The Continuing Assault On Rationalists And Free Speech



By Parvin Sultana


Freedom of speech and expression along with right to dissent are important hallmarks of democracy. But in the recent past, voicing one’s opinion has in fact become a dangerous path to tread on. With a rise in the intolerance towards dissenting voices the worst affected are the vulnerable minority of rationalists and free thinkers who dare to question irrational superstitious practices and set norms. In many cases, the line between religion and superstition is blurred and god men and god women often act as middlemen between people and their gods.


Keeping in mind the reality of working in a country where religion is very much present in the public spaces, rationalists in recent times have taken a non-confrontationist stand. Here we can give the example of Narendra Dabholkar who headed the Andhashradhdha Nirmulan Samiti (ANiS). The main focus of ANiS was to eradicate superstition and end the misuse of religion to exploit people. Indian rationalism in the face of accusations of being a western import, trace their origin to ancient Indian materialism and the Bhakti movement of the medieval period.


In a country where literacy rate continues to be low and people succumb to fraudulent miracle makers much easily, the rationalists do a much needed duty of inculcating reasonable doubt. They work at the grass root level and try to expose fraudulent god men and their spurious miracles. Sanal Edamaruku, the President of Indian Rationalist Association, used to carry out campaigns in villages through the Rationalist Reality Theatre to expose miracles of fraud godmen and godwomen.

Many rationalists have re-enacted the so-called miracles of miracle makers like Sai Baba to expose them. As a result the rationalists have also faced ire of the followers of these godmen. Antagonism towards these rationalists is such that many have to carry fire arms for self-defence. Still many have fallen to the fury of the blind supporters of these fraudulent god men.


The list of the persecuted rationalists is long. While political leaders are found more often than not, sitting at the feet of various god men, very few come out in support of rationalists who are often seen as anti-religion. They become the much hated lot who are hounded in every possible forum. And social media is not insulated to this hate campaign. Such hate campaign is no more limited to empty threats or defamation but often lead to physical harm. Many rationalists had to face utmost hardship for exposing some superstitious fraud.


Sanal Edamaruku inspected a crucifix in front of a suburban church in Mumbai in 2012. The crucifix and the church attracted hundreds of devotees on account of droplets of water trickling from Jesus’ feet. Edmaruku identified the source of the water as a drainage near a washing room and the capillary action whereby it reached Jesus feet. The consequence was however instead of questioning the church authorities for manipulating the faith of the devotees, a case was registered against Edmaruku for hurting religious sentiments. He was denied anticipatory bail and was forced to flee the country.

Narendra Dabholkar who was an anti-superstition activist and a vocal rationalist of Maharashtra was shot dead in August, 2013 by unidentified assailants. He became the target of right wing groups for his support of the anti-superstition law which aimed to curb practices like astrological prediction, black magic etc. Right wing groups felt that the law will put limitations on the freedom of religious practices. Dabholkar’s murder cannot be isolated from his activities as a rationalist.

In a similar fashion, CPI leader and rationalist Govind Pansare and his wife were attacked in February, 2015. Pansare succumbed to his injuries five days later. Pansare often questioned the orthodoxy inherent in many religions. He rubbed the right wing the wrong way and invited the wrath of fanatic organisations like Sanatan Sanstha. He received many death threats and the nature of his murder also points to foul play.

While the murder cases of these two rationalists are yet to be solved, the nation was jolted by the heinous murder of M M Kalburgi, a renowned Kannada scholar. A former Vice Chancellor of the Kannada University in Hampi, Kalburgi has been vociferously opposing religious superstitions. His statements on the Lingayat community also led to many skirmishes. His murderers are yet to be brought to book.

With the murder of Kalburgi a disturbing trend came to the forefront. Many indulged in outright jubilation on his death on social media. Many felt there was nothing wrong in being killed for having a different opinion!! Many went two steps ahead of threatening others with a similar fate. Death threats were peddled generously. K S Bhagavan, another Indian Rationalist and a writer was threatened that his days are numbered because of his statements on the Hindu religion.

All these point to a dangerous development. With a saffron government in the helm which tries not to give up a single opportunity of upholding the authenticity of ancient Indian mythology, the voice of rationalism feels scuttled. While right wing groups have a free hand of displacing science with absurd claims that everything was always already present in our ancient civilization, any questioning the same was not acceptable. Hate campaigns against those who challenge this kind of romanticism are launched with utmost vigor.

The latest victim of such a campaign is John Dayal, a journalist and minority rights activist. The right wing trolls unleashed a myriad of assaults on Dayal for his anti-RSS views and a consistent opposition to communal bigotry. In a situation where eminent educationists are murdered for upholding views not accepted by all, such online campaigns run the risk of spilling into real world. Such campaigns can no longer be brushed aside lightly. In fact such attacks should be a concern for anybody who wishes the country to continue to be democratic.

The rising intolerance is scuttling every voice of dissent. Academicians, scholars and educationists are being targeted for their views and ideas. Be it the rationalists who were murdered, the activists who continue to be threatened, the writers like Wendy Doniger and Perumal Murugan whose books were pulled off the market, democracy has failed them every time.



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