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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 38, September 7, 2013

Assassination of an Activist: Who Killed Dr Narendra Dabholkar?

Sunday 8 September 2013, by Subhash Gatade



“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
—Albert Einstein

Words have an uncanny ability of impinging on the receiver with clinical detachment. It is upto the receiver to unpack them or try to derive meaning out of them. It is still difficult to get over the sense of grief and shock one experienced when one received the news of the assasination of the renowned rationalist, Dr Narendra Dabholkar, on the streets of Pune on Tuesday, August 20.

For Punekars — residents of Pune — Omkareshwar temple on the banks of rivers Mula-Mutha happens to be the place where the dead are taken for last rites. It was a strange coincidence that Dr Dabholkar was on his morning walk near the Omkareshwar bridge when the assailants, riding on a motorcycle, fired at him from close range, two of the bullets hitting him in the back of his head and he immediately fell on the ground. He was rushed to the Sasoon Hospital where the doctors declared him dead.

The police found a photograph and a cheque in the name of the Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (ANS—Committee for the Eradication of Superstition) from his wallet. Perhaps after his walk he was planning to go to the office of Sadhana—a magazine he was editing for the last eighteen years—as has been the practice whenever he used to be in Pune.

Spontaneous demonstrations have been reported from different parts of Maharashtra. And in his hometown Satara thousands came out on the streets to pay tribute to this 70-year-old young man who was loved and respected for his campaign against superstition and self-appointed godmen. A bandh call was given by all political parties in Pune on Wednesday to protest the premeditated murder of Dr Dabholkar.

It was only the previous night that he was on a channel (Sahyadri) discussing the role of the caste panchayats and the way they have made life miserable for many people. The panel discussion was taking place in the backdrop of a murder of a girl by her own father, one Kumharkar in Nashik, on the instruction of
the caste panchayat as she had dared to marry outside the boundaries of caste. Intervening in the discussion, Dr Dabholkar was telling how they had recently organised a conference to promote inter-caste marriage and have released a manifesto on the same issue. Looking at the fact that couples who go for inter-caste marriage face tremendous problems at the hands of the communities they belong to, he was suggesting that special measures be taken by the police to protect them. None could have the premonition that that was going to be his last such panel discussion.

A multifaceted man—a medical doctor by training, writer-editor by aptitude and a campaigner by choice—he was the leading light of the rationalist movement and was engaged in fighting superstition and black magic through the organisation he led: ‘Andhashradha Nirmoolan Samity’, having a network of 200 branches spread over Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. Very few people would remember today that he was an accomplished Kabaddi player in his college days and won medals for the Indian team then. Although he started his social life by taking up medical practice, he soon got attracted towards the ‘One Village, One Well’ campaign initiated by well-known socialist leader, Dr Baba Adhav. The work to eradicate superstition was more than two decades old.

In one of his write-ups on the theme, entitled ‘Rationality Mission for Success in Life’, wherein he ‘aims to encourage the participants to follow four action plans to begin with and thereby bring the desired change in the society’, he had said:

The age-old superstitions consisting of traditions, rituals, mind-boggling procedures require money, labour and time of the individual as well as society. The modern society can’t afford to waste these valuable resources. In fact the superstitions ensure that the poor and downtrodden will remain in the same state forever and ever without getting any opportunity to come out of the poor conditions. Let us take a pledge not to follow any of the superstitions and waste the resources. We will collectively oppose the authorities who spend the taxpayers’ money on the festivals and ceremonies like Kumbh Mela, temples/mosques/church maintenance, local festivals etc. and allocate funds for infrastructures like water, power, communication, transport, health-care, primary education and other welfare and development activities.

Tributes have been paid to him by political leaders, social activists from all walks of life. No doubt, it was a pre-meditated murder, meticu-lously planned to the last detail.The police has formed eight teams to track down the actual murderers and one should expect that they would be able to make a breakthrough in the near future. The police said they would also scrutinise the allegation that he had received threats from extremist groups such as Sanatan Sanstha and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. According to his family members, he received threats often but refused to seek police protection. His son Hamid said: “He thought this was a struggle to end ignorance, and he did not need weapons to fight it.”

Who might have killed Dr Dabholkar?

Many possibilities exist. It is true that he did not have any personal enemies but his relentless work of fighting superstition must have created a band of adversaries, who would have wanted to see him dead. Status quoist forces within politics also did not feel comfortable with his work.

One can get a measure of the resistance offered by all such elements to the work he and his organisation had undertaken from the fact that for years together an anti-superstition Bill called ‘Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill’ put forward by them is pending in the Maharashtra Assembly—the only one of its kind in India. There was a strong opposition from Hindu extremist organi-sations and Warkaris to the Bill, but Dabholkar was determined to get the Bill passed and he stated that he was not against anybody’s faith, but was against superstition. It was barely two weeks ago that Dabholkar had criticised Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan at a press conference in Pune for not tabling the draft legislation in the recently-concluded monsoon session of the State Assembly.

Without getting entrapped in the argument of defining faith and blind faith, the proposed Bill speaks of tackling the most common superstitions prevailing in Maharashtra. The list included, to perform Karni, Bhanamati, to perform magical rites in the name of supernatural power, to offer ash, talisman, charms etc. for the purpose of exorcism and to drive out evil spirits or ghosts, to claim possession of supernatural powers and to advertise this claim, to defame, disgrace the names of erstwhile saints/gods by claiming to be their reincarnations and thus cheating the gullible and God-fearing simple folks, to perform so-called black magic and spread fear in society. Such practices would be made an offence under this Act and to serve as a deterrent it is proposed to provide stringent penalty and punishment, making such a practice a cognisable and non-bailable offence. The Bill also provides for the appointment of Vigilance Officers to detect and prevent such offences and collect evidence against the offenders. The idea is that it will help to prosecute the offenders effectively.

Now that the leading campaigner for this Bill is dead, and in view of the dilly-dallying going on for all these years, one does not know what will be the future of the Bill.

It was in the late seventies that I had the opportunity of listening to him at a study camp of ‘Vishamata Nirmulan Samity’—a loose coalition of organisations, individuals working for social change then—in Pune for the first time. One still remembers the passion with which he spoke at that time. Perhaps this passion for broader social transformation never deserted him which is why he could sustain many odds that were an integral part of the work he had undertaken as a mission in life.

As has been rightly said, his untimely death has dealt a severe blow to the rationalist move-ment in this country. This movement, which is facing tremendous challenges with the ascen-dance of Rightwing forces in society, has lost one of its commanders today. And it is a loss to everyone concerned with progressive change in India. It remains to be seen how all of us together are able to turn the tremendous grief which has come our way into a new determi-nation and resolve to fight the forces of ignorance, irrationality and reaction—a cause célébre for which Dr Narendra Dabholkar lived and died.

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