Narendra Dabholkar was a notable rationalist from Maharashtra who quit a flourishing medical practice to devote time to social reform and had founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti to combat superstitious beliefs among people. He was brutally murdered after receiving threats from religious fanatics for many years. Extremists condemn him for opposing Hinduism. Liberals endorse him in principle. Yet, given that most of his work happened in Marathi, most Indians commenting on him have little idea of what thoughts the man promoted.
This marks the first of hopefully many efforts to make his thoughts accessible to a wider audience and my small contribution to promoting rationalism among people.
This is the first of three parts translating the speech into English..
Lokahitawadi (Gopal Hari Deshmukh) was born in Maharashtra in 1823 and Prabodhankar Thakeray died in 1973. Maharashtra has a 150 year tradition of social reformers who examined prevalent folk traditions. There were Lokahitawadi, Mahatma Phule, Savitribai Phule, Dnyanoji Mahadev, Godkar, Ranade, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj, Tukadoji Maharaj, Ghadge baba, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Swatantryaveer Vinayak Damodar Sawarkar, Hamid Dalwai and Prabodhankar Thackeray. Such an unbroken stretch has not been the fortune of any other state in India. And if we consider them to be schools of learning for social reformers, each headed by a learned guru, then Mahatma Phule was the learned guru of them all.
But as we clap on hearing his name, I’d like to share an example. We know that Savitribai [Phule] had started teaching girls and those who opposed her used to throw filth on her clothes as she passed on the way to school. So she used to carry a spare sari to change into for teaching, on reaching school. But what we don’t know is that at that time, there were pamphlets circulated in Pune, which if I tell you now, you will laugh. They said that this Phule says women should be taught to read and write, but women must not be taught to read and right at all. Why? Because if women learn to read, they will read bad/obscene books. No idea how the man who learned to read knew this… Women who learn to read will read inappropriate books and women who learn to write will write naughty letters to their husbands.
You are laughing, Phule’s father didn’t laugh. He called Phule and ordered him to stop teaching girls. Phule asked, “Why?”. He replied, “Our religious tradition says so. Learning isn’t a woman’s work, her arena of work is the kitchen and children.”. Phule retorted, “Whatever was written in religion may be written, I have decided that I will teach women.” Phule’s father said that that wouldn’t do and that everyone had to obey religious strictures. Phule refused to obey. His father said that if he wanted to teach women, then it would not be in his home.
And because a 21 year old Mahatma Phule and his 18 year old wife Savitribai Phule stepped over the threshold and left their home in order to teach women, you 40-50 women [in the audience] are sitting here confidently.
Which brings me to this incident. A woman from the pardhi community from Amravati, who didn’t have water where she lived, filled water at the school next door. The school headmaster thrashed her badly. Ignore that she was beaten. She was beaten, there was police investigation of the headmaster’s actions, that is not the point. What was worse was that because a woman was touched by a man not related to her, their caste panchayat excommunicated the woman, her husband and her two children, didn’t allow them to live in the settlement, forced them to sit under a tree and fined them 31 thousand rupees. Of this, they were able to pay only ten thousand. Ashok Pawar, an anti-superstition activist from that community wrote the story of this injustice for the Sadhana weekly magazine which I edit. I was astonished to find that a reader I had never met, a retired teacher called Bhigde, sent me 21 thousand rupees in cash, requesting that it be given to the caste panchayat “because our community will take at least another 500 years to repay these sins.” Where is Mahatma Phule? The money was sent to the caste panchayat. This is the reality.
Today, we are fighting for an anti-superstition law, the bill for which is before the upcoming winter assembly, what is it called? It has the name of our subject. Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2011 (it was passed in 2013, after he was murdered). The discussions you are having about inhuman and inappropriate traditions, how long has it been since the law has been proposed? Only 18 years. It has been approved by the Assembly five times in these 18 years.
In 1829, Lord Bentinck passed a law banning sati practice and our shastris and pandits went to court claiming that the immolation of the wife after the death of her husband is our religious tradition. Lord Bentinck did not agree. The pandits asked, what would happen of her character/reputation? That is when Lord Bentinck started a seven rupee pension. He faced criticism over meddling in matters not of his religion or trade. He replied that if he saw a woman burn and did nothing, he’d be useless as an administrator.
Even today, people throw stones when a wish is fulfilled [speaking of specific orthodox tradition]. If I threw stones, I’d be arrested for stone pelting, but thousands throwing stones is appreciated as religious faith. And there is no law for this. They ask, which law should be used.
It needs to be understood. Not all traditions are bad. Dharma-shastra (religious rules) say that a Ganesh idol should be of the earth (made of mud/clay) and it should be immersed in flowing water. In earlier times, there was plenty of mud and rivers had plenty of flowing water. Make a nice clay idol, and the texts prescribe that it shouldn’t be larger than the span of a palm, and use it for worship. Then, return what was taken from nature back into nature. But a hundred years ago, you didn’t have plaster of Paris, toxic paints and gigantic idols. Maharashtra’s population had not reached 11 crore. Can the same practice be continued now?
We suggested, that the idols not be immersed in the river. If you see the Mula Mutha in Pune, it is more like a sewer than a river. But people would throw the idols in there. Then we decided that we would take the idols as donations after the religious rites were over. Senior scientist Vasantrao Gowarikar and I stood there to accept donated idols. People who called themselves protectors of Hindu religion came and stood next to us, with loud religious bells and whenever we started to speak, they’d ring the bells loudly so that we couldn’t be heard. Their did not accept our questioning of their religious tradition to dispose off idols in flowing water.
Then we went to the High Court, and Supreme Court and all the decisions were in our favor, and now, what we were suggesting is an official order from the environment ministry.
What does this tell us? We need reform.
Part 3 coming soon.