I have been volunteering for Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (Maharashtra Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith), usually referred to as Anis, for over 3 years and was fortunate to be closely associated with Dr Dabholkar over that period. I write this in great shock, disbelief and sorrow.
For over two decades, Dr. Dabholkar fought against rampant superstitions in our society and for the cause of rationalism and humanism. While radicals and those with vested interests regularly tried to malign him and project him as someone opposed to religion, that was never the case.
In all his talks, he emphasized that the right to practice one’s religion was granted by the Indian constitution and he was no one to question it (right to practice). His work was entirely dedicated to stopping the exploitation and “manasik gulamgiri” mental slavery as he used to refer to it, that is carried out under the guise of religion.
Today godmen and charlatans across India fleece people, fake miracles, loot them of their precious little, and at times even make people commit heinous crimes by misusing their blind faith.
Dr (as we used to call him) used to say that ‘shraddha’ (faith) was something that led to enriching one’s moral values while ‘andha-shraddha’ (blind faith) led to exploitation, depletion in moral values and belief in things only because they had been bestowed holiness. If there was no exploitation involved, then Dr. would rarely comment, even if the beliefs or acts were obviously irrational.
Dr was often asked why he only challenged superstitions and not religion in toto. He would say that if you get people to shed superstitions and question all beliefs in a scientific way, they will examine religion for themselves. Dr was of the opinion that reform was a gradual process and that we need to take society with us and try to not alienate them.
So the focus of his work was entirely on a) inculcating a scientific temperament b) stopping all exploitation under the guise of religion.
He was often asked about why most of Anis’ work dealt with Hindu beliefs. Dr. Dabholkar was born in a Hindu Brahmin family and his counter was that he was focussed on first cleaning his house and ensuring that his house was well-lit. He would say that if there was light in his house, some of it will but naturally reach the neighbouring houses (other religions). While Anis has over the years challenged many superstitions from other religions (documented in Dr.’s books), considering the background and reach of Dr Dabholkar as well as Anis cadres, Anis was best equipped to deal with Hindu beliefs.
As a person, he was remarkably compassionate and patient with even the most irrational questions and queries. Not once did I hear him even raise his voice.
He was a remarkable orator with a supreme command on Marathi. He often referred to and quoted (often verbatim) past social reformers like Phule, Ambedkar, Ranade, Gadge Baba, Savarkar and Agarkar. He also enjoyed poetry and could produce a verse /poem at will from saints like Tukaram or a famous Marathi poet. I have heard dozens of his lectures and yet he managed to captivate and make me think and introspect every time.
He was always open to suggestions from each and every one. We often spoke of how best Anis could reach youngsters and how Anis could reach beyond Maharashtra and Marathi. A book in English was actually very high on his lists of todos.
He often narrated memories from past Anis campaigns. He had done and experienced so much that he always had a relevant anecdote to pull out from his endless store.
He was not very tech savvy but was always keen to learn. When I once suggested that Anis needs to better utilize social media, he got me to organize a workshop for key Anis members. For 3 hours, he valiantly tried out browsers, facebook and twitter. Afterwards he treated us to tea and bread butter. When I looked to pay, he joked that he was paying the bill as “Guru Dakshina”. He quickly grasped the potential of social media and Anis today reaches thousands via MaharashtraAnis channels on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube as well as DrDabholkar on Facebook and Twitter. He would enthusiastically contribute posts and videos for social media. Almost all the photos you would have seen on TV have been sourced from the Anis social streams.
Simple living was ingrained in all his acts and actions. When I once asked him about having better food at volunteer events, he insisted that meals at Anis events must be minimalistic. He said that volunteers should be well fed but it should be their passion for the cause that should bring them there. So chapatis and a vegetable (usually potato) is what a meal looks like at most Anis meets.
Volunteers often risk coming across as know-it-alls. So Dr. would always remind us that those trapped in customs & tradition don’t need your anger but your empathy. Not your mockery, but your compassion (tyana tumchya krodha peksha karunechi ani upahasa peksha apulkichi garaj ahe. )
Those who have only seen Dr Dabholkar’s serious TV persona might find it difficult to believe that Dr had a great sense of humour and used to laugh out loud, often and wholeheartedly. He was one of the warmest and sweetest persons I have ever known. I am certain that he harboured no hatred or malice towards even his staunchest detractors. Unfortunately that facet of his personality never quite came across to the masses because of the serious nature of his work and also the constant abuse and false propaganda against him.
In his talks, he often told the story of an old man who attended all his lectures in a lecture series on rationalism some 20 years back. The man clapped and appreciated all his talks but at the end came up to him and said “What you are doing is good work, but I suggest that you not waste your time and immediately wind this up. I have spent all my life telling the same things to people around me but not one will listen. The same will happen to you.” After a pause for audience laughter, Dr would say “20 years later, Narendra Dabholkar hasn’t entirely been wasted”.
While narrating his journey, and how his wife and family supported him throughout, he would often say in jest that “Mi nashib na mananara nashibvan manus ahe” “I am a lucky man who does not believe in luck”
He always used to goad volunteers to not blindly follow him but to read, study, question and form their own opinions.
Once while he had come over for dinner at my place, he complimented my wife on the food and joked that his wife says that he doesn’t hanker for home food as his volunteers across Maharashtra keep feeding him delicacies.
Dr. frequently received threats and when asked if he still gets a good night’s sleep, Dr would insist that he slept very well. The secret to his sound sleep was probably his belief in Anis’ mantra of “Science – Courage – Ethics” and his tireless march for reform.
On 20th August 2013, Dr was assassinated by suspected religious radicals. While my first reaction was of disbelief, it was accompanied by “this is what you get when our government keeps ignoring the voices for truth and reason and keeps appeasing the fanatics. If anyone wants proof of the Talibanic mentality being alive and well in India, this is it.”
While it is true that killing the man will not kill his views, Anis and rationalism in Maharashtra now faces a vacuum that seems impossible to fill. After the media has left, the movement would need fresh faces to take over the mantle of religious reform. Fortunately Dr has left behind a treasure trove of content in the form of books, articles, audio and video cds. Many of his speeches are also available on Anis’ Facebook page MaharashtraAnis.
While the outpouring after his death has been unprecedented, the fact is that while alive he got very little recognition from the state. Fearing religious radicals, Dr. was never bestowed with any significant government award. If he was to be awarded, the award was usually given to his book and not to the person. When I first met him, I had presumed that he would be at least a Padma Shri. So I was very surprised when I realized how both the State and the Central governments had grossly ignored him, fearing a backlash from fanatics.
Dr. was a Chattrapati award winning kabaddi player, led a spartan and disciplined life and suffered from no ailments whatsoever. Dr. was 67 years old but in very good health. However he had the vision to prepare Anis for when he would not be around. He not only moulded volunteers but also empowered them. He had relinquished all Anis positions and was currently only a volunteer.
For me personally, I not only feel a great loss, but I regret waiting for that perfect day when I would have the time for extended discussions with him, to accompany him on a lecture series across Maharashtra or to visit him at his home in Satara.
We also never quite got around to discussing much about death and mortality. But I am quite sure that Dr would not have been the least perturbed if he would have been told a few minutes prior to his death of what was coming. Considering his rationalism, he certainly would have done all he could to save himself. However, he was a man of exemplary courage and I am sure would not have lost his composure.
Hopefully his memories will give me the courage and the strength to work on my tiny attempts at social reform.
Dr. had a habit where he would follow any profound line with an extended “Okkkkk”, which meant “Have you got it? Can we move on?” About his death, Dr. in his pragmatic fashion would have probably said “It was to happen someday. Now it’s up to you all. Okkkk.”
My 2 minute talk at the meeting to pay respects to Dr. Dabholkar.