"I Should Not Allow Myself to be Scared": Narendra Dabholkar on Facing Threats from Religious Organisations

20 August, 2018

Five years ago today, the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in Pune. Dabholkar was a well-known anti-superstition activist in Maharashtra, and a prolific writer in Marathi, though little of his work is available outside the state. This year, a compilation of Dabholkar’s writings that was originally published as a Marathi book Timiratuni Tejakade in 2010, will be released as a two-volume series in English by the publishing house Context. The book has been translated by Suman Oak, a long-time associate of Dabholkar who worked with him closely at the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, referred to in the book as ANiS, an anti-superstition organisation that the late rationalist founded in 1989. 

On 18 August, the Central Bureau of Investigation detained a former Shiv Sena corporator Shrikant Pangarkar, in relation to Dabholkar’s murder. The past year has also seen Hindutva outfits such as the Sanatan Sanstha come under scrutiny in relation to the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh, and their links to the assassination of Dabholkar. In the following extract from the first volume of the translation, titled The Case for Reason: Understanding the Anti-superstition Movement, Dabholkar recounts the pressures he faced from religious organisations, such as the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and Sanatan Sanstha, as well as by members of the BJP and Shiv Sena.

For some reason or the other, various adversaries keep targeting me for attacks. Narendra Maharaja is one such person. He has a reason to hate me. In one of his interviews he had mentioned, “Eradication of superstition is not the task of the likes of Narendra Dabholkar and ND Patil and their foreign bookish science. These great men are in the business of eradicating our Indian culture itself under the name of eradication of superstition. They target only Hindus. They are out to destroy the lofty religiosity of our Indian culture. What they do under the guise of eradication of superstition is nothing but an attack on people’s religiosity. If people follow Dabholkar, they will become irreligious, leading to shameless licentiousness. Narendra Dabholkar is corrupting the society.”

This was not all. In his sermon, Narendra Maharaj instigated his devotees to “break the limbs of Dabholkar and ND Patil” and at Shirala he accused us of being hired by Christian missionaries to destroy Hindu religion, and of eradicating faith instead of superstition; the latter being his constant complaint against us. When journalists asked me to respond to these comments, I said, “Oh god of Narendra Maharaj, please pardon him for he does not know of what he speaks.” In response to the threats he issues, I was advised to seek police protection since I am often alone, especially during odd hours of the night, and secondly, to keep a licensed pistol with me. But these kinds of safeguards will negate the very essence of the movement. For a long time, I have been involved in drafting a law to prohibit black magic and superstition. At one stage, Sham Manav raised an objection regarding the draft of the law. Taking advantage of this, the Hindu Janajagaran Samiti sent a press note to all newspapers saying: “Dr Dabholkar, the heretic who is grievously deceiving the government and the populace should be ousted from the committee for the law on eradication of superstition. PB Sawant, the retired Supreme Court justice, has opined that the draft of the law earlier made by the working president of Maharashtra ANiS, Dr Dabholkar, and sent to the then governor for his consent can label many of our customs and traditions, like Satyanarayan Puja fasts, as criminal acts. This was disclosed by Sham Manav at ‘Matoshri’ when he met with Uddhav Thackeray to discuss this subject. This makes it clear that Dr Dabholkar’s claim that this law is not about religion, nor detrimental to any religion, is dishonest and misleads both the government and the people. Under such circumstances, it is improper to invite Dr Dabholkar to any meetings regarding the law and a proper inquiry should be made to investigate into the matter. He should be barred from attending any other meetings too. We, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, submitted this plea to the government on 28 November. In order to expose the real face of Dr Dabholkar, we request you to publish this appeal in your journal.”

In 2006, the Maharashtra Foundation of USA awarded me a prize worth Rs 10 lakhs with a citation of “Best Social Worker.” I went to the US to accept this award. The Sanatan Sanstha in its daily Sanatan Prabhat printed on their front page a banner headline spread over eight columns. It read, “Condemnation of Maharashtra Foundation of USA for giving an award to the infidel Dr Narendra Dabholkar.” The news item further said, “The Maharashtra Foundation of America, an institute that does not respect the sentiments of Hindus, has declared the ‘Best Social Activist of the Decade’ award to Dr Dabholkar, the working president of the anti-religious Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. The award ceremony will be held at New Jersey at the annual gathering of the Maharashtra Foundation.” After this came an appeal in bold script, “Giving this award to Dr Dabholkar, who is trying his best to enact the anti-religious law against superstition, is rubbing salt on the injuries caused to the Hindus. Dr Dabholkar and his ANiS criticise Hindu religion and the saints of Maharashtra, a state that has a long tradition of saints. O Hindus, condemn the Maharashtra Foundation of USA and do not allow them to give away this award to Dr Dabholkar who assaults your religious sensitivities.” This report was accompanied by the email IDs and postal addresses of Sunita Dhumale, President, Maharashtra Foundation; Sunil Deshmukh, chief of the awards jury and a group of young members of the foundation. Emails protesting the giving of the award to me had reached the US before I did. It is another matter altogether that the emails congratulating me for winning the award far exceeded those protesting it. The award ceremony went off very well indeed.

In another instance, ANiS activists had conducted a teachers’ training workshop at Ambejogai. Some self-styled saviours of the Hindu religion created a commotion regarding the views said to have been expressed by some of the activists and launched a criminal case against them. Later, a stay order was given by the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court against this court action. A hearing regarding invalidation of this case was still in suspension before the court. But, on the strength of this slight evidence, some organisations with vested interests created quite a ruckus. This is what followed.

There were some demonstrations against us in Ambejogai and nearby areas in Beed district, Maharashtra. This is understandable. But these organisations instigated a few Shiv Sena and BJP MLAs to sit in dharna at the entrance of the Vidhan Sabha. The poster behind these MLAs said, “ANiS should apologise to the Hindu religion and saints”; the second demand went much further, it said, “Narendra Dabholkar and all his office bearers should be expelled from Maharashtra!” The sit-in lasted for two hours and was withdrawn at the request of the minister in charge of legislative assembly affairs. This was published as important news in the next day’s Dainik Lokmat. I thought an explanation was called for. But on second thoughts, I realised that no other newspaper or the electronic media had taken note of the incident, nor had there been any discussion in the legislative assembly. So I kept mum. Their attempt at stifling me had failed once again.

The government had given us a written assurance that it would pass the bill on the banning of black magic. At every session of the assembly, we expected that the bill would be passed but it was always postponed to the next session for some reason or other. After one such session, I wrote an article to express ANiS’s indignation at being cheated in the legislative work of the assembly. A Shiv Sena MLA sent a breach of privilege notice against me to the speaker of the assembly, which was duly served on me. I answered it explaining the logic of my arguments without bothering to consult anyone. It seemed to have satisfied the speaker and required no further action.

Then there was a third incident where the thorny interventionist path became unavoidable. The daughter of Bhanudas Kanhoji Adbhai of Rahuri (Ahmednagar district) studied medicine, and as soon as she qualified as a doctor, she left home to join the Sanatan Sanstha at Panvel and began to stay in their ashram. She refused to meet her own father. Adbhai and his daughter were both followers of the Sanatan Sanstha. But the father never expected that his daughter would take such an extreme step. The aggrieved father, therefore, approached ANiS. An article written by him, “A Father’s Grief ,” was published in the ANiS magazine. I also held a press conference along with him, where he spoke about his distress. This was reported in Maharashtra Times, Lokasatta and the Satara edition of Tarun Bharat. Two criminal and two civil cases were filed against me on the basis of the reports in Lokasatta and Maharashtra Times. In addition, due to the news item in Tarun Bharat, two cases, one criminal and one civil, were filed against me in Goa.

In a similar incident, a case was filed against me in the Delhi High Court for an article I wrote on Nirmala Mata in the monthly Lokaprabha. I fought for eight years and finally won the case. These people never filed a case against any newspaper. Two followers of the same Sanatan Sanstha of Panvel were indicted for a bomb blast at a theatre in Thane. Saptahik Chitralekha published a cover story on the blast and included an article that I had written much earlier about the Sanatan Sanstha of Panvel. Again, the Sanatan Sanstha at Ponda (not the one at Panvel) launched defamation cases against me (and also the weekly Saptahik Chitralekha), claiming damages of one crore rupees. In addition, a criminal case was also filed there.

There were other cases too. A civil and a criminal case had been filed in the Bombay High Court against me and the Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Vartapatra (the ANiS magazine) for publishing Adbhai’s article; two civil and criminal cases against me and Vartapatra for taking notice of an academic programme against the Sanatan Sanstha at Goa; one more civil and criminal case against me for the cover story on the followers of the Sanstha who were taken into custody for their criminal fundamentalist activities, published in Vartapatra. The number of cases against me by this organisation totalled fourteen, and the amount I was supposed to shell out was four crore! Out of these fourteen cases, I won two cases in the Bombay High Court and one in Goa. The rest continued to drag on.

My policy in these situations is to keep cool. I know that these cases are inevitable and I should not allow myself to be scared or confused by them. I should not take them lightly nor fight with all the strength I can muster, nor should I get frustrated but hire competent advocates and raise funds to pay them if necessary. Of course, I am fortunate enough that renowned advocates, like advocate DV Patil, Dattajirao Mane and others, have rendered legal assistance to me and to ANiS free of charge. All these things transform our difficulties into opportunities, making me and the movement more confident and bring home to our adversaries the lesson that they cannot obstruct our movement by dragging us down with law suits. We always uphold the truth and never indulge in slander. Naturally, we win all the cases and are acquitted honourably. One more important aspect of our policy is that we do not believe in tit for tat. We could easily file defamation cases too, but ours is the path of awakening people and of constructive action. Wisdom does not lie in filing court cases.

This is an excerpt from Context’s forthcoming book The Case for Reason: Understanding the Anti-superstition Movement, written by Narendra Dabholkar, and translated into English by Suman Oak.