advent of new technologies and the spread of education. While superstition should have gradually been erased, today we see the contrary.

Why is this so? The answer is simple: superstition is a big enterprise now. Take a look at the numerous programmes on TV. Air time on many channels is bought to promote Special Rudraksha, or some ‘Dhanavardhak yanta’ or something similar, that will relieve one from all worries, problems, etc. These ‘gadgets’ will facilitate success at every level; that is what we see prominent people telling us on the screen.

It is big business, and one can find hundreds of ‘shops’ of many sizes doing business of faith and belief. These operate in small towns and villages. Uneducated, plain village folk fall prey to such ‘mutts’ and their ‘divine heads’. Besides extortion of money, emotional and physical abuse is rampant in this trade. Dabholkar was fighting against such exploitative practices. In his lectures and programmes, he showed that cutting a lemon and “producing” blood from it was not a miracle as claimed by many self-proclaimed sadhus and babas (godmen). It was merely a trick achieved through simple chemical reactions. Importantly, as the work of his ANS spread, many such sadhus disappeared. People from small towns also gathered courage to challenge these so-called divine authorities. This was seen by radical forces as a revolt against religion and God. The two men who shot Dabholkar are merely shooters. The mastermind behind the attack belongs to such forces, particularly those whose ‘shop of faith’ had been shut down.

History tells us that whenever a person with new scientific thought has challenged conventional thinking or tradition, similar “punishment” has been meted out by right-wing forces. But we are not living in the middle ages. It’s indeed shocking that something like this can happen in a city known as a seat of progressive thought, and that too in the 21st century!

Dabholkar’s murder must be condemned by all who believe in democracy and progressive thinking. It is not enough for the State Government to promulgate an ordinance to take the place of the Bill against superstition. However, if implemented, it will certainly be a step forward towards progressive movement in Maharashtra and in the country. But the big question is: Why the reformist had to sacrifice his life for a law which will help millions to come out of ignorance and free them from the clutches of exploiters?

Indeed, the fight against superstition is difficult, at least in India. Radical and fanatic groups don’t believe in ideological conflict. Instead, they take it to baser levels and resort to heinous ways to finish those who do not tow their line. But Dabholkar’s death cannot and should not silence voice of reasoning. n


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