One year on, many Dabholkars emerge

Aritra Bhattacharya

Every time a play ended-sometimes in the middle of it too-the 1500-plus people present at the Manohar Mangal Karyalay in Pune burst into applause. Gathered here for a programme to mark the first death anniversary of rationalist and anti-supersition activist Narendra Dabholkar, they required no goading; no announcements saying “Please give them a big hand” or “Put your hands together for…”.

Dabholkar was murdered on this day by right wing Hindutva forces, not far from where people had gathered to witness the 20-odd plays against superstition. Despite the CBI having taken over investigation into the case two-and-a-half months ago, there has been no headway. This day then, was also a day of ‘nishedh’ of the state for Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), with which Dabholkar was attached. Programmes to mark the day were held across 36 districts of Maharashtra by MANS activists, who sought to iterate the fact that although ‘they’ had managed to kill Dabholkar, ‘they’ had not been able to ‘kill’ his views and rationalist thinking in general.

This was borne out by the gathering at Manohar Mangal Karyalay; although people trooped in and out of the hall, not a seat was vacant, and many watched the plays, spread over six hours, standing in the aisles and corners. Around 250 students and MANS activists had worked on the plays, each of which showcased how people were being misled by superstition and those propagating such views for their own benefit.

For instance, a play on a godman showed how he was trying to extort money by fooling people with gem stones; when he tried to solicit a young woman ‘bhakt’, local activists handed him over to police. The policemen, however, were only too keen to know their future and promotion prospects and started being subservient to him. A chance visit by an activist to the police station revealed this; the activist then called the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) and threatened to hit the streets if the godman was not prosecuted.

MANS activists, in reality, have often hit the streets to demand proper investigation into Dabholkar’s murder. Hamid Dabholkar, the deceased rationalist’s son, who was present at the venue, said, “The government is treating this like any other murder case. The attack on ‘doctor’ (as Dabholkar was fondly known) was an attack on rationalist thinking and on democracy. But the state does not seem to be bothered.” Omey Sathe, a student from Satara, said the government was not doing enough to inform citizens about the anti-superstition law put in place in the state after Dabholkar’s death. His group presented a play looking at the contours of this law, telling people how they could use it.
All the plays staged here were based on actual incidents that MANS activists had encountered across the state. Workshops were held in eight places, wherein MANS activists and students were familiarised with the basics of street theatre by well-known actor and theatre person Atul Pethe. The plays, and the songs in them, were all written by those who were part of the group.

In the months ahead, each group plans to hold at least 100 shows of their play in their respective areas. Faruk Gavandi from Tasgaon in Sangli, a MANS activist since his school days and an actor in one of the plays, said the plays act as conversation starters. “We have done 2-3 shows of our play; while the play itself is 20 minutes long, conversations go on for over an hour,” he noted.

In Manohar Mangal Karyalay though, the conversations happened outside the hall, where books on Dabholkar, the anti-superstition law, and justice and equity were being sold. Every now and then, one among those gathered there would look into a cut-out of Dabholkar-instead of the face, the cut-out had a mirror. In that moment of looking, the onlooker became Dabholkar. And the cut-out seemed to ask: How many Dabholkars can ‘they’ kill?

 Courtesy: The Statesman