Dr. Anand Teltumbde
Published in Issue III, September 2013
“You never see animals going through the absurd and often horrible fooleries of magic and religion. . . . Only man behaves with such gratuitous folly.” – Aldous Huxley
Maharashtra had one more shame added to a long list of shames it accumulated through history. On 20 August 2013 it killed Dr Narendra Dabholkar, a committed rationalist who had personified the struggle against superstition and humbug that exists in the state, which never tires calling itself progressive and claiming the legacy of Phule and Ambedkar. It comfortably forgets that the objective facts completely contradict this claim. It is the state that abused Savitribai and Jotiba Phule, humiliated Dr Ambedkar, begot the poisonous outfits like Rashtriya Swanyamsevak Sangh, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Samarasata Manch and innumerable such others; it contributed staunch social reactionaries that culminated in making of Nathuram Godse who gunned down Gandhi, that trend extends down to Abhinav Bharat in the twenty first century that is credited with masterminding and executing a series of terrorist acts. It has a unique distinction of having had a Brahmanist regime in history that tied a pot round the neck and a broom to the behind of Dalits.
It still contributes significantly to the national statistics of atrocities against Dalits with shameful markers like Khairlanji. It does not realize that it is because of its deep drawn reactionary character Phule and Ambedkar had to take birth on its land. It is abiding shame that while it flaunts them as its ideals, it continues with its reaction and keeps on killing its progressive sons and daughters like Dr. Narendra Dabholkar.
Dr Dabholkar was not a kind of person who would provoke one to commit his murder. After practicing his medical profession for little over a decade, he devoted himself to the task of removing superstitions from the society under the aegis of the Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmulan Samitii (Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Committee), of which he was the founder president. He always emphasized that he was not against any faith but the superstitions practiced in the name of faith. He wrote books and edited the well known magazine Sadhana started by a legendary socialist Sane Guruji. He was a liberal who avoided extremity in thought and action but remained resolute about his mission. A man of integrity, he toured all over the state addressing people and conducting workshops for youth educating them against the evil of superstitions with missionary zeal. He spoke unsparingly against the buwas (mendicants claiming to perform miracles) and other practitioners of black magic who cheated and defrauded people of their hard earned monies. While many of them were in a petty category living off the offerings from people, some were bigwigs like Asaram Bapu and Nirmal Baba and others of their ilk, who had huge following and huge wealth. Their programmes are beamed on our national television channels across the country. And of course behind them are the institutions of Hindu Rashtra, the strategic multi-fanged outfits of the Sangh Pariwar, with their mighty propagandist infrastructure comprising websites, electronic media and multi-lingual press.
An uncompromising rationalist Dabholkar was against castes. He had taken part in agitations like the movement protesting for the equality of Dalits, against caste discrimination, atrocities and naming the Marathwada University after Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. He had recently come out in open heavily against it in a case of honour killing in Nashik. The shocking case related with a father belonging to Joshi – a nomadic tribe (NT) (it shows, in plains the tribes have been fully casteized), killing his nine-month pregnant daughter for marrying out of the caste at the instance of the caste panchayat (a governing council of caste). The evil practice was exposed by a letter written by one Anna Hingmire, also of the Joshi caste, to the police commissioner on July 3, 2013, complaining against the Jat Panchayat of his caste for harassing him and his family as his daughter had married a boy of another caste. No one would have had any inkling about this heinous practice all these years if this murder and subsequent investigation had not exposed it. It is not a matter of a particular caste; the caste panchayats have always been operational in some form or the other in every caste with varying degree of power. There has been notable resurgence in them during the last two decades of globalization, not only in the Jatland of Haryana or Hindi heartland of UP and Bihar but also elsewhere and surely in Phule-Ambedkar’s Maharashtra. It was natural that Dr Dabholkar, of all the progressively people, came vehemently against it.
Naturally, he was targeted by the orthodox elements. The Hindu Sanatan Sanstha (organization of the orthodox Hindus), along with the entire Sangh Pariwar with its extensions like Shiv Sena, and of course the persons and establishments which thrived on the gullibility of people were against him. The Hindu Sanatan Sanstha has been in forefront in this virulent opposition. It carried a tirade against him in its organ called Sanatan Prabhat, published in many languages. This paper had not only written venomously against Dabholkar but also prominently published Dabholkar’s photo crossing it with bold red, signifying his imminent elimination. What could be the more direct threat than this! It has never hidden its hatred for Dabholkar even in the wake of his murder. Just the next day (21 August) when the entire state was struck with shock and grief, it commented in its organ that it was the grace of god that Dabholkar met with such a death. Invoking Gita, it wrote, “one who is born is sure to die; the birth and death are according to one’s destiny. Everybody gets the fruit of his karma (actions). Instead of dying of illness in a bedridden state or dying a painful death after an operation, the death Dabholkar met with was a grace of god.” In a press conference held in Mumbai by the Sanatan Sanstha to declare that it did not have any connection with the murder, its spokespersons were absolutely unapologetic and unrepentant about Dabholkar’s death. These worthies, on the contrary declared that they would publish many more photos with red cross as Dabholar’s, directly implying that they would carry out elimination of many people who walk the path Dabholkar did. Sanatan Prabhat carried an illustration showing a mighty elephant representing the Sanatan Sanstha marching ahead ignoring a fellow representing its opposition. It exhorted its readers to stop those who are heaping accusations on the religion-loving Sanatanis.
The other group opposed to Dabholkar comprised all those who had made exploiting gullibility of masses as their profession. It included quasi-begging pedestrians ranging from jogis and joginis who carried gods and goddesses on their heads and asked offerings from people to fortune foretellers, who sold their service at paltry fees. But it also included individuals like Asaram Bapus and Nirmal Babas, who have effectively institutionalized themselves into a big business. They have huge following, money and protection from powerful. They address their followers on several television channels across the country. For instance, Nirmal baba whom Dabholkar had taken on recently, (see his speech: Nirmal Baba: Shodh ani Bodh (Nirmal Baba: Enquiry and Lessons) on YouTube) ran his paid programme, Nirmal Darbar broadcast by approximately 40 different television channels including such biggies as AXN, TV Asia, Star News, SAB TV selling people divine ‘ kripa ‘ (blessings) as antidote or solution to their problems. His Samagam meetings had tickets for Rs. 2000 . Most of these Babas having dubious histories were caught many times with criminal acts ranging from defrauding people to sexual misconduct with their female followers (as I write, Asaram is being accused by a 16-year old girl of raping her) but such is their power that they are rarely touched. Not many people could muster courage to speak against them, leave apart carrying a public campaign obviously for the fear of consequences. Everyone knew that these Babas could go to any extent, murder being the minor matter, to save their thriving empire of billions. Dabholkar, in his imitable way dared them.
Dabholkar wanted an Act –Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Bill (Eradication of superstitions Bill) be passed and accordingly submitted a draft created by him in the late 1990s. The bill has had a controversial history and has gone through several drafts and 29 amendments in the last decade. It was first put up before the cabinet for discussion in 2003 and after its nod, was tabled in the Assembly in April 2005. It was surprisingly opposed by the treasury benches itself. After diluting some of its provisions as indicated by the Assembly and by the discussions with more than 100 MLAs, the revised draft was tabled again to the state Assembly, which now passed it but it got stuck in the Legislative Council. The latter decided to send it to the joint select committee, which held four meetings and invited suggestions and objections from the public. A whopping 1.17 lakh responses were received; 38887 against and 78869 in favour. Since the government was dissolved after the 2009 elections, the bill had lapsed and had to be again put up before the cabinet in July 2011, now in a substantially diluted form. After the cabinet clearance it was tabled before the Assembly in August this year and had not yet come for the discussion. In process, the original Andhashraddha Nirmulan Bill has become the Anti-Jaadu Tona Bill (Anti-Black Magic Bill) after providing for all kinds of misgivings of opponents, but still it was opposed by the Hindu extremist organizations across the board and the warkari sect (reportedly as incited by the Hindutva forces), which feared that it would adversely impact their religious customs and traditions. While Dabholkar allayed these fears by saying that there was not a single word about God or religion in the entire bill; the freedom of worship or practicing religion could not be taken away by anyone as they were enshrined in the Indian Constitution, no such rationale would work with the extremist elements that bayed only for his blood.
There has been a massive turn out of people in protest all over Maharashtra against this ghastly murder. People at many places booed away politicians and even heckled the Chief Minister, Prithwiraj Chavan when he customarily went to pay homage to Dabholkar at his home in Satara. People demanded the bill for which Dabholkar struggled for 18 long years be passed immediately. As a damage control exercise, the government decided to take out an Anti-Jaadu Tona ordinance to enforce the provisions of the bill. The ordinance has always been the easy way in our democracy but when it comes for ratification before the Assembly, it is unlikely that it would be passed as hinted by the BJP, which expressed its opposition to the ordinance even in the heat of the moment. The opponents like Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and Sanatan Sansthan argue that the existing laws are adequate for taking action against the offences listed in the bill. Another argument they make is that the number of superstitions-related crimes committed is minimal and proudly cite that during the last five years, only 17 cases were registered in Mumbai. These arguments themselves indicate the need for a special Act to tackle these peculiar crimes which tend to filter out of the IPC net.
Who killed Dr Narendra Dabholkar may remain possibly an unsolved riddle like who killed Hemant Karkare and like rather numerous other such earlier cases despite the Maharashtra government exhibiting its keenness in this case to catch the culprits by announcing a Rs 10 lakh prize to anyone who provides information on them. As I write more than 24 hours have already passed and there is no clue to the police as to who killed him. Aren’t there really any clue? Even a casual reader of this article can get sufficient clue as to who are behind the culprits. The finger behind the trigger might belong to anyone, but there is not much doubt whose brain has been behind it. Can the people who have directly crossed his picture in public view implying his imminent elimination not be the suspects? Can Nirmal Baba or Asaram Bapu or any such bigwig against whom Dabholkar spoke not be the possible subjects for interrogation? Can the Jat Panchayat kingpins not be in the eye of suspicion? No murder investigation may be as lucky as to have as few and concrete clues as in this case. In any other case, the police would have rounded up all kinds of people, thrashed them and extracted leads in process. Imagine, for instance some Hindu Baba was killed. Without even batting an eyelid, police would round up dozens of Muslim boys and unleash horror on them. Even in this case they might get some Sayed or Bashir as the ones who pulled the trigger on Dabholkar.
Dr Narendra Dabholkar, as I personally knew him, was a clear-headed person who knew what he was doing. He had set a modest goal for himslef, to make the society superstition free and imbibe scientific outlook, which he considered prerequisite for any radical change. He pursued it with exemplary commitment and zeal. To my misgivings that there was only a thin line difference between faith and blind faith or that an Act might not eradicate a pervasive religio-cultural and social evil that is reinforced further with increasing economic crisis of living for the masses making them increasingly vulnerable, he would counter with a simple sentence that a beginning had to be made and that he neither thought of nor aimed at any revolution as I did. He was unlike Gandhi in many ways but still sounded like one. Right since he began his social life in early eighties, he faced several threats and even physical attacks but he rejected police protection. According to the Times of India, he had stated, “If I have to take police protection in my own country from my own people, then there is something wrong with me, I’m fighting within the framework of the Indian constitution and it is not against anyone, but for everyone.” His Hindutva opponents however did not share the dilemma and were determined to make him a Gandhi. The assassins’ bullets seem to have done it for them. The only difference is that we may never get hold of Nathuram!
Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org