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Killed By Convenience: Dabholkar’s Murder And The Pattern Of Political Compromises In Maharashtra

By Siddharthya Roy

27 August, 2013

Those who have lived in Mumbai or some other major Maharashtrian city with a Mumbaiyya influence on it; or have watched crime Movies based in Mumbai, will have heard of the word mandavli. It roughly translates to compromise – something worked out between two parties where one has erred in following the rules of the game and the differences are sorted out over money or some exchange of favours.

Sometime around 2007 a new term began floating around in Maharashtrian politics. It was the political and well organised equivalent of mandavli. It was called the “Pune Pattern”. Maharashtra’s politics since many years now, has primarily been part of two blocs. On one side is the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance and on the other is the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. The Pune pattern was one in which the corporators of the Pune Municipal Corporation began co-operating with each other across alliances. They would, they said, give due space to notable members of the opposition in administration. For e.g. Chandrakant Mokate and Dilip Gawade of the Shiv Sena were deputy mayor and chairman of the well-funded city improvement committee of Pune, respectively, even while the ruling alliance was Cong-NCP. As part of the Pune pattern people across alliances could support motions moved by the opposite camp. For e.g. if a piece of agricultural land was to be voted into being declared non-agricultural or working class neighbourhoods had to be demolished and then given for real estate development, members of the Sena-BJP alliance would support a motion moved by the Cong-NCP alliance.

‘Development should not be compromised’ was the high sounding reason mouthed by the politicians. But soon enough it was amply clear that this pattern was no haloed rising beyond party lines to serve people’s interest phenomenon but a convenient pattern through which no matter who the voters vote for every political strongman gets a share of power and cuts from major deals. Everyone’s kept happy and nobody objects to business as usual – at least not that which go beyond news bytes and political posturing in public.

Of course when elections come round the corner they would go back to formal alliances, publicly renouncing such ‘patterns’ and harshly criticising each other in public view – as was done by Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav Takckeray following which Mokate and Gawade resigned.

Now, cut to the 20th of August when one of the tallest leaders of the scientific and rationalist movement of India Dr Narendra Dabholkar was audaciously shot dead in broad daylight on Onkareshwar Bridge when out to take his morning walk. Starting from nothing, based mostly on his own unwavering tenacity and unmatched organisational skills, he built the Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samity into an organisation that today has a network that reaches almost all villages of Maharashtra. He was a household name in the state and any political or social activist worth his/her name would unfailingly know his name and his work. That the most amiable, soft spoken and simple man who smiled even at his most bitter enemies, needs to be shot dead by anyone sent shock waves through the city.

Though he was from the Left progressive family of political thought (and editor of the well-known Marathi progressive journal Sadhana that imbibes in it the traditions of Pune’s socialist party history), he wasn’t the member of any political party or aligned directly with it.

And this in many ways made him an inconvenient man to deal with in Maharashtra’s politics of convenience. Here’s how –

Now the aforementioned Pune pattern is, well, not really unique to Pune and can be seen everywhere in Maharashtrian politics. And this politics of convenience has led to some serious political-ideological compromises.

While the Cong-NCP brought some respite in socio-political terms (no major religious riots for e.g.) but in socio-economic terms they were an equal, if not bigger, disaster (widespread drought, malnourishment, farmer suicides). But neither talks much against the other’s ills.

So for e.g. when the Cong-NCP comes to power after people decisively vote out the communal Sena-BJP, it does not table the Srikrishna Commission report which will seriously inconvenience the Sena. The Cong-NCP ravages Vidharbha and its farmers and direct involvement of Congress chief ministers like Vilasrao Deshmukh is seen but there’s barely any protest from the Sena-BJP who otherwise claim to have highly touchy political sentiments. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena runs amok in Mumbai and Nashik, but the Cong-NCP administration does nothing to reign in the violent politics. Major shady land deals like Lavassa happen but there is barely a whimper from the Eknath Khadse (of BJP) led opposition in the Vidhan Sabha. Despite Maval being a traditionally BJP stronghold, when farmers unwilling to give land to Ajit Pawar’s projects are shot dead on the Mumbai-Pune express highway, we hear next to nothing from BJP leader Gopinath Munde (though he visits the victim families the very next day).

So there is in effect no political opposition or alternative on which common people or activists can bank upon or navigate among to get reforms enacted.

Dabholkhar too found himself in this undesirable situation. One where neither side was willing to listen to him enough much lesser do anything to support his work on eradicating superstition. On one hand there was no way the Hindutva vending Sena-BJP could support his cause as it was antithetical to their some of their core political rhetoric. On the other the secular NCP-Congress did nothing more than offer lip service support to him and his work.

Ever since Dabholkar took up the anti-superstition bill – a bill that endeavours to outlaw vile and at times lethal practices done by fake godmen, quacks and miracle healers, tantriks and the like – he faced bitter and virulent opposition from the extreme sections of the Right. Ones like Hindu Jagruti, Sanatanis and other fundamentalist and revivalist organisation referred to him as a sworn enemy and his views were declared as violations of their sanctimonious beliefs. They had marked him out. Now the Cong-NCP rulers in Maharashtra, despite their positing themselves as secular, 1) did little to take cognisance of that threat and act against the threat givers 2) dragged the process of legislation on and on so as to not cause inconvenience to the Sena-BJP and (more) trouble to itself. Despite the rising head of Fascist politics and voices in Pune (Abhinav Bharat for example) and attempts at starting communal fires (Muslim extremists threatening North Eastern people), in its practiced routine, it did not respond with courage and determinedly. Session after session of the Vidhan Sabha went by, repeated changes were made to the draft, mostly to reduce the harshness and the inconvenience such a piece of legislation may cause to some who are benefitted from such practices, yet the treasury benches went neither this way nor that.

Narendra Dabholkar on the other hand stuck to his ideals of scientific rationalism and pursued his goals unceasingly. Even though he repeatedly said that he didn’t oppose anyone’s right to believe and pray, he continued to ask for the legislation that would punish obnoxious practices and mumbo jumbo that dot the shady parts of Maharashtra’s landscape. On one hand out of logical and intellectual ways to counter his ideas and severely inconvenienced by his tenacity, on the other hand the promise of impunity from crimes committed in the name of hurt sentiments, someone pulled the trigger on him.

At the time of writing this hordes of students and youngsters from Pune along with all major social and political organisations have closed a day of loud protest demanding justice. Ironic as it may seem at this juncture, but Pune is also home to very lively and progressive activism. Multiple cities and towns of Maharashtra are reporting bandhs, protest meets and other programs. Political parties across the board have expressed their disgust at the murder of Narendra Dabholkar (and despite the heartache of their past inaction, it is a welcome thing).

At the time of writing this, reports are coming in that the Honourable CM of the state has taken steps to enact the anti-superstition ordinance (as a precursor to the bill).

The death of Dr Dabholkar has become an allegory to his own work. After all it took him as a human sacrifice to get the powers that be to wake up and kindly take note and some action in the right direction.

Of course being true to Dabholkar’s legacy of scepticism, one wonders how far the promise will bear fruit.

Siddharthya is an engineer, freelance writer and activist based in Pune and is reachable at email@siddharthya.com



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