Narendra Dabholkar

Narendra Dabholkar’s death has finally focused public attention on the role of the rationalist fight for India. It is a tragedy that the death of one of the country’s finest rationalists was needed to bring about this sea change. But as I knew him, I can imagine that he would smile.

I remember a discussion that we had not long ago. He urged me to come back to India and fight my harassers in a court of law. Considering the danger, he advised me, one should always ready to die a martyr for the cause. Martyrs are good for the movement. I did not agree myself with allowing my enemies to have such an easy triumph. But I knew he was very serious about it.

On the morning of 20 August, Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in Pune by unknown assailants. The Indian Rationalist movement has lost an outstanding fighter against superstition and inhuman rituals. And I lost a wonderful comrade-in-arms and a strong supporter in Maharshtra state.

Dr Narendra Achyut Dabholkar was 67 years old. He held a degree in medicine and had been a practicing physician before he became a full-time rationalist activist. He authored several books in Marathi language and was for 16 years the editor of the weekly Sadhana magazine. After founding the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (the Maharashtra Rationalist Association) in 1989, he dedicated the rest of his life to rationalist work. He made his mark with a two-pronged strategy. He reached out to the common people of Maharashtra with grassroots campaigns, educating and encouraging them to overcome superstition and dare to rely on reason. On the other hand, he was determined to persuade the Maharashtra government to pass legislation that would put a stop to the game of black magicians, faith-healers and astrologers. He was one of the key architects of the Maharashtra anti-superstition bill. Though politicians did their best to dilute it and postpone its discussion in the legislature time and again, he did not give up. Due to his relentless efforts, the Maharashtra government finally assured the introduction of the bill – unleashing the fury of fundamentalist groups. This happened just days before his murder.

Dabholkar was hated by fundamentalists. But, being the peaceful, open-hearted and kind man he was, he was adored and loved by the people. Over the years, his popularity in Maharashtra grew and grew – together with public understanding of the importance of the rationalist fight.

The brutal murder of a leading anti-superstition campaigner is an alarm signal. But it is also a sign of the growing importance of our work and our growing influence. Rationalism is on the front foot in India. Fundamentalist exploiters are losing ground. This is their last stand, and they are resorting to medieval means of threat, torture and murder to turn the tide.

Narendra Dabholkar has died a martyr – now we have to ensure that his brutal murder does not turn a triumph for the enemies of reason. It is the best tribute that we can pay to him, to take up his mantle and go forward. That is what we owe him – and it is what we owe India. Rationalism and scientific temper are crucial for the future of our country. If we want to see our people come out of the choke hold of ignorance, backwardness, exploitation and meaningless suffering and step into a dignified and successful future, then there can be no going back. We are in the midst of a great freedom struggle – India’s Second Freedom Struggle – and it is do or die.

There is a chance that Narender Dabholkar’s death will serve as a wake-up call and that his determination and outrage will inspire the better part of India to take up the mantle and go forward. I deeply hope that they will. I hope that his idea of the anti-superstition bill gets wings. Of course, what may be tabled in the Maharashtra legislature in the coming months is a diluted and completely useless version. What we urgently need is a real, national anti-superstition bill.

We need the Indian Parliament to openly discuss rationalism and remember what is written in our Constitution: every Indian citizen has the duty to develop scientific temperament. If parliamentarians respect this duty, they could create – in true commitment to the welfare of the people – a powerful legal instrument to stop ruthless exploiters in the garb of holy men and women and their irresponsible supporters in politics and the media. That is the politically-charged idea for which Dabholkar lost his life. He will not have died in vain if it helps to win India’s freedom now.

Sanal Edamaruku is the president of the Indian Rationalist Association and of Rationalist International. He lives in an undisclosed location in Europe, after receiving death threats from Catholic fanatics in Mumbai. This all started in March 2012, when he revealed in a TV program that the “miracle” of a water dripping crucifix in Mumbai was a plumber’s problem. Catholic forces pressed blasphemy charges against him and church officials demanded his apology.