2 days ago, on 20th August, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in Pune. Today, a law he fought and ultimately lost his life for is on its way of being cleared. A decent summary of the proposed law is here.
A lot has been written and said about Dr. Dabholkar’s selflessness, committment to cause, bravery . A lot has been said about the sad present state of Maharashtra- a state with a long tradition of radical, rationalist thinkers like Phule, Karve, Ambedkar, Agarkar, Dalwai, Saneguruji. A lot has been said about how in India modernity means exposure to ‘modern things’ but not ‘modern thought’.
My father was a long time associate of Dabholkar and is shattered by his death. He kept on saying one thing over and over since the assassination, ” how dare these same people who made a mockery of his mission pretend to be shocked and sad by his death?”
He was not referring to the Hindu extremists who most likely were responsible. But people around us and people we admire as celebrities. Friends, neighbours, film-stars, journalists, businessmen.
And he is right.
Many people I know were cold about Dabholkar’s dedication to Andhashradhdha Nirmoolan ( removal of superstitions). Partly because they believed that it was a cause that affected only poor lower classes. Partly because they didn’t want to challenge their own ‘faith’ and ‘rituals’. Which in many cases meant wearing astrological stones, doing yagya before entering house, tying black dolls on houses to avert black eye, going to different babas or celebrity temples, walking barefeet to temples, doing pujas to avert bad luck and so on and so forth.
When Dr. Dabholkar challenged these rituals and called them by their real name, i.e fraud; the educated ‘progressive’ class of people bristled. How dare he challenge their faith? Did he think they were lower class uneducated people who didn’t know better? Didn’t he know about their post-grad degrees from United States and their seven figure salaries from MNCs? How could they be called ‘Andhashradha’ (superstitious)? And what was the harm in expressing your ‘shradhdha’ IF IT MADE ME FEEL BETTER???
This ‘I do it because it makes me feel better’ is a killer argument we use to wriggle out of any uncomfortable challenge to our status quo.
An extension is ‘I do it because it makes my parents/ my community feel better’. 99% of upwardly mobile people of my generation use this argument to answer any question that positions them as archaic. ‘I got married with a pomp because it makes my grandmum feel better’. ‘I did the naagpuja because it makes my father feel better.’ ‘ I did the vastushant because my neighbours feel better’.
My generation works on premise of upward mobility. If we are so very rational about material things ( what is the right time for property investment? what stocks would do better in three years? which manager’s ass be licked for optimum growth?); why do we persist in archaic beliefs? Why do they give us sense of security and harmless safety from darker elements?
A friend pointed out the absence of millions of computer programmers and engineers from Pune, which is a mecca of software industry, in the public outrage at Dr. Dabholkar’s death. ‘Is this our idea of followers of science?’ she protested.,
The line between shradhdha ( faith) and andhshradhdha ( superstition) is thin, they say. How so? Andhshradhdha or superstition almost always relies on rituals that promise material gains IF you perform a limited set of actions that usually centers around your fears. Superstition works because it makes you scared of unknown and promises quick results by a hotch-potch of ritualistic practices that have no innate connection to faith or belief or positive thought. “If you don’t wear thiS ring, your mangal will not go away, and you will not be able to marry. So spend 10000 bucks on this puja and 10000 more on this stone and your mangal will vanish.” Is this spiritual quest or genuine faith?
I used to laugh and scoff at netas who publically follow big name gurus as desciples, Amitabh Bachchan who walks barefoot to the temple, Ekta Kapoor who does strange things with spellings, my media fraternity that times movie releases and programme launches as per ‘shradh’, my colleagues who believed that a wrong vastu was the reason our media network was faltering, my friends who routinely do bizarre pumas, my relatives who flock to take blessings of filthy rich babas.
I must confess that I hardly ever argued with these colleagues, friends and relatives openly. I never challenged them. I shrugged and said ” how can you still believe that?” and laughed in minor disagreement when they said how they believed and it made them feel better.
I look around and see emergence of dozens of babas, hundreds of jyotishs, yatra companies, temples whose wealth rivals the same corrupt politicians who visit them. It is not that these were not present before, but since when did it become ok to aggressively flaunt them and not expect to be called out as superstitious ignoramus?
I don’t think it is a matter of laughter or scorn. These people, in the guise of ‘it makes us feel better’ perpetuate ignorant ideology that trickles through the society.
None of them would oppose someone like Dabholkar publicly, but in private, they would ignore his pleas for reason. They wouldn’t see how their behaviour sanctified superstitions. They would champion materialism on one hand and traditionalism based on superstitions on the other. The fabric of society that is made of ignorance and quick fix rituals will always be slow to take in reasonable changes.
There is no doubt in my mind that my class and my community is as superstitious as say my maid who spends a fortune on random babas.
Calling it ‘faith’ doesn’t change what it is : ignorant stupidity. And I for one am not going to be polite or tactful about it any more. No RIP. No shaking of my head. No matter if it is my boss or an influential person or a dear friend.
That is a small tribute to Dr. Dabholkar.