Narendra Dabholkar's battle was against superstition not religion
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.
Eminent social reformer, rationalist and anti-superstition crusader Dr Narendra Dabholkar who was shot dead in Pune on Tuesday morning, felt deeply betrayed by Maharashtra’s politicians who had failed to table the long-pending anti-black magic and superstition bill in the state assembly.
It was 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. He had said that even though the bill had been cleared by the cabinet and had been listed for business in the last seven sessions of the assembly, it had never been tabled for discussion.
The social crusader pointed out that the winter session of the state assembly was the only opportunity to table the bill before the 2014 elections next year. He had hoped that the government would issue an ordinance and use its majority to obtain concurrence.
During a speech in Panvel in November, 2012, on the occasion of Mahatma Phule’s death anniversary, Dabholkar had cited the swiftness with which the British Governor General Lord William Bentinck had banned the practice of Sati in 1829 even though the East India Company had told him not to meddle in the religious practices of the natives. Dabholkar had said that Bentinck defended his action by saying that he couldn't be expected to keep quiet after seeing a woman die in a custom like Sati.
The social reformer said this swift action by the British official nearly two centuries ago was in sharp contrast to the situation in Maharashtra where the anti-superstition legislation had been kept pending for 18 years even though it had been approved by successive state cabinets.
The eminent social reformer, who peppered his oratory with humour, regretted the lack of sensitivity among the politicians in a state like Maharashtra which had seen an uninterrupted string of social reformers spread over 150 years from 1823 beginning with ‘Lok Hitawadi’ Gopal Hari Deshmukh till 1933, the year when Prabodhankar Thackeray died.
“No other state in the country has such an enviable record,” Dabholkar had said while regretting that Maharashtra’s politicians had failed to act in public interest.
On Tuesday morning, Dabholkar was shot dead by two unidentified assailants while out on his morning walk.
A doctor by training, Dabholkar hailed from Satara where he ran a clinic till 1982, after which he devoted himself fully to the anti-superstition movement. He served as the editor of the Marathi weekly Sadhana founded by the legendary Marathi writer, late Sane Guruji.
An accomplished orator, Dabholkar during his many campaigns and tours throughout Maharashtra had sought to spread awareness about the destructive and illogical aspects of superstitions practices. Although hated and criticised by orthodox Hindu groups for pointing fingers at their rituals, Dabholkar repeatedly maintained that he respected all religions, but was against superstitions practices. He pointed out forcefully and poignantly how superstitious practices hurt the poorest of the poor most parts of in rural Maharashtra.
During one of his campaign speeches in Panvel in 2012, Dabholkar had spoken of how an estimated 45 lakh kilos of rice was wasted every year in Maharashtra during marriage ceremonies. Referring to the "akshada ceremony" in which the assembled gathering sprinkles rice to bless the couple, Dabholkar said that at least 10-15 kg rice is used in each ceremony.
“Officially about three lakh marriages take place in Maharashtra; so if you calculate, 45 lakh kilos of rice is thus wasted every year,” he had said.
He recalled how Hindu fundamentalists had opposed him when many years ago he and scientist Vasant Gowarikar had urged the people not to pollute Pune’s rivers with Ganapati idols made of plaster-of-paris and painted with toxic colours.
He would tell gatherings how eminent Maharashtrians like the celebrated poet Kusumagraj and revolutionary freedom fighter Veer Savarkar had opposed many customs and superstitious practices in Hinduism.
"We must think for ourselves and examine the logic of our superstitions. We must be progressive and embrace change," Dabholkar had said.
He also recalled how a woman in Satara had become extremely weak and anaemic simply because she was denying herself nutritious food in the name of observing various ritualistic fasts.
"They could afford the best of food but her superstition was coming in the way," he said.
Stressing that he and others in the anti-superstition movement were not opposed to Hinduism or any other religion, Dabholkar would say that it is the constitution which exhorts every Indian citizen “to promote scientific temperament, spirit of enquiry, spirit of reform and humanism”.
Full of optimism and hope, Dabholkar would point out how it had taken 2,000 years in India for women to get the right to educate themselves. While the first school for girls in India was started by Mahatma Phule in 1848, Bombay University was established a decade later and the first woman graduated from Bombay University four decades later, in 1887.
"Today you have girls topping the state board exams. Therefore, I am not disillusioned, but optimistic that eventually I shall be victorious in my campaign against superstition,” he had said to the cheering audience at Panvel last year.
The line separating superstition from faith is thin, but the line differentiating faith – even blind faith - from criminality is a very thick one. It is the latter that the law must fight against.
Mukta, daughter of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar who was killed in August last year, hopes the CBI will nab her father's killers.