Narendra Dabholkar was a maverick and yet very sensible. Mavericks generally tend to be indifferent to others, self-centered and haughty, but Narendra redefined these maverick attributes. Nevertheless, there were many contradictions in his personality which cannot be explained logically or psychologically.
He enjoyed confrontation, but sought compromise and reconciliation. Non-violent in his approach, he had a violent death. He believed in dialogue and was sober during arguments, but his opponents were shrill and abusive. He advocated scientific thinking, but was a strict vegetarian (and a teetotaler). He was a socialist, but not a Marxist. He was an extremely disciplined person and any old-style proud Sangh swayamsevak would envy him for that. A medical doctor, he participated in social movements. He was a fellow traveller of the Yuvak Kranti Dal, but never a direct activist. Although he was influenced by the JP movement, he remained outside Janata Party politics.
But what is important to note is that his life as well as his brutal death have completely exposed the hypocrisy and vacuousness of Maharashtra’s claim to be progressive and modern. Indeed, his murder has shaken the establishment to the core, much more than his lifelong struggle to eradicate superstitions from society. For more than forty years, he worked to build the organization Andhashradha Nirmulan Samiti ( Association to Abolish Superstition) and established a network of thousands of activists across Maharashtra – rural and urban. He had collected evidence on how thousands of women were victims of superstition and were exploited by sadhus, babas and self-proclaimed tantriks and mantriks. For him, therefore, it was also a struggle to liberate women from the shackles of vicious traditions, rituals and magic. Not only from the so-called gurus, but also from the male members of their families.
In rural Mahrashtra, humans were sacrificed as offerings for which women and children were burnt and killed. Their overall number may not be too large, but the impact of those practices was surely huge. What alarmed Dabholkar was the fact that politicians from all parties patronised these ‘saints’, advised them on their political fortunes, performed tantra to either help them become a minister or defeat/destroy a rival.
The Congress in Maharashtra proudly says that their politics inherits the values and ideals of Mahatma Phule, Shahu Maharaj and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. However, the Congress – and in fact, all parties – know the impact this trio has on rural masses in the state. To get votes from the bahujan of Maharashtra, the Congress uses their names and legacies profusely and says that they want to recreate Maharashtra in their utopian image. [For those not familiar with them, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule was a revolutionary social reformer in the mid-nineteenth century who, with his wife Savitri Phule, started campaigns for women’s education, for the eradication of untouchability, to abolish caste hierarchies, to get rid of superstition and to educate people and teach them English. Though mali (gardener) by caste – in today’s parlance, OBC – he was a profound social thinker and had even dedicated his book to Abraham Lincoln. Mahatma Phule was an inspirational force for Shahu Maharaj, Sayajirao Gaikwad of Baroda and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.]
While the Congress used to feel embarrassed by the campaigns run by Narendra Dabholkar as their sham claims would get exposed, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena felt threatened because they felt that the movement was against Hindu traditions. The militant wings of the Sangh Parivar aggressively organised against Dabholkar’s movement. Not only the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajarang Dal, but also more vicious outfits like Sanatan Sanstha and their ilk. Their publications routinely abused, threatened and spread calumny against Dabholkar’s organisation and volunteers. But to their dismay, Dabholkar’s reach was expanding and gaining strength. The more support he received from the masses, intellectuals and the media, the more shrill and violent became the obscene campaign of the Sanatan outfits. Just a fortnight before he was killed, some of their activists openly said that Dabholkar would meet the same fate as Gandhi. Social media websites were aflame with vulgar abuses and innuendo against Dabholkar – before his death and even after.
I have known Narendra for nearly forty years and I used to attend, participate and campaign for the ideas that he and his organization used to spread. He was extremely disciplined and was fastidious about time-management. He was always meticulous in his work – from organizing demonstrations and performances exposing so-called magic and tantra to preparing legislative drafts. He had colleagues and comrades, not ‘followers’. His discussions with volunteers used to be open sessions. They would relate terrifying tales from their villages – which even the police were not aware of or had often connived in.
Every time he exposed the exploitation of poor villagers, there would be some sadhu or thug sanyasi protected or sponsored by a politician involved. While the BJP and the Sangh Parivar opposed him ideologically and politically, the Congress ‘welcomed’ his campaign publicly, but did nothing to enact laws to stop these atrocities. For nearly two decades, Dabholkar fought for strict laws against inhuman practices in the name of spirituality and Hindu traditions. The Congress and the Rashtravadi Congress promised him legislation against superstitious practices and made him amend the draft he had prepared, but then talked of legislative difficulties and shelved the draft bill. On one hand, they were afraid of losing the so-called ‘traditional Hindu vote’ and on the other, they themselves were superstitious. So they talked of not ‘hurting the sentiments’ of people and procrastinated.
The bill was finally ready, but it was not likely to be passed. So Dabholkar began his meetings with individual members of the House, party leaders, the media and opinion makers. His efforts had an impact and that is what alarmed the Sangh-Sanatan Parivar. His murder was the logical and ideological culmination – conspired, coordinated and executed in the same way Gandhiji was killed. Nathuram Godse belonged to Pune; 65 years later Narendra Dabholkar was assassinated in Pune.