A leading Indian rationalist thinker, who campaigned for a law to eradicate superstition in a country noted for its mystics and gurus, was shot dead on August 20, 2013. Two gunmen on motorbikes fired at Narendra Dabholkar, a medical doctor who had faced accusations of being anti-religion, as he was taking his morning walk in the western city of Pune in Maharashtra state.
Pol said detectives were trying to establish the motive behind the killing and had no immediate suspects.
Dabholkar more than two decades ago founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti — the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith — that aimed to change the mindset of India’s deeply superstitious population.
Dabholkar, known for his campaigns to promote progressive and scientific thought, had for several years been lobbying for Maharashtra state’s parliament to pass legislation banning superstition and black magic.
Two years ago, in an interview, he rejected critics’ charges that such a bill was anti-religion.
“In the whole of the bill, there’s not a single word about God or religion. Nothing like that. The Indian constitution allows freedom of worship and nobody can take that away,” he said.
“This is about fraudulent and exploitative practices.” Over the years, Dabholkar had also challenged some of India’s “godmen”, self-styled Hindu ascetics who have huge followings, over their claims to have performed miracles.
He also campaigned against animal sacrifices during some religious rituals.
Dabholkar, whom Indian media said was aged 71, was editor of a magazine called “Sadhana” or spiritual practice and was devoted to the propagation of progressive thought.
Prominent rationalist Sumitra Padmanabhan of the independent Humanists’ Association condemned the killing. “Rationalists all over India are attacked as India is still a very superstitious country,” Padmanabhan said by telephone from Kolkata. “There are laws against dowry, witch-hunting and child marriages but such practices are still thriving in the country,” she said. Superstitious beliefs are rampant in the fast-developing and officially secular country.
For nearly three decades, Narendra Dabholkar traveled from village to village in India, waging a personal war against the spirit world.
Police officers removed a banner bearing the image of Narendra Dabholkar near the spot where he was shot in Pune.
If a holy man had electrified the public with his miracles, Dr. Dabholkar, a former physician, would duplicate the miracles and explain, step by step, how they were performed. If a sorcerer had amassed a fortune treating infertility, he would arrange a sting operation to unmask the man as a fraud. His goal was to drive a scientist’s skepticism into the heart of India, a country still teeming with gurus, babas, astrologers, godmen and other mystical entrepreneurs.
That mission ended when two men ran up behind Dr. Dabholkar, 67, as he crossed a bridge, shot him at point-blank range, then jumped onto a motorbike and disappeared into the traffic coursing through this city.
Dr. Dabholkar’s killing is the latest episode in a millenniums-old wrestling match between traditionalists and reformers in India. When detectives began putting together a list of Dr. Dabholkar’s enemies, they found that it was long. He had received threats from Hindu far-right groups, been beaten by followers of angry gurus and challenged by councils upholding archaic caste laws. His home state, Maharashtra, was considering legislation he had promoted for 14 years, banning a list of practices like animal sacrifice, the magical treatment of snake bites and the sale of magic stones.
In the rush of emotion that followed Dr. Dabholkar’s death, the state’s governor signed the so-called anti-black magic bill into force as an ordinance. But Dr. Dabholkar never put stock in sudden breakthroughs, said his son, Hamid Dabholkar, as mourners filtered through the family’s home. “He knew this kind of battle is fought across the ages,” he said. “The journey we have chosen is one that started with Copernicus. We have a very small life, of 70 to 80 years, and the kind of change we will see during that time will be small.”
At Police Headquarters in Pune, the crime branch’s reception area was decorated with a painting of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, bedecked with garlands of fresh flowers and a revolving, multicolored flashing light. There was a slight smell of incense. The lead investigator in the Dabholkar case had been working until 4 a.m., the inspector on duty said, so he would not be in until noon. “Round-the-clock,” he repeated, reassuringly, when asked about the inquiry’s intensity.
The killers left behind a few pieces of evidence. Surveillance cameras show two men lurking around a bridge for nearly an hour before intercepting Dr. Dabholkar on his post-yoga morning walk. Friends and family described threats Dr. Dabholkar had received over the years from hard-line Hindu organizations.
The founder of one such group, Sanatan Sanstha, noting that he did not condone the killing, did not bother to feign sorrow over Dr. Dabholkar’s death.
“Instead of dying of old age, or by surgery, which causes a lot of suffering, the death Mr. Dabholkar got today was a blessing from God,” the leader, a former hypnotherapist now known as His Holiness Dr. Jayant Athavale, wrote in an editorial in the organization’s publication, Sanatan Prabhat.
With his unfashionable glasses and mild smile, Dr. Dabholkar fell into his region’s tradition of progressive social movements. An atheist, he quit practicing medicine at 40 to devote his life to activism. The room where he worked was bare but for a framed quote from Mahatma Gandhi. His wife, Shaila, recalled that her family had offered her an array of young men they considered marriageable, and she had chosen him for his idealism.
“We thought only about society, and that was what we spoke about,” she said. “Even though we were married, there was nothing like romance, or anything like that. Both of us were patriots of idealism. We wanted a good society.”
He was active on many fronts, from women’s rights to environmentalism, but the guru-busting received the most attention. A German scholar who wrote a book about Dr. Dabholkar’s group, the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith, described a traveling road show in which activists lay on beds of nails, set coconuts on fire and told crowds, “Just remember, miracles can never happen.”
“The rationalists do not shy away from challenging and provoking the gods, deities and spirits, ridiculing the people capable of controlling black magic and deliberately doing the most inauspicious things,” the scholar, Johannes Quack, wrote in his study “Disenchanting India.” “Some villagers told me that the rationalists would live to regret such behavior.”
Recently, Dr. Dabholkar had focused much of his energy on the anti-black magic bill, and he was frustrated that politicians were slow to embrace it. Shruti Tambe, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pune, said it had run into various roadblocks — a rise in conservative thought among middle-class Hindus; the vested interests of castes that specialized in certain rituals. Then there was the difficulty of providing a legal definition of superstition. The list of banned activities grew shorter and shorter over the years, and now includes 16 items, among them “to perform magical rites in the name of supernatural power” and “to perform so-called black magic and spread fear in society.”
“What today stands as the draft legislation is a much mellowed-down position,” she said. “It is a slippery area that we are talking about — what is faith, and what is blind faith. There is a very thin line dividing it.”
Far-right Hindu groups were vehemently opposed. Shambhu S. Gaware, a spokesman for Sanatan Sanstha, who offered an interview after repeated phone calls, said early versions of the bill banned practices that cause bodily injury — which, he said, could be interpreted to include traditional fasting. Though many provisions have since been removed, the act is still vaguely worded and could be applied to legitimate religious practices, he said.
“This is just an attack on Hindu dharma,” said Mr. Gaware, a mechanical engineer.
The days since the killing have been tense for Sanatan Sanstha. There have been calls to ban the group, which has no official membership, since 2008, when people linked to it were convicted of bombing theaters. Mr. Gaware said investigators questioned eight of Sanatan Sanstha’s local members immediately after the killing, and have a list of 70 members they plan to interrogate. He said the members had cooperated fully.
“Dr. Dabholkar was not a believer in God, and we are strong believers in God, so there is always a clash between our thoughts,” he said. “But we do not believe in violence. Whatever our differences with Dr. Dabholkar, we always choose legal means to oppose him.”
The police have begun questioning the leaders of criminal gangs in Pune, in hopes of identifying the crime’s mastermind, and are tracing more than 1,000 motorcycles with plate numbers similar to the assailants’, The Times of India reported Saturday.
In Pune, meanwhile, the secular and the spiritual strain against each other. Boys and men stopped at the spot on the bridge where Dr. Dabholkar was shot, fixing their gaze at the grayish stain on the cement. Rohit Shindey, 21, said that as a child, he had believed in “all the things in our religion that they would do that was rubbish, like babas and predictions.”
Then, he said, Dr. Dabholkar gave a speech at his school. “He told us: ‘I am not saying there is no God. Believe in God. But do not keep any superstitions in your heart. Only God is in your heart,’ ” Mr. Shindey said.
Not 50 feet away, Kumar Shankar was offering palm readings in the same spot where he has worked since 1987. He sat cross-legged and barefoot, in a vest of rough homespun fabric, and was not especially bothered by the challenges of secularists. A reading was 60 rupees, about $1.
“The Constitution of India has given us freedom of expression,” he said. “Many people say God is not there, but many more believe in God. Many people do not believe in spirits. Many people believe in spirits.” To charges that he was exploiting that belief, he said, “If you go to a doctor, will he treat you for free?”
Mr. Shankar had heard about Dr. Dabholkar’s death, and about the sudden progress of the new legislation. He shrugged off the idea that it would have any effect on him. “No, mine is a science,” he said. “This is palmistry! Numerology, palmistry, astrology, these are sciences! The law cannot ban them.”
His family presented the most befitting posthumous accolade by upholding his mission and decided not to scatter his ashes into water as the apostle of rationality believed that immersing ashes of the dead pollutes water bodies. His soul must have found eternal ecstasy that his family decided to scatter his ashes on his farm where his wife Shaila practices organic horticulture.
Human history is full of evidences that blind faith never tolerates logic and rationale. Dogmatism has an innate propensity to subjugate pragmatism. Orthodoxy in every religion adopted such a course. Muslim clergy of Spain did not spare 12th century Muslim scholar Ibn-e-Rushd. He was a polymath, possessing mastery on Aristotelian philosophy, Islamic philosophy, Islamic theology, Maliki law and jurisprudence, logic, psychology, politics, Arabic music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and celestial mechanics.
He challenged clerics for their literal practice by claiming that philosophers had better sense to understand Quranic allegory through lenses of logic. Not just Islamic clergy but Catholic Church was equally snarled by his writings on rationalism that sneaked into European borders from Spain. He was reviled as a heathen.
Similarly, Jewish proselytizers loathed Moses Maimonides (M?s? ibn Maym?n in Arabic). Moses, a great Jewish philosopher and a friend of Ibn-e-Rushd, joined the ranks striving to reconcile religions with reason. He defied Jewish orthodoxy by writing that “If one has the means to provide either the lamp for one’s household or the Chanukah (a Jewish festival) lamp, the household lamp takes precedence”. Orthodoxy barreled its ire towards him and his books were burned publicly.
Europe liberated itself from clutches of blind faith some eight centuries ago. Dabholkars of Europe paid no lesser price either. When Copernicus challenged the geo-centrism of Ptolemy with his heliocentric interpretation of universe, he actually challenged the self-proclaimed divine wisdom of Church. Nicolaus Copernicus was a mathematician and astronomer who placed the Sun, rather than the Earth, at the centre.
Likewise Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno went beyond the Copernican model: he proposed the Sun was essentially a star, and that the universe contained an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by other intelligent beings. Bruno actually revealed the continuum of universe, which provoked ire of the clergy. Roman Inquisition charged him with blasphemy and he was burnt at stake.
Much adored heroine of France Joan of Arc who led the French army to several important victories during the Hundred Years, War, was put on trial for charges of “insubordination and heterodoxy” and was burned at the stake for heresy when she was only 19 years old. Twenty-five years after her execution, an inquisitorial court revisited the trial and pronounced her innocent. The court declared her a martyr. Later, she was beatified in 1909 and even canonized in 1920.
Countless courageous Dabholkars have been protecting the liberty of human minds through their audacious struggle and heroic battles. Spiraling extremism is an accelerating challenge for rationality in every domain of life. Obscurantist elements are bent upon enslaving human minds and seeking to shape a world where rationale should be subservient to faith. Rationalists like Dabholkar are considered more dangerous than guns and arsenal and therefore eliminated brutally.
Whereas the war between rationale and faith is as old as human society is, its recent manifestations are more complex. Political economy of faith has added new dimensions to human society. It has transformed from a banal matter of individual worship to a complex web of militarised political and economic interests. Millions of simpletons are made fodder of this endless insane war. Both faith and counter-faith have been used as a fig-leaf to conceal nefarious motives such as controlling natural resources and dominating regional and global power structures.
Forces fighting wars in the name of faith and protection of peace often pursue their ulterior motives. Warriors, most of them in their innocence, are hoodwinked and become fuel for the fire. Since dogma dominates their minds and does not allow altruism to nest in their cerebrum, they turn malevolent.
Extremism either in the name of faith or peace has emerged as a serious peril for human society. Societal needs of billions of people are being heavily compromised due to resource drain on wars and illusive security. Conventional security demands are becoming predator for real human security agenda. Millions languishing in hunger, illiteracy, morbidity and unemployment are left with crumbs to crawl with. Human development agenda has been eclipsed by security priorities, which will logically perpetuate extremism and violence. National budgets are heavily skewed in favour of security demands and vital areas of health, drinking water and education are left starving.
From foreign policy to trade and investment, every policy domain revolves around security mania. Regional alliances have also veered their focus towards cooperation for security and not for human development in the member countries. Faith and fear have emerged as defining factors and rationale no more guides the decision making process.
The real crisis in today’s world is not security but the dominance of faith and the ensuing fear. When decision-making process becomes a function of fear and faith rather than rationale, it will only multiply the prevalent crisis.
In this context, Dabholkar’s murder is not just a crime but actually an assault on rationalism. What should prevail; logic or faith is the ultimate battle of human societies. It will not be unfounded to insinuate that the Homo sapiens will relegate to Chimpanzees if rationale is trounced.