Exactly a year to the day after Independence, Pandurang Sadashiv Sane started a Marathi weekly magazine, Sadhana, in Mumbai and in the first editorial reasoned why: to end inequality and enmity in society. Sane had an honorific suffixed to him and is more popularly known as Sane Guruji.
Sane Guruji was at the forefront of the campaign to admit the untouchables to the famed Vittal temple in Pandharpur. He fasted for eleven days before the authorities threw open the doors of the temple for all. Now millions flock there during Ashad every year.
The weekly, known for its reasoned writings, has not dithered from its path and remains in publication even today though it has had its financial lows. Its editors included eminent socialist like Sane himself, an author of 73 books in Marathi, including Shyamchi Aai (Shyam’s mother).
When a newspaper, Patri, which he ran, had its press burnt, he handed over this book’s royalties to its owner as compensation. His successors at Sadhana included PH Patwardhan, NG Gore, GP Pradhan, and for the fifth term, Dr Narendra Dabholkar who was shot and killed on a Pune road yesterday.
The highly respected line up of the periodical’s past editors does suggest that Dabholkar belonged to a tradition of canvassing social good for the sake of the society itself. Not just by association but sheer conviction, the man was an old school social democrat.
He was selfless too, and personal attacks and attempted attacks did not dissuade him from his chosen path. He kept at it and was involved not in just making demands but helping draft the law.
Dabholkar, who got unprecedented media coverage in his death, save from a few national news television channels, had been active in efforts to curb superstition and had given up his medical practice in Satara towards that end. Of late, he was also speaking out against caste-based panchayats in Maharashtra, the kinds that are referred to as khaps in north India.
As a campaigner would be, Dabholkar was a matter of fact speaker who made it a point to explain his point of view rationally and patiently. As the founder of the Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samithi, his raison d’etre was rationalism. He was a restless, but soft-spoken person. He battled for his cause with a passion not seen in recent times.
His network spread across Maharashtra. The extent of which came to public knowledge when in town after town and city after city, and even villages, people emerged with placards and slogans to reiterate commitment to the cause. It was not anti-religion but against blind faith and exploitation under its aegis.
What was done by the babas and the self-proclaimed godmen amounted to sleights of hand and often, many indulged in black magic using religion as a lure to find converts, and make money. Dabholkar tirelessly educated the commoners who are likely victims of this lure about the absurdities of their claims and wanted such actions banned.
Why would anyone want to kill a man like him? Political scientist Suhas Palshikar wrote in his homage today, Dabholkar’s “steadfast criticism of exploitative practices earned him opponents” from “political Hindu organisations” and the “more aggressive orthodox Hindu establishment”.
He is not known to have had personal political enemies. He had no political ambitions either. But he did make a difference, to quote Palshikar again, to an extent that “His tenacity, and the liberal atmosphere in the state, meant that successive state governments actually started drafting such a legislation — only to dither on its actual passage.”
However, Palshikar may have overstated his impression that there is a “liberal atmosphere in the state”, especially when politicians have played their worst role to stymie the passage of the law which Dabholkar was pressing for. As eminent socially-conscious leaders have said, his murder shows liberalism itself was either dead or dying.
The Varkaris, a movement of Vaishnyavites too have been opponents of Dabholkar’s idea of a law to curb superstitions but they are unlikely ever to take recourse to violence. But parties like the Shiv Sena and the BJP cite their objections to stall making a law. They anchor their faith in the philosophy of saints like Tukaram and Gyaneshwar.
Their fear and limited objection is that when the pilgrims to Pandharpur leave for their marathon walk every year, it causes physical harm to the pilgrims because they walk. The law which Dabholkar wanted required outlawing of any rite or ritual that caused physical and financial harm. If that prescription were dropped, the bill itself would collapse, making it pointless.
The law, a demand for which has been persisting – and to Dabholkar’s credit, kept alive for 18 years – had almost come close to being a reality in 2005 itself but when referred to a select committee of the state legislature, it lapsed. The opposition was that religious leaders should not be treated as conmen.
However, since the Maharashtra Prevention & Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil Practices & Black Magic Bill has been resurrected and was given a cabinet approval for being sent to the legislature a month ago, the mood may now have been set for politicians to be more sensitive.
If that were to happen in the near term – if a legislative session is held before the elections in 2014 – the chance is that the society would have requited its own lapse in ignoring a rational demand for a law to encourage rationalism. Perhaps the rationalist that Dabholkar was would not mind the price he paid for it: his life.