Rationalists in the Indian state of Maharashtra have marked the 30th anniversary of their founding with an international conference and celebration.
Members of Maharashtra Andhshraddha Nirmulan Samiti, Maharashtra Anti-Superstition Society (MANS) gathered in Mumbai from across the state and wider India, joined by guests from overseas. Friday 9 August saw an international conference on the theme “Rationality for Humanity”, followed over the weekend by a state-wide event for MANS activists.
Guests at the international conference, coordinated by Dr. Sudesh Ghoderao for MANS, included Uttam Niraula for SOCH Nepal and Humanists International, Bob Churchill for Humanists International, and philosopher and activist Stefano Bigliardi with Al Akhawayn Universiy, Ifrane, Morocco. There were special talks by Indian luminaries including Dr Anil Kakodkar, nuclear physicist, Dr Savita Shete, State Secretary on the National Coordinating Wing for MANS, Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA), and Kumar Ketkar, journalist and politician.
MANS was founded in 1989 by Dr Narendra Dabholkar, who campaigned tirelessly for rationalism, against the background of superstition and in later years rising Hindu nationalism.
As Narendra Nayak, FIRA president, recalled during the international conference, his friend and comrade Narendra Dabholkar was killed in August 2013 and his memory and influence is strongly felt in MANS today. The organization resolved to persist and grow and continue the mission that Dabholkar initiated, following his assassination. Dabholkar’s murder was widely assumed to be linked to a threats by Hindu radicals in connection with his persistent campaign for laws to prohibit fraud by so-called ‘godmen’. Shortly after his death the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Ordinance he had worked so hard for was finally brought into force in Maharashtra state. Other states are now discussing the implementation of similar laws.
Dr Dabholkar was posthumously awarded a special Distinguished Services to Anti-Superstition Award in 2017 by Humanists International.
In addition to coordinating the activists of MANS, Dabholkar wrote a series of books on rationalism, humanism and human rights. In 2008 he wrote:
“MANS believes that a disaster encroaches on the world today, we should stop to search for any supernatural power, God or any celestial almight to solve the problem. The urgent need is not to search an ultimate truth, but to ask simple questions of yourself – i.e. what is my humanitarian duty in this hazardous time? What are the values that will make human life complete and happy?”
Writing this month in a special edition of the society’s magazine, Thought & Action, Avinash Patil, the current Executive President of MANS, said Dr Dabholkar, “established this organization on 9th August, 1989. … MANS spread throughout Maharshtra, [with 350 branches], with not only Dr. Dabholkdar’s imagination, innovative, and creative programmes, but he sacrificed his life too for his objectives.” Patil also outlines the challenges presented for activism in India today, including “increasing violence” and “bigotry” in society, and he reiterates that MANS’ quest for a rational and peaceful society “is not a momentary journey; it may take hundred years together. One life of one generation is not sufficient for it, but generations together have to contribute for this. MANS wants to put a step ahead with all of you on this occasion of our 30th anniversary, hoping you will be our comrades, supporters, and companions.”
Participating on behalf of Humanists International, Bob Churchill told the conference, “The international humanist community already knows about Narendra Dabholkar, and how his life and work led to the passing of the anti-superstition laws in this state. I will also tell them about how welcoming you have been, and the achievements you have made over thirty years, and how this is an organization which more than any other group I know has a base of thousands of volunteer activists… You should be very proud of your organization, and Humanists International is proud to have you as members.”
“You should be very proud of your organization, and Humanists International is proud to have you as members.”
MANS bases its campaigning work on the Indian constitution, citing that it is the only constitution in the world which declares it a duty “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”
As Dr Savita Shete told the conference in a session looking back at the history and achievements of MANS, over three decades the organization has grown to thousands of members and volunteers who work to spread scientific temper through educational and cultural activities, including public protests and demonstrations of the fraudulence of so-called ‘miracle’-work.
In recent years they have turned to legal activism, with successes including the passing of laws against superstitious fraud and a social boycott of the ‘Caste Panchayats Judicial Council’.
Many speakers at the conference called for greater gender equality, and end to discrimination based on “caste” and religion or belief, citing in particular the mob violence against Muslims and so-called “lower caste” individuals and “mixed caste” marriages. Speakers including Kumar Ketkar, politician and fierce critic of the BJP government, associated much of the recent violence and rise of Hindutva radicalism with the political trend toward Hindu nationalism. During the session on “Rationalism for Humanity”, several speakers highlighted the grave risk of climate crisis and biodiversity loss.
For Humanists International, Bob Churchill comments:
“MANS is an amazing demonstration of how people coming together in a spirit of rationality and peace can achieve so much. They are coordinating thousands of volunteers across huge areas, including rural poor communities, and against the odds of powerful superstitions and rising intolerance. Remembering and honouring Dr Dobhalkar, Humanists International congratulates the rationalists of Maharashtra on three decades of activism, as they look ahead to the future and continued achievement.”