Narendra Dabholkar was killed on Tuesday after many years running public education programmes against caste discrimination and superstition in Maharashtra state, India. Here his friend and colleague, Narendra Nayak, joins all those paying tribute to one of India’s foremost activists for Humanism, rationalism and social justice.
Narenda Nayak won IHEU’s Distinguished Service to Humanism award in 2011. He is president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA), an IHEU Member, and an organisation which Narendra Dabholkar had worked with previously, serving as vice president.
We were at a National level advanced training program for demystifying miracles on the 20th of August, when one of the activists participating showed an SMS text which simply said “Dr. Narendra Dabholkar shot dead”.
It was a terrible shock to us. He had been at the forefront of a movement to make this society a better, more egalitarian one. He had spent his whole life in the service of the society giving up what would have been a lucrative career as a medical practitioner. As he said, my wife can look after my nursing home and I shall do my work for the movement!
He was always busy at his office at Sadhana Publications attending to visitors, drafting letters and articles and directing his activists. He was such a meticulous planner that the organization was running a bus with a time table set for a year in advance to visit schools in villages to spread scientific temper.
He worked tirelessly to build up the movement and had told me that it was his life’s ambition to see a unit of his organization in every village of the area of Maharashtra. In fact when Johannes Quack from the University of Frankfurt wrote a book on the Indian Rationalist movement, Disenchanting India, the major portion of it was about the organization headed by Narendra Dhabolkar: the Maharashtra Forum for Elimination of Superstition, Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmulan Samiti. Quack spent a few months with them and wrote extensively about their meticulous work in bringing about an attitudinal change in the superstition ridden villages of this region.
Dabholkar worked for the movement One Village One Well in which the caste system was confronted by having a single well for the use of people of all castes and communities. He worked hard – in fact had been trying for for more than a decade to bring forward a state Bill to make it a criminal offence for to defraud the gullible through the practice of supposed ‘black magic’. His efforts were thwarted each time by the vested interests who had felt threatened by a law which would prevent them from exploiting the society.
He was one of the staunch supporters of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) and had organized its National Conference on a grand scale at Pune in 2007. It was a well-attended event and sadly the last one attended by the founder of FIRA, the late B.Premanand. However, another wish was not fulfilled in his life time; in one of our meetings he had asked me about organizing an international rationalist conference. He was keen to have the experience of organizing such a one at Pune.
Some years back he had been presented with the award for doing outstanding work for science popularization by the NCSTC. Some of the senior members of his organization had made discrete enquiries with me that they would like him to move to the national level and whether I had any objections to that. I had replied that he would be very, very welcome indeed. After a few years I asked him when that plan would materialize and — such was his commitment to the people of Maharashtra state — his reply was that only after he had a unit in each village of Maharashtra that he would think of moving out of the state!
Alas, that was never to come.