In the Narendra Dabholkar murder case the main culprit is the state’s tardy response.

Nearly three years after India’s most prominent rationalist and anti-superstition crusader, Narendra Dabholkar, was gunned down, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested a member of the Sanatan Sanstha branch of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS). Although the Sanstha claimed its member had been framed, this is the first arrest in the case after the CBI took over the investigation in May 2014, following the Bombay High Court’s instructions. Frustrated by the meandering investigation, the Dabholkar family had filed a petition before the court alleging that pro-Hindutva activists were involved in the murder. The state’s reluctance to acknowledge that pro-Hindutva groups indulge in violent acts is well known. It is reflected in its ambivalence in pursuing cases against pro-Hindutva groups in the Malegaon bomb blasts of 2006 and 2008 as well as the Samjhauta Express, Mecca Masjid (Hyderabad) and the Ajmer Sharif dargah blasts. Had the complaints made by the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) led by Dabholkar about the hate-filled propaganda and activities of pro-Hindutva groups been taken seriously, his murder may well have been prevented.

Almost all those who worked with Dabholkar were clear that his murder was the handiwork of right-wing forces that had viciously and relentlessly targeted him. Recently, the media has reported how one fellow-traveller of the Sanstha revealed his failed attempt to convince investigators about the involvement in the plot to kill Dabholkar of the same man they have now arrested. This apart, the activists of MANS drew attention to the manner in which the Sanstha hounded Dabholkar. They allege that almost all their anti-superstition public meetings were disrupted by the group or that authorities were pressured to cancel permission for holding these meetings. Also, a record number of defamation cases were filed against Dabholkar. The obvious motive was to intimidate and distract him. The CBI has now said that even before the 2009 Goa bomb blast, the Sanstha had plotted to kill Dabholkar but circumstances had thwarted its design. A member of the group, Sarang Akolkar, has been declared an absconding accused in this bomb blast case while Sameer Gaikwad, also “allegedly” a member of the Sanstha, was arrested in the Govind Pansare murder case.

The MANS had consistently complained about the intimidation and harassment against it as well as the rumours and “propaganda” carried out by pro-Hindutva forces in their attempts to influence devout Hindus into believing that they were being persecuted and discriminated against. Dabholkar and the members of his organisation were termed “Naxalites” receiving foreign funds from Christians and of wanting to destroy Hinduism. They were also accused of financial fraud and misuse of foreign funds. Neither the previous state government nor the current one in Maharashtra and, in fact, not even the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in Delhi bothered to take these complaints seriously, says Avinash Patil, President, MANS. Complaints by other rationalist thinkers too elicited no response from the authorities.

The fact that the ruling political establishment, the police and later, the investigation agencies did not take these complaints seriously is the most important insight that can be derived from this episode. There have been, and continue to be, demands to ban the Sanstha. These demands are being made by the same politicians who failed to initiate legal and punitive action against it when complaints were made. Existing provisions of the law would have been sufficient to take cognisance of the complaints but this was not done. Instead, the Sanstha was allowed to carry on its activities even as the media reported on its propaganda and how influential individuals, including powerful politicians, were endorsing its work. The reasons why this happened are hardly a mystery. Rarely does a politician or a policeman dare to antagonise an organisation with such a wide reach and influence among professionals like doctors, lawyers, teachers and even journalists. Dabholkar and many other anti-superstition activists in “progressive” Maharashtra consistently faced harassment with hardly any relief from the state machinery. Even the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013, passed after Dabholkar’s murder, is a diluted version of the law that he had drafted.

While Dabholkar, Pansare and M M Kalburgi’s murders (as well as the harassment meted out to others like them) are deplorable, what is even more despicable is the silence of large sections of the population and the continuing support of political interests to their tormentors. This lack of response is a clear indication that citizens feel they are not safe if they speak out against entrenched religious vested interests and that the state will not take their complaints seriously. A society that cannot tolerate dissenting views or keeps quiet in the face of a violent reaction to such views, is staring at a cultural and intellectual abyss.