NEW DELHI—Next month, it will be six years since Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, a well respected rationalist and campaigner against superstition from Maharashtra, was murdered while he was out on a morning walk in Pune. Since then, three more anti-fascist activists who were effective campaigners against right-wing ideas and politics―Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh—have been murdered and investigating agencies believe the murders may be linked. Members of the Sanatan Sanstha have been accused of executing the murders but no one has been convicted so far.
Along with six years of the murder, August will also mark the 30th birth anniversary of the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith’ which was set up in August 1989 by Dabholkar with his peers. A unique organisation which has branches in all districts of Maharashtra and about 10,000 active members, the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith, better known as the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, was the vehicle for implementing Dr Dabholkar’s ideas and plans for battling superstition and promoting rationalism in the so-called progressive state of Maharashtra. It is currently led by Executive President Avinash Patil, who has also been a long term rationalist activist.
Presently, Patil is busy planning a day-long international conference on ’Rationalism for the Development of Humanity” to be held in Mumbai on 9 August and a two-day convention of the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith on 10 and 11 August. He was in New Delhi last week in connection with these events and spoke with HuffPost India during the brief visit.
Patil said the organisation will now focus on changing government policies and setting up an institute for training and research in Maharashtra. He also described in detail, without holding back his punches, the political apathy shown by both Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments in Maharashtra and at the centre in probing the conspiracy to murder Dr. Narendra Dabholkar and other rationalist activists.
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He also dismissed all the talk about the government planning a ban on the Sanatan Sanstha and described in detail his experience of the Narendra Modi government’s conduct over the past five years in context with the investigation. “It is now our belief that all these are attempts to mislead and fool us, they don’t want to show political will and act against the Sanatan Sanstha,” he said.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
What are the achievements and failures of your organisation over the past 30 years?
There are many things which can be mentioned but I will say five things are our top contributions.
First, identification of the issue. 30 years ago, it was not even acknowledged that superstition is an issue. Because of our work over the years, the need to deal with superstition as a serious issue has come to be acknowledged not just in Maharashtra but, I would say, across India and the world. It was believed by people following progressive ideologies of various shades in India till then that, eradication of superstition will happen gradually with the spread of education and health facilities, improvement in lifestyle. However, that has not happened. On the contrary, even the educated and privileged urban sections have their own superstitions and rituals while the oppressed rural sections have different superstitions. So our work has created awareness and opinion that superstition is a serious issue which needs to be and must be tackled. We have linked eradication of superstition with overall human development. Even our opponents, some of the godmen who indulge in miracle cures, now concede that superstition needs to be eradicated.
Second important contribution is how to address this issue (superstitions). Since there is an acknowledgement of the issue, how to resolve it? We have presented a model of battling superstition over the past thirty years to the world. I am not exaggerating when I say that the intellectually rigorous and geographically widespread work that our committee does in Maharashtra is unique and you won’t find something like this anywhere else in the world.
We acknowledge criticism about our modus operandi for carrying out work to eradicate superstition. We know that it has not been accepted as is but still it exists and is consequential.
Third achievement that we can mention is that because of our struggle, in Maharashtra there are no godmen who publicly say that they can do black magic for a defined purpose. This does not mean that the practice of black magic has been eradicated, there are localised instances of a few things happening here and there. But no one comes forward to accept our challenge of proving their black magic in Maharashtra when we invite them. Outside Maharashtra, there are godmen aplenty who make such claims publicly. But because of the moral pressure created by our work, there is no one in Maharashtra who can do that.
The fourth contribution that I would say we have made is a unique law for the eradication of superstition. And the fifth contribution is a law against social boycott. We conducted a campaign for years against caste panchayats which exist as parallel justice systems. Out of our campaign came the new law passed in July 2017 by the state government. This is a unique law in Maharashtra which should be scaled up nationally.
About the law for eradication of superstition, I think out of Maharashtra, other states including Kerala and Tamil Nadu are trying to get their own laws for eradication of superstition. Karnataka has already got its own law. Even beyond India, Uganda is serious about having a law against superstition and has made efforts in this direction. They want to fight a still practised superstition of human sacrifice there. They approached us and we helped them.
What about what you could not achieve?
The next steps in our work, which takes the issues we raise from policies to laws and then to social welfare schemes arising out of those laws is a work in progress. We have started work in this direction. But our organisation will need to be strengthened to do that kind of work over the next decade. Primarily, we now intend to do work that is institutional, research-based. We wish to create an institution with a scientific, anti-superstition perspective for training, orientation, documentation for eradication of superstition. So far, there is just one such organisation in India. It is in Kerala and is called the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP). They have done admirable work in the literacy campaign and for decentralisation of power to the panchayats...
We understand that the work we have done so far is inadequate. Whatever strength we have—in 36 districts of the state, we have over 350 branches and 10, 000 active workers—is not enough. Because in Maharashtra, the total population is about 13 crores and about 1.5 crore families can be considered to be supporters of this kind of work. We have a limited number of people who can work full time plus the question of resources is also there. But there are four crore families in Maharashtra so there is an opportunity for more work.
You mentioned the law against superstition as an achievement. But it is also true that it was passed in a hurry only after Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was killed. So what does that say about Maharashtra’s lawmakers and political class?
In our country, as well as in Maharashtra, the situation is such that some people have to exhaust their entire lives just to bring public attention towards one issue. It can be said that this happened in the case of Dabholkar as well.
The process to get the bill passed began as a private member’s bill on 7 July 1995 in the Legislative Council of the Maharashtra Assembly against the wishes of the then ruling government. It ended with the passing of the act after Dabholkar’s murder and began to be implemented from 26 August 2013. In the interim period, the state saw five Chief Ministers. Under Dabholkar’s leadership, our organisation campaigned for this law to be passed. Sometimes, we would do dharnas, send letters, write letters in blood, plead in front of the lawmakers. Once this involved even slapping ourselves to express regret because of helping elect a government that wouldn’t implement their promise of getting the law passed.
The law that was eventually passed has 12 sections instead of the original 70. Whether it is changing the name of the law or reducing clauses in the law, all of this happened because of the vested interests of political leaders. Political leaders from various parties took the issue of superstition from an election point of view. They were prejudiced and scared if clauses against certain superstitions were put in the law, they won’t be able to go to the people who follow those superstitions and seek votes. For instance, we conducted a campaign saying that sacrificing animals during religious pilgrimages is a wrong practise. Whether to consume meat or not is a personal question but, in the name of god, sacrificing animals should be avoided we said. And also inserted one section in the law about it. But former cabinet minister Chhagan Bhujbal, who claims to be a follower of Mahatma Phule, opposed it. Because he said that, if we put this clause in the law, people will not let us attend the religious pilgrimages. There are many such examples.
From Vilasrao Deshmukh to Prithviraj Chavan, during the tenure of all Chief Ministers including Manohar Joshi and Narayan Rane, changes in the law and opposition to it, all things happened. But the ruling and opposition parties did not show political will. Their public postures in favour of progressive, social justice politics notwithstanding. This is our experience.
The 18-year-long delay in getting the law passed is also responsible for the murder just as Sanatani forces are. Because otherwise there was no reason to murder him. He was a soft-spoken and warm person.
How do you assess the manner in which state agencies have investigated the murder of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar?
The first reaction that then Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan gave after the murder was that this has been done by followers of Hindutva. This was a telling reaction. Investigation should have happened at a large scale to expose this but nothing of that sort seems to have happened in the first year or two after the murder. During that time, it was rudderless.
After Dabholkar was murdered, we were saying since then that this murder was not executed for the same reasons that other murders are. So we asked the police not to investigate it that way. We told them that he was murdered because of an inability to respond to ideas with ideas. Our investigating agencies do not have any study about the social fibre, the socio-political situation prevalent around us. So they do not understand why such kind of murder can happen. That is why the investigation was rudderless during the initial years.
So before it went to the CBI, whatever the Pune Police, CID and SIT investigated has been wasted. Then Pune Police Commissioner resorted to the use of Planchette for investigation. To investigate the murder of Dabholkar, who spent his entire life against superstition, the police used Planchette. This is the laughable conduct of our police.
Even after the probe was transferred to the CBI, it did not have the resources, no staff during the first year and a half. For this as well, we had to follow up...The government was not serious about it."Avinash Patil
Even after the probe was transferred to the CBI, it did not have the resources, no staff during the first year and a half. For this as well, we had to follow up. We requested meetings with the Prime Minister many times because the CBI comes under the Prime Minister’s Office; met then Home Minister Rajnath Singh. We requested Jitendra Singh, who is the minister of state in the PMO, during the one meeting that was granted to us to give resources to the CBI. We met Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis along with Prof. ND Patil as well. This was the state of the investigation. The government was not serious about it.
Even today we say, during the past five years, forget the Prime Minister, even the Chief Minister of Maharashtra did not tell anything to the people of Maharashtra about the status of the investigation. Not just in the case of the murder of Dr Narendra Dabholkar, but also Govind Pansare. No proper details were given even to the state assembly when questions were asked about the investigation because of our efforts. We met the CM 25 times during the past five years and sent him more than 100 written requests. Nothing came of it. This is why we feel that the biggest issue here is that there is an absence of political will for the investigation of the murder conspiracy.
The actual work of investigation has been done by the Karnataka Police, not Maharashtra Police. After Dabholkar was murdered, Pansare, Kalburgi in Dharwad and Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru were murdered as well. In the Gauri Lankesh murder case investigation, the suspects found by the Karnataka Police were in Maharashtra. Just the work of arresting them was done by the Maharashtra police. They were all related with the Sanatan Sanstha. Whether it is the arrest of Sameer Gaikwad, Virendra Tawde or even the most recent arrest of Advocate Punalekar, though these arrests happened in Maharashtra, the investigation was done by the Karnataka police. In this situation, the investigation must go further and find out who the conspirators were behind the killings and act against them. That does not seem to be happening.
Those responsible for this, the Sanatan Sanstha, acts like the ISIS which makes human bombs out of youth.
What do you make of the demands for banning the Sanatan Sanstha? Has the investigation been conducted well enough to convict the Sanatan Sanstha or its members?
It was Hemant Karkare who submitted a report after investigations recommending a ban on the Sanatan Sanstha. During the Congress led government in power, this was considered but a ban never imposed due to some technical reasons. The current Home Minister, who is also the Chief Minister, has also said that he has recommended the central government to ban Sanatan Sanstha when its name came up after the Gauri Lankesh murder. But the Central government has said there is no such proposal.
It is now our belief that all these are attempts to mislead and fool us, and they don’t want to show political will and act against the Sanatan Sanstha.
How have these events affected the ground level work of your organisation?
It is true that the murder of a leader like Dabholkar did create a scare, even terror, among not only our members but amongst all people of progressive ideologies. Some activists got threats, a recce has been apparently conducted about me and our other activists to find out our movements.
The state government is talking about giving personal security to all these, including me. I have denied it in writing. But our position is that the State government should act against the people planning to indulge in crimes instead of giving us security.
Even if our activists or their family members felt scared, I can say with pride that not one activist stopped working. I have told them as a leader that we are not here to become martyrs, but those who get things implemented, so if certain confrontations are going to benefit the opponents don’t engage in them.