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Battling Superstition, Indian Paid with His Life
By ELLEN BARRY
New York Times
Published: August 24, 2013
PUNE, India — For nearly three decades, an earnest man named Narendra Dabholkar traveled from village to village in India, waging a personal war against the spirit world.
If a holy man had electrified the public with his miracles, Dr. Dabholkar, a former physician, would duplicate the miracles and explain, step by step, how they were performed. If a sorcerer had amassed a fortune treating infertility, he would arrange a sting operation to unmask the man as a fraud. His goal was to drive a scientist’s skepticism into the heart of India, a country still teeming with gurus, babas, astrologers, godmen and other mystical entrepreneurs.
That mission ended Tuesday, when two men ran up behind Dr. Dabholkar, 67, as he crossed a bridge, shot him at point-blank range, then jumped onto a motorbike and disappeared into the traffic coursing through this city.
Dr. Dabholkar’s killing is the latest episode in a millenniums-old wrestling match between traditionalists and reformers in India. When detectives began putting together a list of Dr. Dabholkar’s enemies, they found that it was long. He had received threats from Hindu far-right groups, been beaten by followers of angry gurus and challenged by councils upholding archaic caste laws. His home state, Maharashtra, was considering legislation he had promoted for 14 years, banning a list of practices like animal sacrifice, the magical treatment of snake bites and the sale of magic stones.
In the rush of emotion that followed Dr. Dabholkar’s death, the state’s governor on Saturday signed the so-called anti-black magic bill into force as an ordinance. But Dr. Dabholkar never put stock in sudden breakthroughs, said his son, Hamid Dabholkar, as mourners filtered through the family’s home. “He knew this kind of battle is fought across the ages,” he said. “The journey we have chosen is one that started with Copernicus. We have a very small life, of 70 to 80 years, and the kind of change we will see during that time will be small.”
At Police Headquarters in Pune, the crime branch’s reception area was decorated with a painting of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, bedecked with garlands of fresh flowers and a revolving, multicolored flashing light. There was a slight smell of incense. The lead investigator in the Dabholkar case had been working until 4 a.m., the inspector on duty said, so he would not be in until noon. “Round-the-clock,” he repeated, reassuringly, when asked about the inquiry’s intensity.
The killers left behind a few pieces of evidence. Surveillance cameras show two men lurking around a bridge for nearly an hour before intercepting Dr. Dabholkar on his post-yoga morning walk. Friends and family described threats Dr. Dabholkar had received over the years from hard-line Hindu organizations.
The founder of one such group, Sanatan Sanstha, noting that he did not condone the killing, did not bother to feign sorrow over Dr. Dabholkar’s death.
“Instead of dying of old age, or by surgery, which causes a lot of suffering, the death Mr. Dabholkar got today was a blessing from God,” the leader, a former hypnotherapist now known as His Holiness Dr. Jayant Athavale, wrote in an editorial in the organization’s publication, Sanatan Prabhat.
With his unfashionable glasses and mild smile, Dr. Dabholkar fell into his region’s tradition of progressive social movements. An atheist, he quit practicing medicine at 40 to devote his life to activism. The room where he worked was bare but for a framed quote from Mahatma Gandhi. His wife, Shaila, recalled that her family had offered her an array of young men they considered marriageable, and she had chosen him for his idealism.
“We thought only about society, and that was what we spoke about,” she said. “Even though we were married, there was nothing like romance, or anything like that. Both of us were patriots of idealism. We wanted a good society.”
He was active on many fronts, from women’s rights to environmentalism, but the guru-busting received the most attention. A German scholar who wrote a book about Dr. Dabholkar’s group, the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith, described a traveling road show in which activists lay on beds of nails, set coconuts on fire and told crowds, “Just remember, miracles can never happen.”
“The rationalists do not shy away from challenging and provoking the gods, deities and spirits, ridiculing the people capable of controlling black magic and deliberately doing the most inauspicious things,” the scholar, Johannes Quack, wrote in his study “Disenchanting India.” “Some villagers told me that the rationalists would live to regret such behavior.”
Recently, Dr. Dabholkar had focused much of his energy on the anti-black magic bill, and he was frustrated that politicians were slow to embrace it. Shruti Tambe, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pune, said it had run into various roadblocks — a rise in conservative thought among middle-class Hindus; the vested interests of castes that specialized in certain rituals. Then there was the difficulty of providing a legal definition of superstition. The list of banned activities grew shorter and shorter over the years, and now includes 16 items, among them “to perform magical rites in the name of supernatural power” and “to perform so-called black magic and spread fear in society.”
“What today stands as the draft legislation is a much mellowed-down position,” she said. “It is a slippery area that we are talking about — what is faith, and what is blind faith. There is a very thin line dividing it.”
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Battling Superstition, Indian Paid with His Life
Far-right Hindu groups were vehemently opposed. Shambhu S. Gaware, a spokesman for Sanatan Sanstha, who offered an interview after repeated phone calls, said early versions of the bill banned practices that cause bodily injury — which, he said, could be interpreted to include traditional fasting. Though many provisions have since been removed, the act is still vaguely worded and could be applied to legitimate religious practices, he said.
“This is just an attack on Hindu dharma,” said Mr. Gaware, a mechanical engineer.
The days since the killing have been tense for Sanatan Sanstha. There have been calls to ban the group, which has no official membership, since 2008, when people linked to it were convicted of bombing theaters. Mr. Gaware said investigators questioned eight of Sanatan Sanstha’s local members immediately after the killing, and have a list of 70 members they plan to interrogate. He said the members had cooperated fully.
“Dr. Dabholkar was not a believer in God, and we are strong believers in God, so there is always a clash between our thoughts,” he said. “But we do not believe in violence. Whatever our differences with Dr. Dabholkar, we always choose legal means to oppose him.”
The police have begun questioning the leaders of criminal gangs in Pune, in hopes of identifying the crime’s mastermind, and are tracing more than 1,000 motorcycles with plate numbers similar to the assailants’, The Times of India reported Saturday.
In Pune, meanwhile, the secular and the spiritual strain against each other. Boys and men stopped at the spot on the bridge where Dr. Dabholkar was shot, fixing their gaze at the grayish stain on the cement. Rohit Shindey, 21, said that as a child, he had believed in “all the things in our religion that they would do that was rubbish, like babas and predictions.”
Then, he said, Dr. Dabholkar gave a speech at his school. “He told us: ‘I am not saying there is no God. Believe in God. But do not keep any superstitions in your heart. Only God is in your heart,’ ” Mr. Shindey said.
Not 50 feet away, Kumar Shankar was offering palm readings in the same spot where he has worked since 1987. He sat cross-legged and barefoot, in a vest of rough homespun fabric, and was not especially bothered by the challenges of secularists. A reading was 60 rupees, about $1.
“The Constitution of India has given us freedom of expression,” he said. “Many people say God is not there, but many more believe in God. Many people do not believe in spirits. Many people believe in spirits.” To charges that he was exploiting that belief, he said, “If you go to a doctor, will he treat you for free?”
Mr. Shankar had heard about Dr. Dabholkar’s death, and about the sudden progress of the new legislation. He shrugged off the idea that it would have any effect on him. “No, mine is a science,” he said. “This is palmistry! Numerology, palmistry, astrology, these are sciences! The law cannot ban them.”
Edited by avra cohen on Sep 1, 2013 12:05 PM