14 Sep 15

The death of rationalism: Who killed Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi?

When clues don’t emerge, biases do.

1, 210 million Indians are religious; 2.9 million Indians aren’t. Or, in other words, 99.76 per cent of Indians are believers.

There are 158.75 million children in India aged 0-6. Almost all of them are religious, if one goes by the above numbers.

Have you ever asked a three-year-old child his religion? What was the answer? Hindu? Muslim? Christian? Sikh? Jain? Buddhist?

This is how deep-rooted religion is in our country, when 158 million toddlers aren’t slotted in the “no religion” category. But it is true. A child is handed a religion even though he doesn’t understand what he has been handed, and in which hand must he hold this thing that isn’t made of plastic or stuffed cotton. A two-year-old Hindu. A one-year-old Muslim. A newly-born Sikh. A mother pregnant with a Christian foetus that kicks in frustration for it wants to enter the world and declare to the census lady that it is a Christian.

You think you can change this?

Who is a rationalist? We’d like to believe we all are. We’d like to believe that rationalists are those who do hawans before they initiate a rocket launch countdown; who unfold their mats and fold their legs and face the Kaaba before they orchestrate a perfect lift-off; who do spectacles-testicles-left-pocket-right-pocket before they manoeuvre Mangalyaan into orbit. Yes, we are all rationalists.

Well, there are three less rationalists among us now. Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi.

Dabholkar, who spent much of his life exposing sham rituals, miracles, black magic, and godmen, was murdered in 2013 by two men who then escaped on a motorbike. Two years have passed but the police are yet to identify the attackers. In a cruel twist of irony, when all avenues were exhausted, the police resorted to hiring a tantric so he could commune with the late Dabholkar and offer clues to his murder.

The identity of Dabholkar’s killers may be unknown but most columnists are of the belief that he was killed by Hindutva elements. This may or may not be true, but the sway of this opinion is so overwhelming that it is blasphemous to suggest Dabholkar may have been killed by people hired by piqued godmen — godmen who have a fanatical following in our country, but who also have nothing to do with this “beast” called Hindutva. The word beast is callipered in quotes as Hindutva has been described by the Supreme Court as a secular way of life, the writer of this landmark judgement none other than the late Justice JS Verma. But then again, it is blasphemous to suggest anything that might offer an alternate, entirely logical, viewpoint.

In a court of law, would any of the arguments that implicate “the Hindus” or “the Hindutvavadis” or “the Right Wing extremists” for the cold-blooded murder of Dabholkar stand a chance? What if the judge asks: “Tell me, Mr Columnist, are there fanatics among Hindus?”

“Yes, your honour,” would reply the columnist, correctly.

“What about among Christians – are there fanatics among Christians?”

“No doubt, your honour, there are.”

“Now then. Are you aware that Mr Dabholkar and his organisation MANS, the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti, protested vehemently against the canonisation of Mother Teresa by the Pope?”



“No, your honour, I wasn’t.”

“Were you aware that Mr Dabholkar even wrote to the Pope asking him not to make Mother Teresa a saint?”

“No, your honour, I wasn’t. This fact never comes up in any of the hundreds of opinion pieces on Mr Dabholkar and his murder that, if I may add, has become a metaphor for the death of Rationalism, birth of Intolerance, the murder Freedom of Thought, and the assassination of Free Speech, not to mention the creeping and suffocating…”

“Answer briefly, please. Is it not within the realms of possibility that Mr Dabholkar might have offended a fanatical devotee of Mother Teresa who wanted her to be anointed a saint?”

“Possible, your honour.”

“Leave aside Mother Teresa for a moment. We all know that godmanship is a multi-crore industry in our country, do we not?”

“Indeed, your honour.”

“And what was Dabholkar doing? Was he not opening the eyes of the clients of these godmen; was he not making a dent in their earnings by exposing their nonsense?”

“He was, your honour.”

“Are all godmen hindutvawadis; are they Right wing; do they call themselves Virat Hindus; do they bemoan Western thought and culture; are they paranoid schizophrenics hell-bent on dictating who gets to head ICHR? Are Nirmal Baba or Sai Baba from the BJP; or the RSS; or the Shiv Sena?”

“They aren’t, your honour.”

“Is it not within the realms of possibility that Mr Dabholkar incensed a godman and that the latter ordered the hit?”

“Possible, your honour.”

“You want to request for a recess?”

“Yes, your honour.”

Two months before Dabholkar was killed, MANS got to know of a 10-year-old girl in a village in Vidarbha. Her grandmother had dreamt of a goddess who wanted to drink blood. The grandmother, along with 10 villagers and the sarpanch, plotted to sacrifice her granddaughter. The girl was kidnapped, taken to a forest. Her throat was slit. The blood that poured out was drunk by the grandmother and her accomplices.

This is India. Dabholkar was trying to change India. He was trying to stop people from believing in things that had been believed in for thousands of years. He was trying to stop grandmothers from killing their grandchildren and drinking their blood.

This is a nation where the sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court can say in an open court: “Yes, why not. An idea can be punished.”

Another rationalist, Prabir Ghosh, was determined to expose the famous Teresa Miracle, where a woman named Monica Besra was cured of cancer after she kept a medallion bearing Mother Teresa’s image by her side. This very miracle was cited by the Vatican during the beatification ceremony through which Mother Teresa became a saint. Ghosh, who is the General Secretary of SRAI, the Science and Rationalists’ Association of India, decided to investigate. He tracked down Monica Besra, and discovered that she had received medical treatment for ovarian cancer.

Ghosh, whose work involves real and present danger, told Open magazine of an instance when two gunmen confronted him on a train but ran away after seeing his police guards.

Watch this video, available on Ghosh’s SRAI website, where Sai Baba’s act of conjuring vibhuti from thin air is explained.


After you’ve watched it once, watch it again, slowly, to admire the mix of zeal and servility in the eyes of Sai Baba’s devotees. Make no mistake — Ghosh is a marked man.

Irrational beliefs, black magic, superstition, voodoo, discrimination – these are not exclusive to any one religion or a way of life. Why are they being projected so? And, more importantly, why is only one theory being propounded?

Govind Pansare, a politician belonging to the Communist Party of India and a friend of Dabholkar – and, it is now being argued, a rationalist – was murdered in February of this year. Again, the needle of suspicion pointed to “Hindus”, “Hindutvawadis” and “Right wing fanatics”. Among the motives suggested by the columnists, one was that Pansare had spoken against Nathuram Godse a month before he was murdered.

If that be the case, then this author, too, is counting the breaths he has left in him; for he, too, thinks Godse was a psychopathic murderer who, far from being glorified should be reviled.

It is quite possible that some fanatic who idolised Godse took offence at what Pansare said and killed him. But could there be other, equally plausible reasons, reasons that are never brought up, consciously or subconsciously?

It is well known that Pansare was a raucous anti-toll tax activist. Indeed, early reports of the attack on him mentioned him only in this capacity, and not as a rationalist who riled Hindus. In days and months prior to Pansare’s murder, his anti-toll tax campaign had led to a violent agitation against the company that collected the toll-tax. Pansare had also led a popular agitation against the Maharashtra government’s SEZ policy.

Here, the judge, back from recess, would ask the columnist, “Is it not within the realms of possibility that actions of Mr Pansare offended a few devious businessmen or land sharks and they ordered the hit?”

Take the third case, that of MM Kalburgi, killed last month in an act of cold-blooded murder. Within minutes, anyone who could write or tweet – including this author – lay the blame on fanatics peeved by Kalburgi’s rationalism and his fight against religious intolerance. Some went further – including this author – linking the murders of Dabholkar and Pansare with the murder of Kalburgi, decreeing the prevailing atmosphere in the country, an atmosphere where freedom of speech is threatened at the drop of a hat and rationalists survive only because they haven’t been popped off yet by extremists. This, mind you, remains a possibility – that all three murders were carried out by Hindu zealots. But what is the job of journalists if not to present all possibilities? Days later, it came to light that an academic or a property dispute could also be the reason behind Kalburgi’s murder, although other reports rule out the latter.

Now I ask: If tomorrow, Darwin forbid, the atheist writer and thinker Taslima Nasreen is murdered -– a possibility she herself has written about — would we at once lay the blame on Asaduddin Owaisi? Recall that in 2007, goons belonging to Mr Owaisi’s party, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), had mercilessly attacked Dr Nasreen in the middle of a literary event, and what’s more, to this day they remain gleefully unrepentant of it. The attackers were MLAs, their leader an MP.

Would we, then, drench our opinion pieces with theories of the MIM having paid for the hit, were Dr Nasreen’s prophetic words to come true? Would Mr Owaisi be chased, ridiculed, berated and condemned by writers and anchors in equal measure?

All three murders, of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, remain unsolved. When clues don’t emerge, biases do; pens swap places with the missing murder weapons.

Sooner than later it must strike us that propounding theories and discussing who could have killed the rationalists is much less important than discussing why they are being threatened.

It is not an easy life being an atheist. In 13 countries, atheism carries a straight death penalty. This is what must be discussed, without ascribing motives, without being irrational.

Let us not discuss the rationalists who are dead, without also discussing the rationalists who are threatened with death. Let us not discuss Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare without discussing Taslima Nasreen and Sanal Edamaruku. Both are on the run, shifting from one country to another, holding on, just. Everyone knows Nasreen but not many know of Edamaruku.

In 2012, a leafy suburb of Mumbai witnessed something that was at once termed a miracle by the faithful -– the toes of Jesus Christ were dripping water. Edamaruku inspected the statue and declared it was due to capillary action and not divine intervention. While he was at a TV studio providing details of his discovery, a crowd gathered outside, armed with sticks. Soon, he was on the run, chased by the Catholic Secular Forum that slapped blasphemy charges on him. He applied for anticipatory bail but it was rejected. The penal provisions involving blasphemy are strict, drafted as they were by the colonial British. He had to decide — to stay and be murdered or to flee. Currently, he is hiding in Finland. Oswald Gracias – the anti-gay Archbishop of Mumbai who believes in exorcism, and who recently extracted a grovelling apology from stand-up comics of All India Bakchod – told Edamaruku things would get back to normal if he were to apologise to the Catholic Church. To his credit, Edamaruku refused. The result? He spends his life cooped up in a small apartment in Helsinki. A few years ago, a friend of Edamaruku pleaded with him to return to India, allaying fears of persecution and death at the hands of fanatics. That friend was Dabholkar.

Irrationality isn’t religion-specific. To blame exclusively one set of religious fanatics, to elaborate solely on the Hinduism-directed activism of rationalists, to lean entirely on the departed rationalists when discussing growing intolerance, is to deny the readers the knowledge of what the rationalists who are alive are going through.

To solve unsolved cases is the job of the police not the columnists. Lay the facts on the table. Lay them not as a conquistador or a preacher would. Lay them without malice or ridicule. People who aren’t rationalists aren’t irrational; people who aren’t non-believers aren’t illiterate buffoons who ought to be ridiculed.

President Obama believes that the world was created in six days, that Jesus Christ was the outcome of Immaculate Conception. President Obama isn’t irrational. He isn’t foolish, or crazy, or absurd, or illogical. Mahatma Gandhi was a deeply religious man. Richard Dawkins would have called him an idiot for this reason, like he called the inventor of MRI an “ignorant fool” because he believes that the world was created in six days.

To be a militant atheist is to mock the very foundation on which atheism stands – Science.

Who is an atheist? Someone who believes that God is not the answer to the following two questions: How did the universe originate; and how did life. It is important for militant atheists to remember the two men who, through their genius, confirmed that God wasn’t the answer to the above two questions, and in doing so provided atheism an unshakable foundation –- Charles Darwin and Georges Lemaitre.

Darwin believed in God. And Lemaitre? Well, he was a catholic priest.

Atheists and Rationalists will remain a threatened species in India. We have lost the battle. 1.2 billion, or 99.76 per cent of the population will not see the light anytime soon. But there is glory to be had in the belief that those who should have won the battle have lost it. Atheism and rationalism aren’t dead, and one day in the distant future, 158 million Indian children of age 0-6 would be categorised as persons belonging to “no religion”. Their parents would tell the Census lady, “We are Hindu,” or “We are Muslim,” “but our two-year-old son has no religion. Yes, don’t be shocked. Drink this sherbet and tick that box.”

This article first appeared in newslaundry on Sep. 14, 2015.

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