Act of unreason

Print edition : September 20, 2013

Narendra Dabholkar was instrumental in drafting the anti-black magic Bill. Photo: AP

At a Hindu mass wedding, brides pouring rice over the heads of grooms. Photo: NOAH SEELAM/AFP

A devotee walks on burning coal during the Shiva Ganjana festival in Agartala. Dabholkar debunked such practices. Photo: PTI

The rationalist Narendra Dabholkar is killed in Pune and the Maharashtra government pays its tribute to him with an ordinance against black magic and superstitious practices.

SOME years ago, when the rationalist activist Dr Narendra Dabholkar spoke to Frontline about his work in the Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, the organisation he founded to eradicate superstitious practices, he laughingly brushed aside a question on threats to his life. He said many people would be happy to see him dead, and added that it would be a worthwhile death if any good came out of it. The words were like textbook prophecy. Dabholkar was shot dead in Pune on the morning of August 20 by two motorcycle-borne assailants. The next day, the Maharashtra government decided to promulgate an ordinance against black magic and inhuman religious rituals. For years, Dabholkar had been trying to get the government to pass a law against superstitious practices.

According to eyewitnesses, the assailants were in their twenties. One eyewitness provided the police with the registration number of the motorcycle used in the crime. Although CCTV footage from the premises of a bank located near the site of the attack is available, the police say it is too blurred to provide any clues. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan announced a reward of Rs.10 lakh to anyone providing information on the killers. Chavan said “it was a well-planned and premeditated murder” and thought the killing was more likely to be ideologically motivated.

Dabholkar was instrumental in drafting the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill. Whenever it came up for discussion in the Assembly, it was vehemently opposed by the Shiv Sena, the Bharatiya Janata Party and other Hindu right-wing organisations such as the Sanatan Prabhat and the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti. The latter two groups were initially suspected of involvement in the murder but both formally denied any role in it. The Congress, while seemingly supporting Dabholkar’s crusade against black magic and superstition, preferred to defer the passage of the Bill for fear of hurting the “sentiments” of the people.

Frustrated by such hurdles, Dabholkar demanded that an ordinance be promulgated as the process of enactment of the Bill would in any case be delayed because of the general elections next year. He had been holding talks with senior leaders and had extracted an assurance that the Bill was close to becoming law. In fact, during talks in July with leaders of the Varkari community, who had been opposing the Bill, Dabholkar had agreed to certain changes in the draft Bill. It is assumed that the fast progress in the process of drafting the Bill may have alarmed his detractors.

Dabholkar was secular. He primarily objected to superstitious practices as encouraging them and “warding off” evils had become a business. He felt the need for a specific law, though many people maintained that there were provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to deal with every aspect of the problem. Dabholkar, however, found the IPC ineffective in these cases. Unfortunately, his point was not understood by all. Orthodox Hindu groups and right-wing political groups turned against him, saying he was attacking Hinduism and Hindu practices. They wanted to know why he did not oppose similar practices in Islam and Christianity. They accused him of receiving funds from Western nations. His protests that he was not against religion or religious practices and that the Samiti did not accept foreign money fell on deaf ears. To this end, these groups played into the hands of godmen who, as Dabholkar had maintained, often thrived with the backing of local politicians.

The Black Magic Bill, as it is commonly referred to, is believed to be the first such law to be introduced worldwide. It proposes imprisonment of up to seven years for those practising, advertising, promoting and deriving financial gain from black magic, sorcery and witchcraft, offering talismans and charms, and claiming to be reincarnations of saints or gods. All such instances will be treated as non-bailable offences. Religious rituals and rites that result in no mental, physical and financial harm will not come under this law.

Born in 1945 in Satara, Dabholkar was the youngest of 10 siblings. He qualified as a doctor and was a general practitioner for 12 years before he realised he had another calling. In the course of his medical practice, Dabholkar noticed that many people, including his patients, were falling prey to superstitions and followed gurus, godmen, tantriks or mantriks, who promised cures and miracles.

Dabholkar presented his rationalistic thoughts in a manner that closed all arguments. Abhay Vaidya, a columnist with Firstpost, had a journalistic association with Dabholkar. He remembers Dabholkar debunking the custom of throwing rice at weddings. “Some years ago he had presented some facts. He said there were about three lakh Hindu marriages registered every year in Maharashtra. Estimating about 10 kilos of rice being thrown at every wedding, Dabholkar calculated a staggering three million kilos of rice being wasted on what is essentially a symbolic blessing.”

Influenced by social thinkers such as Mahatma Phule and Sane Guruji and the Marathi poet Sant Tukaram, Dabholkar initially worked along with the social reformer and leader of the unorganised sector Baba Adhav. In 1989, he formed the Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti with the specific aim of abolishing superstition, especially in rural areas. His main aim was to halt the commercial benefit gained by frauds when they exploited superstitious beliefs and to halt human and animal sacrifices. His organisation functioned through a network of volunteers and grew to its current size of 180 branches all over the State. He also edited the respected Marathi weekly Saadhana, which was started by Sane Guruji.

One of his goals was to emancipate women from superstitious practices. Dr Anil Awachat, a medical doctor and a long-time associate of Dabholkar, said Dabholkar played a big role in educating people on the Yellama chi jat, a ritual in which young girls were not allowed to wash or oil their hair. When the hair was sufficiently matted ( jat means matted hair) they were told that the mata’s (Yellama) call had come. This meant that they would have to end up as devadasis, or its corrupted version, sex workers. “We would oil and disentangle the hair of the young girls and the people would be horrified and say the curse of the goddess would be upon us. But nothing happened,” said Awachat. Vaidya recalled Dabholkar recounting a Yellama chi jat incident in which he said a girl who had been persuaded to have her hair uncoiled was found to have “enough lice to supply the whole of Satara district”.

Dabholkar’s style was to go for the jugular. He and his travelling band of volunteers would uncover so-called miracles by collecting evidence against the perpetrators. Often using empirical methods, they would recreate the miracles, thereby exposing the process by which people were duped. Awachat recounted some of their experiences together in the field. He said there was a propensity among the people living in the Konkan region to believe in ghosts. “Narendra told them there was no such thing. They insisted there were ghosts and that one such apparition visited a particular riverside at midnight. So we [Dabholkar and Awachat] said we would go there, and, of course, there was no ghost.” Tempers often ran high at meetings where Dabholkar debunked such beliefs, but Awachat said, “Narendra was a shant [calm] man and he would let the anger subside before reiterating his point.”

Dabholkar reached out to other rationalists such as Abraham T. Kovoor, who hailed from Tiruvalla in Kerala and later accepted Sri Lankan citizenship. Born a Christian, he was unconvinced about the Bible being the word of God. He chose to embrace rational thought instead. On hearing about his ideas, Dabholkar invited him to Maharashtra. The two travelled together in rural areas. Awachat said Dabholkar learnt a lot from Kovoor’s dramatic style of debunking superstitious practices. “He [Kovoor] had a style that grabbed your attention. He said he would give a lakh of rupees to anyone who could perform miracles in a ‘fraud-proof’ situation. Following Kovoor’s example Narendra also started doing live demonstrations like showing people how easy it was to walk on burning coal.”

Street theatre was another medium used to grab attention. Activists would dress like babas complete with orange robes and seemingly make gold chains, ash and all sorts of other things appear out of nowhere. Once the crowd was suitably impressed, the activists would reveal their true identity and show the crowd how the “miracles” had been created. Dabholkar minced no words in accusing godmen in his articles and books, and thus made many enemies. One of whom perhaps put an end to his effort to bring about social justice.