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Price of courage

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on December 28, 2018 Published on December 28, 2018

Keeping the flame alive: A candlelight vigil held in Bengaluru, dedicated to the in memory of Narendra Dabholkar, who campaigned against superstition and casteism   -  K MURALI KUMAR

Rationalist Narendra Dabholkar’s essays reflect a powerful sense of innocence unsuited for such divisive times

Fear, British Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell observed, was the main source of superstition. Conquering fear, he wrote in his Unpopular Essays, was the beginning of wisdom. Rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was a fearless man who believed in the power of ideas and wisdom. He was gunned down while he was on his morning walk, not far from his home in Pune, on August 20, 2013 — just five days after India marked its 66th Independence Day.

Fearlessness, rationality, wisdom and knowledge figure prominently in Dabholkar’s recently published anthology of essays,The Case for Reason: Understanding the Anti-Superstition Movement. “Knowledge begets power,” he writes in ‘Understanding Scientific Outlook’, the opening essay. “But not every form of knowledge can be linked with such gains. Still, everyone is capable of developing the keen sight that’s essential for it,” he argues. The book is divided into two parts: The first part, on the theory behind the anti-superstition movement, has nine long and enriching essays, while the second part, which details the mission and activities of his anti-superstition organisation, has 20 essays.

The activist, who was 67 when he was killed, practised what he professed. He believed all humans should nurture a “scientific outlook along with acquiring knowledge”, which would give them the ability to “accurately analyse” all that took place in their lives. With this aim, Dabholkar founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), an anti-superstition movement, in the late 1980s. Barely three years after Dabholkar set up MANS, India saw the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and the country has not been the same since.

Dabholkar saw this coming. He writes that India ignored the importance of nurturing scientists and instead created an education system where teachers who lacked a scientific outlook taught students how not to be rational. This system led to the birth of scientists who chanted mantras while sending a rocket into outer space, he points out. Despite creating machines that went to space, scientists did little to move society upwards in its social outlook. As a result, India is full of ironies. For instance, as rationalists like Dabholkar had feared, the country paid a price for its (collective) lack of scientific temper. While we embraced digital technology, it inadvertently produced reactionary results; fake news thrived; misinformation and lies spread faster than ever; scientists faced threats and cyber bullying; gender activists were attacked online; ideas of social Darwinism took root and spread faster and wider, and, above all, society was divided along caste and communal lines.

Dabholkar did not have a ready remedy for the crises unfolding around him. Like any rational being, he believed that the collective will of the people, rooted in humanism and a scientific temper, could improve lives. But the way society had evolved over the past few decades didn’t offer much hope to the movement he championed. Still, he remained an optimist, furthering his battles against superstitions and falsehood.

The essays look at the rise of religious fervour in a country where superstition, misinformation and casteist thinking cultivate perilous trends, endangering its secular fabric and pushing it back into the dark ages where medieval forms of justice — from khap panchayats to mob lynching — rule, often enjoying political patronage.

Dabholkar wanted to fight these trends. Knowing well that such battles would put him and his movement in danger, he lambasted practices such as vaastu, astrology, palmistry, and magical cures. “Human beings and social systems cause all the problems that we currently face,” he writes. “An able-bodied young man remains unemployed not because of the house in which he lives. It is the economic policy of the country that is responsible for his joblessness.”

The Case for Reason: Understanding the Anti-Superstition Movement Narendra Dabholkar (Translated by Suman Oak) Westland/ Context Non-fiction ₹699

 

The book has many such moments where Dabholkar minces no words in exposing social evils. The first part of the book — ‘The Theoretical Basis of the Anti-Superstition Movement’ — deals with laying the foundation for his ideas, while the second part lists case studies of the anti-superstition campaigns his organisation ran. The cases would give the reader a deep and disturbing sense of contemporary Indian history where people are held to ransom by a set of dark forces, from manipulative godmen and absurd dogmas to carefully fabricated falsehoods.

But the palpable naivety in his words would surprise a reader. The level of innocence in his prose, originally written in Marathi and translated into English by Suman Oak, is not in sync with the times he lived in. It takes guts to remain hopeful, peace-loving, serene and nonchalant in the face of far-reaching and appalling developments. Dabholkar had a child-like innocence — as his essays demonstrate — which propelled his quest towards building a society free of evil. The innocence was unfit for such unruly times.

Published on December 28, 2018
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