Voices of Reason

The rationalists fighting superstition amid growing threats of violence

The COVID-19 outbreak has illustrated the extent of the grip superstition has over India. Rudhransh Sharma / SOPA Images / Lightrocket / Getty Images
30 April, 2020

ON THE MORNING OF 9 AUGUST 2019, a group of police constables sat on plastic chairs outside the Mahakavi Kalidas auditorium in Mulund, a suburb in northern Mumbai. The rainless morning had given a sudden reprieve to the flood-hit city. With their guns, lathis and lunch bags next to their chairs, the policemen kept a close watch on every person entering and exiting the venue.

The security seemed tight for an event that had been billed as a “birthday celebration.” Metal detectors were installed at the entrance. Men, women, children and bags, were all scanned for weapons. At a desk set up opposite the auditorium, a few men and women carefully took down the contact details of every visitor, checked their identification cards and assigned each of them a badge attached to a long blue lanyard.

Inside the auditorium, a harmonium and a dholak were being tuned somewhere in the wings. Finally, three men took the microphone and began singing in Hindi: “Na goliyon se darte hain, na goliyon se, dharam ki toliyon se darte hain, na toliyon se. Ladenge jaat paat, ling bhed aur dharmvaad se, qayamat, kismat, jannat, karishma ki takaton se”—We are neither scared of bullets, nor religious hordes. We will fight against casteism, gender discrimination and communalism, and against the powers of heaven, fate and doom. The packed auditorium cheered, and the applause only grew in volume when, towards the end, the song pledged to fulfil the dreams of four specific people: the activists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, the scholar MM Kalburgi and the journalist Gauri Lankesh. All of them had been murdered in the last six years.

It was the thirtieth-anniversary celebration of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, an organisation founded by Dabholkar, in 1989, to combat superstition and to promote rationalism. There has been a long tradition in Maharashtra, and a few adjoining states, of rationalists fighting superstition and its advocates in Indian society—babas, astrologers and politicians who use religion for political mobilisation—through lectures, workshops, cultural events, articles and books. Hindu fundamentalist groups have long detested rationalists from this region, whom they see as critics of Hindu customs and rituals. Dabholkar and Pansare were allegedly killed for their work as rationalists. Kalburgi and Lankesh were also sympathisers of the movement. While investigations are ongoing, the name of the Hindutva organisation Sanatan Sanstha has come up in relation to all four murders. Its members have also been charge-sheeted in cases of several bomb blasts.