Who killed Dabholkar?

Radheshyam Jadhav | Updated on August 19, 2019

The rationalists haven’t stopped asking questions

Every August 20 since 2013, a small group of citizens and activists gather at Pune’s Vitthal Ramji Shinde Bridge with placards in their hands asking a question: ‘Who killed Narendra Dabholkar?’ Maharashtra’s most vocal rationalist was shot dead on this bridge in the mid-city area in 2013 while on a walk. Six years after his murder, the State and the police have no answers.

Inspired by B Premanand, the doyen of the Indian rationalist movement, Dabholkar started the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) in 1989. The aim of the movement is to oppose and agitate against harmful superstitions and rituals which misguide and exploit; inculcate and propagate a scientific outlook, scepticism, humanism and critical thinking; encourage constructive and critical analysis of religion, traditions and customs; and to make eradication of superstition the task of progressive social reform organisations.

Hardcore fundamental organisations and fringe groups have attacked and continue to attack MANS, alleging that it is trying to destroy the “cultural fabric”, and that its main target is the Hindu community. Dabholkar was advised to seek police protection and keep a licensed pistol. But he refused, saying that these kinds of safeguards will negate the very essence of the superstition eradication movement. Shiv Sena and BJP MLAs demanded in the State legislative assembly that MANS be banned and Dabholkar be asked to leave the State, as he and his movement were raising questions on the ‘spiritual power’ of revered god-men and -women.

On the other hand, the “progressive and secular” forces in the State alleged that being a Brahmin, Dabholkar was working on a plot to deceive the common people. Notwithstanding the legacy of Mahatma Phule, BR Ambedkar and Shahu Maharaj, the “progressive” State of Maharashtra is still mired in the caste system.

Not surprisingly, MANS never became a mass movement, and no political party allowed any of the issues raised by the organisation to come on the political agenda. Political parties, and the fundamental groups supported by them, had launched a battle against MANS to ‘protect God’.

All his life, Dabholkar repeatedly insisted that he — and his organisation — believed that it is not necessary to be an atheist in order to participate in the work of eradicating superstition. MANS is neutral as far as God and religion are concerned. “Do you believe in God”? was one of the questions Dabholkar faced all his life, and his answer was, “My answer depends on what is your concept of God”.

After Dabholkar’s murder, India witnessed the killing of Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. Like Dabholkar case, there is no answer to the question, who killed Pansare, Kalburgi and Lankesh?

This week again, a handful of people will gather at Vitthal Ramji Shinde Bridge to ask the question they have been raising for last six years. The answer is nowhere in sight. MANS and like-minded rationalist movements face a major ideological challenge to their survival at a time when religion-based socio-political identities have consolidated themselves and become a hegemonic social force. It is the fundamental duty of every citizen to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform in these times.

Despite this social climate, the rationalist movement is slowly but confidently gaining roots after Dabholkar’s murder. It has branches in all 36 districts of Maharashtra, with about 5,000 full-time workers, up from 2,000 in 2013. It has added about 100 new branches. Rationalist organisations in other States are connecting with MANS, as there are many questions to be raised.

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Published on August 19, 2019
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