Assassination of an Activist : Who Killed Dr Narendra Dabholkar?

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

– Albert Einstein

 Words have an uncanny ability of impinging on the receiver with clinical detachment. It is upto the receiver to unpack them or try to derive meaning out of them. It is still difficult to get over the sense of grief and shock one experienced when one received the news of the assassination of renowned rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar on the streets of Pune on Tuesday 20 th August.

For Punekars – residents of Pune – Omkareshwar temple on the banks of rivers Mula-Mutha happened to be the place where the dead are taken for last rites. It was a strange coincidence that  Dr Dabholkar, was on his morning walk near Omkareshwar bridge when assailants riding on a motorcycle fired at him from close range, two of which hit him in the back of his head and he immediately fell on the ground. He was rushed to Sasoon hospital where doctors declared him dead. Police found a photograph and a cheque in the name of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS- Committee for the Eradication of Superstition) from his wallet . Perhaps after his walk he was planning to go to the office of ‘Sadhana’ – a magazine he was editing for the last eighteen years – as has been the practice whenever he use to be in Pune.

Spontaneous demonstrations have been reported from different parts of Maharashtra. And in his hometown Satara thousands came out on the streets to pay tribute to this 70 year young man who was loved and respected for his campaign against superstition and self-appointed godmen. A bandh call has been given by all political parties in Pune on Wednesday to protest the premediated murder of Dr Dabholkar.

It was only last night that he was on a channel (Sahyadri) discussing the role of the caste panchayats and the way they have made life miserable for many people. The panel discussion was taking place in the backdrop of a murder of a girl by her own father one Kumharkar in Nashik- on the instruction – of the caste panchayat as she had dared to marry outside the boundaries of caste. Intervening in the discussion Dr Dabholkar was telling how they had recently organised a conference to promote intercaste marriage and have released a manifesto on the same issue.  Looking at the fact that couples who go for intercaste marriage face tremendous problems at the hands of the communities they belong he was suggesting that special measures be taken by the police to protect them. Little could anyone had premonition that it is going to prove his last such panel discussion.

A multifaceted man – a medical doctor by training, writer-editor by aptitude and a campaigner by choice – he was a leading light of the rationalist movement and was engaged in fighting superstition and black magic through the organisation he led ‘Andhashradha Nirmoolan Samity’ with a network of its 200 branches spread in Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. Very few people would remember today that he was an accomplished Kabaddi player in his college days and won medals for the Indian team then. Although he started his social life by taking up medical practice he soon got attracted towards the ‘One Village, One Well’ campaign initiated by well known socialist leader Dr Baba Adhav. The work to eradicate superstition was more than two decades old.

In one of his writeups on the theme entitled ‘Rationality Mission for Success in Life’ wherein he ‘aims to encourage the participants to follow four action plans to begin with and thereby bring the desired change in the society’ he had said :

The age old superstitions consisting of traditions, rituals, mind boggling procedures require money, labour and time of the individual as well as society. The modern society can’t afford to waste these valuable resources. In fact the superstitions ensure that the poor and downtrodden will remain in the same state forever and ever without giving any opportunity to come out of poor conditions. Let us take a pledge not to follow any of the superstitions and waste the resources. We will collectively oppose the authorities who spends tax payers money on the festivals and ceremonies like Kumbh Mela, temples/mosques/church maintenance, local festivals etc and allocate the funds for infrastructures like water, power, communication, transport, health-care, primary education and other welfare and development activities.


Tributes have been paid to him by political leaders, social activists from all walks of life. No doubt, it was a preplanned murder, meticulously planned to the last detail.The police has formed eight teams to track down the actual murderers and one should expect that they would be able to make a breakthrough in the near future. The police said they would also scrutinise allegations that he had received threats from extremist groups such as Sanatan Sanstha and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. According to his family members he received threats often but refused to seek police protection. His son Hamid said “He thought this was a struggle to end ignorance, and he did not need weapons to fight it,”

Who might have killed Dr Dabholkar ?

Many possibilities exist. It is true that he did not have any personal enemies but his relentless work to fighting superstition, must have created a band of adversaries, who would have wanted to see him dead. Status quoist forces within politics also did not feel comfortable with his work.

A measure of the resistance offered by all such elements to the work he and his organisation had undertaken can be had from the fact that for years together a anti-superstition bill called ‘Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic’  put forward by them is pending before the Maharashtra assembly – the only one of its kind in India. There was a strong opposition from Hindu extremists’ organisations and Warkaris to the bill, but Dabholkar was determined to get the bill passed and he stated that he was not against anybody’s faith, but was against superstition. It was barely two weeks ago that Dabholkar had criticised chief minister Prithviraj Chavan at a press conference in Pune for not tabling the draft legislation in the recently-concluded monsoon session of the state assembly.

Without getting entrapped in the argument of defining faith and blind faith the proposed bill talks of tackling most common superstitions prevailing in Maharashtra.The list included, to perform Karni, Bhanamati, to perform magical rites in the name of supernatural power, to offer ash, talisman, charms etc. for the purpose of exorcism and to drive out evil  spirits or ghosts, to claim possession of supernatural powers and to advertise this claim,to defame, disgrace the names of erstwhile Saints/ Gods, by claiming to be there reincarnation and thus cheating the gullible and God-fearing simple folks, to perform so called black magic and spread fear in society. Such practices would be made an offence under this act and to serve as a deterrent it is proposed to provide for a stringent penalty and punishment, making such a practice a cognizable and non-bailable offence. The Bill also provides for the appointment of vigilance officers to detect and prevent such offences and collect evidence against the offenders. The idea is that it will help to prosecute the offenders effectively.

Now that the leading campaigner for this bill is dead, and looking at the dilly dallying going on for all these years, one does not know what will be the future of the bill.

In the end, it was late seventies when I had the opportunity of listening to him at a study camp of ‘Vishamata Nirmulan Samity’ – a loose coalition of organisations, individuals working for social change then, in Pune for the first time. One still remembers the passion with which he spoke then. Perhaps it was this passion for broader social transformation which never deserted him that he could sustain many odds which were an integral part of the work he had undertaken as a mission for life.

As has been rightly said his untimely death has been a severe blow to the rationalist movement in this country. This movement, which is facing tremendous challenges with the ascendance of rightwing forces in the society, has lost one of its commanders today. And it is a loss to everyone concerned with progressive change in India. It remains to be seen how all of us together are able to turn the tremendous grief which has come our way into new determination and resolve to fight the forces of ignorance, irrationality and reaction – a cause celibre for which Dr Narendra Dabholkar lived and died. 

22 thoughts on “Assassination of an Activist : Who Killed Dr Narendra Dabholkar?”

  1. Dr Dabholkar gave his life for a cause. the urge for us to think in a rationalist and free way as human beings. Unfortunately, we sinking further in the dark age. The Hindu extremists are it again, exploiting people, under the name of religion:)


  2. It’s important to condemn the brutal murder of Dr. Dabholkar, even as it is important to simultaneously critique the “anti-superstition” and “anti-black magic” politics that he stood for.

    Terms like “superstition” and “black magic” have a long history in South Asia, and are connected intricately with colonialism and the Evangelical Christian condemnation of non-brahman ritual practices, beginning in the early 19th century. The internalization of this Evangelical critique and the reformation of brahman religion by Vedantist groups later in that century through the promotion of “rationality” is already a matter of the record. Given the public nature of this history, it remains surprising that Dr. Dabholkar’s “anti-superstition” legislation continues this colonial-era “reformist” focus unquestioningly, with it’s scorn directed against the belief systems of heterodox, lower jati, Tantric-Sufi-Shaivite syncretic praxis. Yet, none of the progressive voices challenging Dr. Dabholkar’s murder have relayed their distance from the history and politics of this “anti-superstition” politics itself. Indeed, dvaija rituals like tying a sacred thread by savarna men, and the endless chanting of mantras around fire-pits by brahmans, which technically also summon “supernatural powers” to make all sorts of promises to all kinds to worshippers, have never been the focus of “anti-superstition” politics. So it’s doubly surprising that this important elision, with implications for the both gender and caste should go unchallenged by so many progressive voices.

    Perhaps this silence comes from the knowledge that savarnas are not the “gullible and god-fearing simple folks” that Dr. Dabholkar’s legislation sought to protect.

    In our own era, it is the orthodox and orthoprax agendas in both Hinduism and Islam, with their own complicated histories, that are challenging these belief systems as “superstition”, a power politics that Dr. Dabholkar’s activism very easily becomes part of. The condemnation of Sufism by Wahhabi-influenced madrasas for instance, parallels the condemnation of heterodox Hinduism by rationalist groups like Dr. Dabholkar’s. In West Bengal, under the communists, this condemnation of bahujan practice through the violence of bhadralok Marxists was reported by William Dalrymple in his _Nine Lives_:

    “…Tantra in Bengal was now under threat from the ruling Communist Party, which occasionally sent out members of what were called ‘Anti-Superstition Committees’ to persuade people to reject faith healers, embrace modernity, and return to more mainstream and less superstitious forms of Hinduism. This often involved attacking – rhetorically or otherwise – the Tantrics of the are, whom they depict as perverts, drug addicts, alcoholics, and even cannibals. In the press in West Bengal, there have also been reports of the persecution of poor, widowed, and socially-marginalized women, who are accused of practising witchcraft and ‘eating the livers’ of villagers particularly when some calamity befalls a community; indeed they are still occasionally put to death, like the witches of Reformation Europe and North America.” (207-208).

    Perhaps, Dr. Dabholkar’s brutal and condemnable murder, which should be protested and condemned, should also be a time of reflection and debate on the antecedents and future of “anti-superstition” politics itself.


    1. Why cannot the penal code be sufficient to handle the criminal activities perpetrated through religious and superstitious beliefs. And who decides what is a superstition and what is not. In principle all religions and religious ideas would come under the ambit of superstition. This goes against the spirit of freedom to practice religion.
      The anti superstition movement resembles more like the christian crusade against the heathens. These so called rationalists are very immature in their thinking to say the least.


      1. A fool always prefers, in fact, he is constrained, to go by fools. That explains Flying Ranee’s ignorant adherence to Dalrymple. But what, for me, is more intriguing is what my friend Aditya and others who run Kafila (of which I am a great admirer) thinks about their friends who have been fighting with missionary zeal (and busily changing one aircraft to another in order to sell their ‘product’) against ‘reason’ (polluted because of its association with western Enlightenment) and eulogizing community (who bothers what happens to individuals!). Remember, not the Modis or the Thakareys but the Dabholkars are their natural enemy. Let’s be sure, who stands where!


  3. There is a fraud Baba- Maharaj in Ratnagiri dist. He used to instigate his followers to attack Dr. Dabholkar. Police should investigate from that angle.


  4. Rationalism is good and those who fight against superstitions are welcome, too. I don’t know why all this needs a separate law.


  5. Just wondering what this ‘Anti superstion bill’ would cover which the current legal process does’nt. Can any one care to explain.


  6. Rationalism began with Ayn Rand. Virtue of selfishness, Fountainhead are classical novels. There is Ayn Rand Institute and one can be its member at no cost on the net.


  7. Maharashtra Cabinet has cleared ‘Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic’ Bill. But basic work needs to be done by improving the quality of education in schools. I hope group of teachers will take the cause of rationalist movement.


  8. One of very few people who genuinely fight for the good. Its a disgrace for our society to see people like Dr. Narendra Dabholkar being murdered casually. Sincerely hope that the police is able to put out the guilty and atleast the shameless face of such people come to light.


  9. It’s a shame that in today’s era still such superstition, black magic, mantra-tantra, Dora -dhaga, bhrinhatya so rampant! And if somebody like Dr Narendra Dabholkar who fights for such a cause selflessly, had to give his life, this can only happen in INDIA. We are not yet independent as we are still Slaves of these Traditions, illiteracy and Andhashraddha. No bills or legal pressures will change the mental condition or readiness to succumb to those so called Babas, Jogis,Bhagwans and their Meli- Vidya. The only way out is EDUCATION, COUNCELLING, and UNDERSTANDING. This is my honest opinion.


  10. Hypnosis typically involves an introduction to the procedure during which the subject is told that suggestions for imaginative experiences will be presented. The hypnotic induction is an extended initial suggestion for using one’s imagination, and may contain further elaborations of the introduction.


  11. Anybody has the full text of the bill that was supposedly passed? Not the DNA article please.


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