by Ganesh Kumar Radha Udayakumar
June 11, 2016
NEW DELHI: Three years ago, atheist and rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar was shot in the back of the head from close-range and in broad daylight by motorcycle-borne assailants when he was on his morning walk. He was 67.
It was only on Friday that the CBI made the first arrest in this murder case, when it took Virendrasinh Tawde - a doctor and a member of the right-wing organization Hindu Janajagruti Samiti - into custody.
At the time of the murder, no one claimed responsibility for the attack and no eye-witnesses came forward. Still, there was wide speculation that Dr Dabholkar - who had received threats from right-wing groups - had become the target of religious fundamentalists. If he had, it wouldn’t have been surprising. The website of a prominent organization that he founded lists astrology, vastu shastra and reincarnation as superstitions.
Dr. Dabholkar was a veteran activist who dedicated his life to the eradication of social evils, religious superstition, and the caste system.
He organized "innumerable campaigns to confront and expose hundreds of babas, buvas, tantriks, mantriks, ammas, matas and bogus doctors and brought them to book", his organization’s website says. He also edited a magazine, Sadhana, a Marathi weekly.
The CBI says it found "strong" evidence of Virendrasinh Tawade’s guilt. The ENT specialist will be taken to Shivaji Nagar court in Pune on Saturday. Investigators say they have proof that Tawade was communicating by e-mail with Sarang Akolkar, a fugitive who was implicated in the 2009 Goa bomb blast case, and who - like Tawade - is a member of the Sanathan Sastha - an organization that has been accused of aiming to set up a Hindu state in India, and that both the AAP and the CPI have said should be banned.
When the murder occurred, Dr. Dabholkar was profiled in prominent newspapers and magazines - including the Economist and the New York Times - but he’d been largely forgotten, until Friday, that is.
Who was this man that allegedly so irked so-called religious fanatics?
Driven by conviction
Dr. Narendra Dabholkar hailed from Satara, Maharashtra. In an autobiographical essay published on the website of his organization, the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti, the activist wrote that he had trained to be a doctor, and had had also been a national and international kabbadi player. No specific event had pushed him to take up social work, he said. He was driven by his own "convictions," and believed in "perseverance" and in using "pure and clean means" to achieve his ends.
During his time, this tireless advocate of rationalism made some influential enemies. When he asked that women be allowed to enter the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar, he faced "a backlash from right-wing political groups and finally ended in court", a Hindu report said in 2013. It added that such groups often "disrupted" his press conferences. "In this movement, even expressing a thought is sometimes a fight," the doctor is quoted as saying in the report. In April, the Shingnapur temple agreed to allow women into the inner sanctum, breaking a four-century old tradition.
The crown in his legacy
Perhaps Dr. Dabholkar’s most valuable contribution to Indian history was an unprecedented Maharashtra state law against black magic and other superstitious practices.
The 2013 Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act was promulgated a day after the veteran activist was murdered, and an entire decade after he had first drafted the Bill in 2003. The Bill had been altered 24 times since it was first introduced, and had faced opposition in the past, even from some political parties. However, it was hailed in 2013 as "a fitting tribute to Dabolkhar" by Prithviraj Chauhan, the then-Maharashtra chief minister.
Within eighteen months of its enactment, the law was invoked in as many as a 150 cases, most of which involved female victims.
The details of some of these cases are chilling.
A Nashik family was caught red-handed trying to bury their children to unleash the power of a mantra.
A girl was sexually assaulted by a Nagpur baba promising to cure a disease with his supernatural powers.
A woman suffered sexual explotation at the hands of a Malegaon baba, who also tempted her with the prospect of vast riches - for a goodly sum of Rs 3 lakh, of course.
An ongoing struggle
Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS) - which Dr. Dabholkar founded in 1989 - is still active. Its website contains articles on superstitions and the scientific temper, and describes the organization’s ongoing fight against irrationality and psychological exploitation: MANS publishes books, and conducts exams, and training sessions to help children think scientifically, promotes inexpensive wedding ceremonies in Jotirao Phule’s Satyashodak tradion, and continues to work with educational institutions, the media, and political bodies to expose charlatans and self-ordained godmen.
"It has been a long struggle to imbibe rationality in the minds of people. But we have made a start, thanks to the sacrifice of Narendra Dabholkar," activist and eminent scholar Vidya Bal told a convention of MANS workers in 2015.