[ Open Magazine, 14 Sep 2013 ]
On one issue, there is no doubt. If there was a murder most foul – it was Narendra Dabholkar’s. The slain leader of the Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmoolan Samithi was, by any measure, a well-wisher of the people. He was a strong supporter of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. He had been fighting, for decades, an unwavering war against ‘black magic’ practitioners and had ruined the business for quite a few. Threat to his life was ever-present. It is thought that the recent airing of his views endorsing inter-caste marriages and his long-term push for an anti-superstition bill finally did him in.
A doctor by training, Narendra Dabholkar cut his teeth in rural social service with another doctor-turned-activist Baba Adhav during the “Ek gaav, ek panavtha” (One village, one pond) movement. What set Dabholkar apart from many atheist-rationalists is how his work was deeply embedded in society – not preaching from above but militantly conversing alongside. He earned his legitimacy by living an exemplary life. The widespread shock and anger on his murder points to that. Urban rationalist talking heads might learn a thing or two from his life before complaining for the umpteenth time how ignorant the people are. During his lifetime, he was painted, with partial success, as someone who was anti-religion. That view also has serious currency. It is important to see why.
Dabholkar led a crusade against the deleterious environmental effects of divine idols. Water pollution was the holy cow that was used to elicit a court order banning certain kinds of idol-making substance in Maharashtra. Is that being anti-religion or anti a particular religion? Who knows. But put back in the context of a world where the people see the pollution and choking of rivers, lakes and other waterbodies by large-scale industrial effluents going unpunished, this particular focus on water pollution from idols does carry a different charge. What conclusion should those idol-worshippers draw, who see both the ban against plaster-of-paris idols and the unchecked water pollution from other sources? Believers are not donkeys.
It is not a coincidence that nearly all the self-styled gung-ho rationalists or ‘magic’-busters of the subcontinent are also staunch atheists. A stupendous majority of the people is not. However, when preaching rationalism, the preacher’s atheism bit is downplayed or made invisible. We are not against religion but against superstition, they say. Believers are not sheep either and can identify patronizing double-speak. They are naturally left unimpressed by those who claim to be sympathetic do-gooders but actually could give two hoots about people’s beliefs and viewpoints.
The grand failure of such atheist/rationalist projects, in spite of having the full weight of the constitution of the Indian Union behind them, also has to do with the patently alien idioms of communication and propaganda that they use. That the rationalist propagandists themselves are often alienated from the living currents of their own society does not help matters.
When a miniscule minority aims to scare, browbeat and threaten people of faith by trying to get legislation passed that criminalize practices that believers voluntarily submit to, what we have is a most naked use of privileged access. This privilege follows the usual path of undemocratic access in the subcontinent – urban backgrounds, English education, Delhi connections, friends in media and so on. Every time such legislation is passed, it undercuts democracy – for, in their spirit, such legislations seek to act as wise elders, running roughshod over the beliefs and opinions of the people at large. It may befit a sociopath to assume that the masses are either juvenile or imbecile or manipulated or in darkness. It hardly is the ideal characteristic of a socially engaged being in a democratic society. Every individual is a complete moral agent with as much intelligence and responsibility as the next one.
In the absence of empathy and respect towards difference – things that are the basis of a harmonious society, we have elitocracy. When some urban rationalists shamelessly clap at ‘anti-supersetition’ bills and legislations that few believers would agree to in a referendum, they often let the mask of false empathy and democratic pretense fall off from their faces. They can afford to do this as throwing stones at glass houses far from one-self has always been a very non-risky affair. Some excel at this. It is in the context of this snooty and privileged way of looking down and talking down to the believing unwashed masses that Ashis Nandy, the shaman of our times, had said ‘There are superstitions, and there are superstitions about superstitions.’ Others chose to work amongst the people and live (and some, like Dabholkar, unfortunately die) in the consequence of their actions. It is this latter kind which has won some legitimacy from the people.
In some ways, the work of rationalists should have become easier with rise of textual religion in many parts of the world, including the subcontinent. The level of canon literacy that exists now among the believers is truly unprecedented. But text also pins down belief, making it vulnerable to the kinds of tactics that rationalists use to expose certain practices. Ostensibly, contradictions between a certain belief and empirical reality can be shown more easily as scriptures and canons have taken up a largely immutable form by now. For example, followers of scriptures which claim a flat-earth or that the sun revolves around the earth are ripe for engagement as part of the rationalists’ ‘blind-faith’ removal programme. Rationalists have failed to do even that.
Reminding the body of believers that the development of ‘scientific temper’ is one of the ‘fundamental duties’ of the citizen according to the constitution of the Indian Union does not win any friends, neither does it challenge rationalists to develop meaningful ways of engagement for their cause. This compounded by the notion that such ‘juktibadi’ (rationalist) types even look and act in a certain way. They are not different from other posturing social types like the faux-westernized body-art loving ‘rebellious’ 20-something yuppie of the post-liberalization era or the jhola-beard-jeans-chappal type communist youth of the same era. That certain rationalists chose to boycott all social occasions like marriage, funeral and so on as religious rites are performed there does not help in their social immersion.
Lived religion, like any other aspect of human life, is not something unpolluted from a changing world. Religion is not what it used to be and that is how it has always been. Religion has also taken up characteristics and props of this age of mass production of material goods, easy transport, mass media and increasing literacy in a few languages of dominance and power. The peculiarities of this age put their stamp on religion to create bizarre products that are as much characteristics of the age as they are of religion that consents to such corruption. In a way, that is how religion has always ‘survived’ in any meaningful sense of the word ‘survive’. However, to use the specific peculiarities of an age to paint religiosity or practices in general as a timeless evil is neither honest nor tactically smart. Constitutions and new ‘values’ that disappear almost as soon as they develop cannot and should not speak down to faith. This point becomes especially poignant when one quotes Karl Marx out of context – ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.’
Let me make a final point. What is it to be human is a question that is hard to answer but a significant part of the world population, including the present author, believes that there are multiple ways of being human. Faith elements that are non-textual, that are handed down in communities, that makes their presence known in myriad practices (some of which may qualify in rationalist-speak as superstition) also contribute to the multiple ways of being human. These very many ways of being human come with as many world-views and whole theories of the workings of the world. These theories, world-views and practices – to what extent are they separable from one’s special sense of self and identity in this world? Religions, gods, goddesses and other beings, in so far as they are responsive to the changing world and living communities with which they are in constant interaction, also change. Being a certain kind of Bengalee, I grew up in the thick of brotos (practices to receive divine blessings) and many other acts, from which my particular kind of ‘Bengaleeness’ is indistinguishable. The gods and goddesses of my ‘Bengaleeness’, Ma Durga, Ma Monosha (often vulgarized off-hand as a ‘snake goddess’), Dhormo Thakur, and other divines who inhabit fringes of my ‘Bengaleeness’ like Ma Shitola, BonoDurga, and the practices and ‘superstitions’ associated with the particulars of my birth accident make me, in no small way. This Bengaleeness is not a static thing – static not even in a lifetime. Faiths and gods continue to communicate and adapt with the changing world their adherents inhabit. When some gods cannot adapt, they die too. An earlier time would have produced a different notion of selfhood in me.
Without this scaffolding, what kind of human would I be? Some may have no need of such things but what about the rest of us? What does this lack of particular scaffolding look like anyways? Why do those do prescribe leaving such things, appear so much more similar to each other? Those who have some stake in the intrinsic plurality of the human condition and think that preserving that is a good thing, where would they stand if this homogeneity were the cost of inculcating a atheist-rationalist worldview. In any case, in colonial societies, the anti-traditionalist worldview can be as much received wisdom as any other tradition. Such a formulation might hurt the bloated egos of those who think that university departments and wistfully imported and badly digested bits of European post-enlightenment thought elevates them vis-à-vis their fellow hapless and ignorant brown people. Make no mistake; the hapless also have a theory about those who hold them in contempt.
Till ‘rationalism’ finds a way of preserving and strengthening the plural ways of being human that human societies believe they have produced in cahoots with their gods among other things, it certainly does not have my vote. An imported version of the universal brotherhood of man, something that some curious residents of the tropics always take to with more zeal and seriosity than the west itself ever did, is a cheap replacement for the loss of a million gods and a billion ‘superstitions’.