Its members start their day at 6am with meditation and prayers that go on for a couple of hours. After a “sattvik” vegetarian breakfast they go on to their assigned tasks, readying publications with their guru’s teachings and excerpts from Hindu religious texts. The evenings see prayer meetings again. Nothing unexceptional for a group of spiritual seekers. But is that all there is to the Sanatan Sanstha?
Critics have long labelled it a part of the hardline Hindutva fringe. The Sanstha has consistently maintained its members are just spiritual seekers but it has always had its run-ins, from inception in 1990, with rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare in Maharashtra, most famously over the anti-superstition bill. Now one of its members, Sameer Gaikwad , is in police custody in connection with the gunning down of Pansare.
The police have struggled to make progress in the investigation. It doesn’t help that state ministers make public remarks against a ban on the Sanstha. First, it was revenue minister Eknath Khadse . Next, it was Ranjit Patil junior minister in the home department. His boss, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has made no efforts to clear the air.
“There is no pressure. I mean we are not getting any calls from higher authorities to go slow on the investigation but you can sense that the top guns in the government are not keen to nail the Sanatan Sanstha,” said a senior police officer involved in the Pansare murder investigation. He declined to be named.
In Mumbai and western Maharashtra, where it has considerable presence, the Sanstha has close ties to BJP and Shiv Sena leaders. The Sena came out strongly in support of the Sanstha when the opposition demanded a ban on it.
Also read : Is Maharashtra going soft on Sanatan Sanstha?
Supporters of Pansare-Dabholkar say the rationalists have been taking on the Sanstha for more two decades. Dabholkar first criticised the Sanstha in 1990 when its members started a hate campaign against Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, the 19th century social reformer.
It was the year Dr Jayant Athavale formed the Sanatan Bharatiya Sanskruti Sanstha, which was renamed Sanatan Sanstha in 1999. Athavale, a clinical hypnotherapist, practised in Mumbai and later in Britain between 1971 and 1978. According to Sanstha-related websites, during his practice, Athavale observed that he could cure 70% of his patients, but 30% of them did not recover completely. He further studied the ‘science of spirituality’. His search led him to his guru, Bhaktaraj Maharaj. He soon began to give lectures on the ‘science of spirituality’ and went on to form the Sanstha. His followers describe Athavale as a saint.
Dabholkar used to run a campaign against superstition through his Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (ANS). The Sanstha and its umbrella organisation, the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS), believe in propagating what they see as a pure form of Hindu religious practices. The two sides need not have been at odds given that Maharashtra has a long tradition of social and religious reform. This did not happen. Dabholkar used to target self-styled gurus and saints claiming to perform miracles and advocating irrational religious practices. That was where the two sides crossed swords.
Issues of the Sanstha’s mouthpiece, Sanatan Prabhat, make clear its antagonism for Dabholkar. Pansare was not at the forefront of the anti-superstition agitations but was a strong supporter of Dabholkar. He was vocal against the distortion of Maharashtra’s history – linked to the Brahmin versus Bahujan debate that has been going on for decades. The rationalists, however, joined forces to push the anti-superstition bill, which proved to be flashpoint between them and the Sanstha.
The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013, or simply the anti-superstition bill, was passed in December 2013. The bill was first drafted in 1990 by Dr Dabholkar and the ANS, but successive governments kept it in cold storage owing to strong opposition from religious groups and the Shiv Sena and the BJP. An ordinance was issued after Dabholkar was murdered and the legislature passed the bill in December the same year. However, it was a watered down version of Dabholkar’s original draft.
The Sanstha ran a campaign against the bill. It said the bill won’t allow Hindus to perform puja at their homes. It also tried to rope in the Warkari sect which has strong presence in Maharashtra with thousands of members taking out dindi (processions) to Pandharpur to the temple of Lord Vithal. The bill was finally passed by Congress-NCP government only after Dabholkar was murdered in 2013.
Will the police be able to nab and prosecute the killers of rationalists Dabholkar and Pansare? Will the Sanstha be banned as demanded by the rationalists?
The answer to the first question: with the police struggling to get any leads in the investigation, it seems difficult. A ban is unlikely. Even the previous Congress-NCP government did not impose a ban, point out the rationalists.
“After Dabholkar’s murder, we met both [the then chief minister] Prithviraj Chavan and [ the then home minister, the late] R R Patil and showed them the evidence. How Dabholkar was threatened by the Sanstha and the language being used to appeal to its followers..,” said Rahul Thorat, managing editor of the ANS newsletter, Andhashraddha Nirmulan Vartapatra.
The Sanstha points out there is no evidence that it is involved in illegal activities. Unless the police find clinching evidence, a ban on the Sansthan is out of the question.
In ground zero -- the Sangli-Kolhapur belt – the rationalists are preparing for a long battle with the Sanstha.