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India: Reason must triumph over blind faith

by Praful Bidwai, 4 September 2013

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The Daily Star, 3 September 2013

PRAFUL BIDWAI COLUMN

THE assassination of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar in Pune is a black mark on Indian society. Forces of intolerance, superstition, irrationality and reaction killed him not because he threatened their faith or freedom, but because he was against exploiting people through black magic, sorcery, and sleights-of-hand while invoking supernatural powers.

Personal rivalry cannot explain Dabholkar’s killing. Those knew him — including this writer, who has written for his remarkable weekly “Sadhana” — would testify he was too amiable and disarming to inspire personal animosity.

Dabholkar’s anti-superstition convictions were anathema to obscurantists and religious bigots. A society in which rationalist intellectuals are killed, but violent rituals to exorcise “evil spirits” are condoned, isn’t minimally civilised.
In India, 2,500 women were killed in witchcraft rituals over the last 15 years, according to anti-superstition activists.

It’s probable that caste panchayats or Hindutva groups like Sanatan Sanstha and Hindu Janajagriti Samiti plotted Dabholkar’s killing. Sanatan Sanstha’s Jayant Athavale wrote a sinister obituary: “Instead of dying bedridden through illness, or … following a surgery,” Dabholkar died instantly: it was, “a blessing…” This rationalises the murder.

Three days later, activists of the Akhil Bhrartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing) broke up a memorial meeting for Dabholkar, and assaulted members of the music-band Kabir Kala Manch. They branded the organisers “Naxalites” because one of them refused to chant “Jai Narendra Modi” when so ordered.

Another pointer is the last threat to Dabholkar: “Remember Gandhi. Remember what we did to him.” This lays claim to Nathuram Godse’s hideous legacy. Even the mild-mannered Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan saw “the same mindset” at work.

Dabholkar’s killing is the latest in serial explosions of intolerance in Pune, including ransacking of the prestigious Bhadarkar Oriental Research Institute in 2004, killing of five social activists in 2010, and cancellation of a screening of Sanjay Kak’s film on Kashmir in 2012.

The killing highlights Maharashtra’s tragic cultural retrogression. Maharashtra was the crucible of India’s social reform movement for a century, led by Shahu Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Agarkar, Karve, Ramabai Ranade, and B.R. Ambedkar.

Social reform took early mass roots in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Dalit and Other Backward Classes mobilisation came later in North India. It owes much to this early movement.

Maharashtra saw the flowering of India’s first Bahujan Samaj mobilisation against religious orthodoxy, casteism, sati, gender discrimination, and barring of temple entry to Dalits. It championed girls’/women’s education and widow remarriage. It firmly embraced the Enlightenment values of reason and critical inquiry.
The reformists faced venomous opposition, including social boycott, from traditional upper-caste status quoists. But they heroically resisted.

The balance changed with the rise of the chauvinist-communal Shiv Sena, which reversed the gains of social reform. With this, says social critic Shanta Gokhale, the needle that had oscillated “between Maharashtra’s progressive and regressive heritage stopped on the side of regression.”

Although a rationalist, Dabholkar didn’t campaign against faith per se, only against blind faith and exploitation of gullible people through witchcraft, tricks passed off as “miracles,” amulets, gemstones, and beatings and torture to drive out the “evil spirits” to which people’s health or financial problems are falsely attributed.
He trenchantly opposed practices such as preventing vaccination and medical treatment for illnesses, and substituting mantras instead; animal and human sacrifice to ward off ill-luck; falsely branding people as Satanical; or falsely claiming to perform miracles.

Dabholkar lobbied for the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill, delayed for 18 years by the Hindu Right’s opposition.

This seeks to prosecute people for claiming supernatural powers or the reincarnation of saints/gods, and ill-treating the psychologically distressed in the belief that they are smitten by evil spirits.

It covers rituals performed to beget a male child, and claims to omniscience by virtue of being “possessed” by supernatural powers. After Dabholkar’s killing, the Maharashtra government brought an ordinance to implement the Bill.
This only completes one part of Dabholkar’s unfinished agenda. The rest lies in extending such laws to the whole of India, and vigorously promoting the scientific temper and a spirit of critical inquiry — not just in classrooms, not only to earn degrees or jobs, but in daily life — while making crucial decisions about individual freedom, marriage, the family and religion.

This agenda has acquired great relevance and urgency in today’s South Asia. Liberalisation and globalisation have disrupted old social balances and faith systems and given rise to a politicised religiosity in our region.

A “pop Hinduism” thrives in India, centred on temples, pilgrimages, god-men and — women, with new, more ostentatious rituals — amidst an explosive growth of superstition among the middle class.

In the 1960s, being superstitious was considered incorrect and infra dig among educated Indians. Now, it’s fashionable to rely on astrological predictions, wear flashy gemstones, get advice from outright quacks, and deify self-proclaimed holy men like Asaram Bapu.

Weird practices like Wiccanism (Western witchcraft), regression therapy (when you delude yourself to be the reincarnation of a mythological figure like Kaikeyee), and performance of elaborate havans and yagnas to bring fortune have pervaded middle class life. Observances like kathas, jagrans and bhajans are getting more public and raucous.

As Meera Nanda argues in The God Market, this religiosity is cultivated by “the emerging state-temple-corporate complex,” which is corrupting secular public institutions and embedding Hindu rituals and symbols in the affairs of the state. Hindu religiosity is also getting fused with national pride and the idea that India’s recent (and alas, fast-eroding) economic success is rooted in the superiority of its ancient (read, Hindu) civilisation.

This religiosity is supported by the state, temple-related bodies, and business groups. It’s easily harnessed to political causes and to greater intolerance towards the religious minorities.

This is nowhere more evident than in Ayodhya, where a new kind of parikrama was invented to sow communal hatred. Opposing such pernicious practices and defending rationality would be the right homage to Dabholkar.

The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.
E-mail: bidwai at bol.net.in

P.S.

Th above article from The Daily Star is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use