Barely 30 hours after rationalist and anti-superstition campaigner Narendra Dabholkar was gunned down in Pune, the Maharashtra cabinet passed an Ordinance to make black magic and superstitious rituals illegal. It’s a sad reflection of our democracy that reformists are being silenced with bullets and that it took his murder for the government to react. The anti-superstition Bill has been hanging fire for nearly 15 years. It’s also a tribute to Dabholkar’s relentless campaign to rid society of superstitious beliefs and black magic rituals and to instill a scientific temper.
Dabholkar, a doctor from Satara, brought logic and reason to matters of belief and faith — a difficult task in any society, but more so in ours riddled as it is with superstitious rituals, blind devotion to caste-and-clan-determined practices, and god-men and women. His detractors flayed him for being against religiosity but Dabholkar was not anti-religion. He raised a flag against blind belief and exhorted people to question and criticise such beliefs, hold out against caste panchayats, and challenge tantriks and quacks. His reasoned critiques attracted a large following, evident in the 200 branches of the anti-superstition organisation, Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti, that he chaired for decades across Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. It not only made status quoists uncomfortable but also prompted a steady stream of attacks on him from followers of various babas and right-wing Hindu extremist groups such as the Sanatan Sanstha. He refused to seek police protection on two grounds: if he was protected, his colleagues would be attacked, and that his work was within the ambit of the Constitution. Dabholkar worked with colleagues to distil his vision into the Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill first in the late 1990s and campaigned for passage in the assembly. The Bill was vehemently opposed by the BJP and Shiv Sena. This Act, he argued, would become a template for the rest of the country. In this, his work epitomised the robust reformist and progressive traditions of Maharashtra articulated by Jyotiba Phule, Dhondo Keshav Karve, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Mahadeo Govind Ranade, Ramabai Ranade and BR Ambedkar.
Pune, the intellectual capital of the Maharashtra, has been the theatre in which extremist tendencies found themselves challenged by reformist and modern thought. It is no coincidence that Dabholkar’s adversaries called for him to be hit here. The mandatory investigative procedures are underway but what’s the guarantee that, in a society where political leaders, bureaucrats and business barons openly seek the blessings of godmen, the masterminds of Dabholkar’s murder will be identified and punished?