The very act of vandalism on the pioneer of rationalism, EV Ramasamy Periyar's statue in Tamil Nadu or the ever increasing threat looming over the heads of the rationalists across the country, show one thing for certain - that our persistent efforts to debunk the futile and non-existent Hindutva philosophies have been affecting public polity and policy. And the Hindutva elements are taking note of it.
The Indian Rationalist Association movement was once was limited to the lobbies of high-end luxury star hotels and accessed by elite members such as doctors, engineers, and lawyers in the 1940s. Now, however, it has transformed itself from a mere subject of debate and reached a position where we can influence the government to make laws such as the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (2013) and Karnataka Anti-superstition Bill (2017) against superstitious practices.
Post the infamous 1975-Emergency imposed by then Prime Minster Indira Gandhi, Article 51A was added to the Indian Constitution in 1976 under the 42nd amendment. It listed a new concept of elaborating 'Duties of a citizen'. In particular, Article 51A(h) shares the thought on every Indian citizen developing 'scientific temper, spirit of enquiry and humanism'. Even then, the duty enshrined in the Article says that every citizen is duty bound to be rational in his/her outlook towards society. However, none of the state or the central governments till date have shown a sustained campaign to bring those words into practice.
Initially in 1973, when the rationalists started speaking against the supernatural healers, evangelical meetings or the fakir babas, the Hindutva elements thought that we will continue to cry foul only against such foot-soldiers. But, it was when we started speaking against astrology and the other super-mystical claims of Hindutva, that the 'saffron gang' realised that our rational thinking will question their irrationality too. And then, when our movement started demanding laws against witch craft, black magic and similar inhuman practices, the saffron gang was further provoked, as we drew away their exploited followers by asking them to question blind faith and practices, that were the very means of their sustenance.
Coming to these efforts, we have to recall the work of Dr. Narendra Dhabolkar, who was brutally murdered in 2013. The social reformer, rationalist and a lobbyist very vehemently demanded laws against anti-superstitious practices . His sustained efforts through his organisation the Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmulan Samithi (MANIS) to bring about the anti black magic and inhuman practices act in his state of Maharashtra, created hurdles to the exploiters.
His perseverance is highly admirable. For nearly a decade, he lobbied for the passage of a Bill against superstition in the Maharashtra Assembly as early as 2004, but it was held back by the upper house due to political pressure. However, immediately after his murder, the state government promulgated an ordinance against superstition which later was legislated into a law. This could be said as a major victory for our movement, but at the cost of the life of our fellow rationalist.
Toeing the line of the Maharahstra government, even Karnataka heeded to our demands and passed a similar Bill. Now, the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) has been demanding for such legislation from the central government itself. However, going by the Hindutva mindset of the present central government, it looks very unlikely in the near future.
Time and again, we do introspect about what has been done and more so on what needs to be done! While our movement has got a good presence in the southern states, Maharashtra, Punjab, Kerala, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, UP, and Jharkhand, we have not heard of anti-superstition initiative from states like Jammu Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Though Uttar Pradesh has on record the largest number of atheists, the voices of the rationalists are not heard at all. The movement is non-existent in the North Eastern states.
In the state of Tamil Nadu, the celebrated work of EV Ramasamy Periyar's movement has given the rationalist movement sufficient strength and also a good framework, along with the strong education of the residents and media presence.
Karnataka has scores of pioneers working in the field of promoting scientific temper, such as Kuvempu, Dr H Narasimhiaha, Prof. Nanjundaswamy, Prof. Dharmalingam and even an organisation like the Karnataka Rajya Vijnana Parishat founded by Dr.Narasimhiaha to propagate scientific temper. However, it is in the same state where two progressive thinkers have been cruelly shot dead - rationalist M. M. Kalburgi and journalist cum activist Gauri Lankesh - and others are under threat.
There are a number of progressive organisations, thinkers, intellectuals holding forth on various topics but the rationalist movement in an organised way has yet to consolidate itself.
Elimination of rationalists
Coming to the elimination of rationalists, we have to look at the systematic hatred that is being propagated against the group and how we are looked upon as the core threat by many of the Hindutvavadi organisations.
Why do these organisations oppose us? The movement intends to expose superstitions - about 80% of these come from the Hindu category of the population and targets it. And eventually other religions have adopted such practices. For instance, in coastal Karnataka the custom of offering cock-sacrifice to 'Bhoota' was predominant among Hindus but some of the Muslims have also taken to it.
Similarly, you find members of the Catholic community these days who have endorsed horoscope reading. It was therefore imperative for our campaign to strike the core of the exploitative practices.
Again, since most of our present leadership (central government) and their membership are from this 'Hindutva' classification, any attack on their irrational practices by non-Hindus is brushed off. But when a similar echo comes from those who have Hindu names, it becomes very difficult for them to forgive and forget dissent from within. Although they have their own counter arguments, claiming rationalists are being funded by missionaries or foreign forces, not many are convinced. And this is why, they aim to systematically eliminate us.
Their illusion is that by killing rationalists they can get rid of the movement but they have not succeeded so far. For instance, the rationalist movement in Maharashtra has gained far more traction after Dhabolkarâ€™s murder. In Karnataka, more and more voices are joining in. Again, the rationalists have taken on pseudo-science quite effectively by running campaigns against astrology, homeopathy, panaceas like gaumutra-benefits, frauds like mid-brain activation etc. There is a close nexus between vested business interests of various sorts, some of them directly supported by Hindutva outfits under the name of Yoga, Ayurveda and so on.
We have also encouraged the filing of 12 cases with the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) against such Hindutva businesses and three-consumer cases have been lodged on false pseudo-scientific claims. And our counter-actions have hit them hard.
Again, our struggles against the illegal activities of the so called god-men and religious institutions have sometimes made us approach the law as a last resort to help victims. For instance, in the Ram Rahim case, the prosecution Witness No.1 is a rationalist from Haryana. When an RTI activist and BJP worker of Mangaluru, Vinayak Baliga was murdered for questioning the misuse of funds by a temple and the Kashi mutt, we took up the case after his demise - though he was not a rationalist, but a BJP booth level worker.
What is the way ahead for the movement? Irrespective of their religion, we are targeting the younger generation with broad based ideas, many of whom have realised the hypocrisy and falseness of the belief systems of the older generations and want out of it. Now, the irrational and the Hindutva elements have begun facing a dearth of human resource and support system upholding their archaic practices. T
he former assets of these communal minded forces are no longer tolerating the nonsense and looking out to express themselves on irrational practices, which was our primary goal.
However, rationalists must remember that the change will not be easy. With the vacuum of human resources for their ideological dispensation, the communal forces are getting more desperate and they will unleash terror and attack us. We must nevertheless must bear this, hoping for a better change of things and rout the old and redundant irrational order.
Professor Narendra Nayak is a Biochemist and the President of Federation of Indian Rationalist Association (FIRA). Following, a attack on him in 2017, the rationalist is under 24 hours protection provided by the Karnataka State Government. The author is a writer for StoryInfinity.
(Views expressed are author's own)
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