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The anti-superstition crusader Dr. Narendra Dabholkar’s name will go down in history as one of India’s great sons who fought his entire life to pull the poor out of the clutches of superstitious and inhuman beliefs and practices. His murder on August 20 may have ended his life but not his spirit which will continue to inspire countless numbers to take the battle forward. Abhay Vaidya pays a tribute to this great soldier of Maharashtra.

The Constitution of India guarantees freedom to practice religion to one and all in this secular nation of ours and by no stretch of imagination can anyone say that the great rationalist and anti-superstition activist Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was against religion.

The battle that he fought throughout his life was against superstition and superstitious beliefs- not out of a hollow agenda to promote the rationalist spirit but to stop the exploitation of the poorest of the poor in the name of superstition and religion.

Those who shot and killed him on the morning of August 20, 2013 thinking that they would bring his crusade to a halt are sadly mistaken. Dr. Dabholkar’s murder has outraged people across Maharashtra and across India so fiercely that it has ignited a thousand Narendra Dabholkars who will take his battle forward. 

Such was the public anger over his murder that the Maharashtra Government which had refused to enact the “Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill" 2011, known simply as the 'anti-Black Magic Bill for nearly two decades, announced that it would bring in the law through an Ordinance as a tribute to Dr. Dabholkar. This was just a day after his death and the Ordinance became effective four days later.

Reacting to his murder well-known rationalist and crusader Sanal Edamaruku said, “He was one of the most wonderful soldiers of rationalism in Maharashtra because he was taking the movement down to the villages on one side and the legislature on the other.”

Exploitation of the poor through black magic, sorcery and inhuman beliefs and practices is rampant in Maharashtra

Dr. Dabholkar’s Campaigns

As a journalist in Pune, I remember one of his earliest campaigns when he and his band of dedicated followers with the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (Society for the Eradication of Superstition, Maharashtra) conducted “walking on fire” road shows. Today, corporate trainers conduct similar activities in the premises of five star hotels to help you overcome fear by showing by easy it is to walk over burning coal. All you have to do is walk quickly and lightly over the patch of burning coal and your soles won’t get burnt. This was a favourite trick performed by godmen and Babas across Maharashtra and Dr. Dabholkar exposed them by explaining the scientific principle which made this possible.

If a person in the villages was sick and dying, all that he told the poor was, take him to a doctor or a hospital, not to any godman or sorcerer or witch-doctor. He exposed Babas of all forms by demonstrating that they did not have any magical powers but only fooled the people by various tricks and sleight of hand just as a magician does. And when such Babas asked you to perform expensive poojas to bring good fortune in your life and get rid of the shadow of evil spirits, he cautioned you.

Beware of this deceit was what he said and he did this, not from the comfort of cities like Pune and Satara but by going down to the taluka town and villages across Maharashtra where people congregated around such Babas. It was inevitable that he would be attacked, threatened and would earn enemies, some of them keen to eliminate him, as he was snuffing out their business of exploitation.

Eradication of Sati by the British

During a speech in Panvel in November, 2012, on the occasion of Mahatma Phule’s death anniversary, Dr. 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. He 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,” Dr. Dabholkar had said while regretting that Maharashtra’s politicians had failed to act in public interest.

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.

Builder of Institutions

An accomplished orator with wonderful organizational skills, Dr. 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, he 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, Dr. 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, he 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.

Veer Savarkar Fought Against Superstition

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,” Dr. Dabholkar had said.

He also recalled how a woman in Satara had become extremely weak and anemic 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, Dr. 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”.

Citizens of Pune paying tribute at the spot where Dr. Dabholkar was killed in Pune. Photo Courtesy: Pune Mirror

Felt Betrayed but Hopeful

Dr Dabholkar 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. In fact, barely two weeks before his death he had had criticised chief minister Prithviraj Chavan at a press conference in Pune for not tabling the draft legislation in the just-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.

He, however, never let this drive him into despair and give up his struggle. Full of optimism and hope, he would point out how it had taken 2,000 years in India for women to get the right to education. 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.

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