On Tuesday Narendra Dabholkar, an outspoken campaigner against religious superstition in the Indian state of Maharashtra, was shot dead by two attackers on a motorbike during a morning walk in the city of Pune. Dabholkar, who was 67, was widely known as a campaigner in favor of passing a bill that would ban black magic in the western Indian state.
The killers have not yet been identified, but a passerby managed to glimpse their license plate and jotted down its numbers. Police reported that the assailants fired four shots at Dabholkar from cross range as they approached him from behind on a bridge near the Omkareshwar temple. The government of Maharashtra is offering a reward of 1 million rupees to anyone who can provide any additional information that will lead to the killers.
“What has happened is shocking. It is really shameful,” Vijaya Chauhan, an associate of Dabholkar, told The Guardian.
“This is an attempt to suppress a democratic movement. It’s an attack on the Constitution, which asks its citizens to promote scientific temper,” added Vivek Monteiro of the All India People’s Science Network.
Dabholkar had earned the enmity of some extremist Hindus for his efforts to make some ascetic practices illegal. In a country where “godmen” claim to summon spirits, possess clairvoyance and healing powers, walk on hot coals, levitate, pierce their bodies and more, Dabholkar’s challenge to superstition was not universally welcomed. He went as far as offering 500,000 rupees ($7,890) to anyone who could prove him wrong by conjuring spirits.
Chauhan also told The Guardian that Hindu ascetics were not the only ones incensed by Dabholkar’s campaign for rationality. Politicians from the state’s Hindu right were also opposed to the proposed bill, which also lacked support among members of the Congress party.
Dabholkar and his associates were actively engaged in spreading their message to Indian schools across the state.
Although he angered many, Dabholkar was quick to explain that his campaign was not intended to target religion. “In the whole of the bill, there’s not a single word about God or religion. Nothing like that,” he once said. “The Indian constitution allows freedom of worship and nobody can take that away. This is about fraudulent and exploitative practices.”
Dabholkar was a former medical doctor who gave up his profession to promote rationalism in India. He also wrote several books, edited a weekly magazine called Sadhana and had close ties to Sanal Edamaruku, the founder of the Indian Rationalist Association who was forced to abscond to Europe after receiving death threats and facing blasphemy charges.
“The rationalist movement has been growing very fast over the last 10 years. I have experienced a lot of threats in my life and so have many others,” Edamaruku told Firstpost.
Dabholkar’s example and death have inspired many to continue working on behalf of his cause.
His associate Chauhan said, “The best way to pay homage to a man who had been campaigning relentlessly for the last 18 years for a law against superstitious religious practices is to immediately pass the bill in the state legislative assembly.”
John HeyGhaati (@Sant_patil) tweeted: “Narendra Dabholkar constantly fought against goons hiding behind religious veil. He is shot dead. May his death strengthen his struggle.”