The commitment to reason and evidence that Narendra Dabholkar promoted throughout his life has not just lived on but grown after his assassination in 2013.
Dabholkar had founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti in 1989 to encourage the growth of a scientific outlook among the masses and work to eradicate superstitions and blind faith. The organisation has added 125 units in Maharashtras rural and urban areas in the last five years or so.
When Dabholkar was shot dead in Pune on August 20, 2013, the Samiti had 225 units with about 5,000 volunteers. It now has over 10,000 volunteers who visit schools and colleges to campaign for evidence-based thinking and demystify miracles by demonstrating them and then explaining the tricks.
The organisation has succeeded in getting two key laws passed in Maharashtra in the last five years, each a first of its kind in the country.
One of them outlaws black magic and looks to curb the spread of superstition; the other aims to emasculate the caste panchayats, unconstitutional but powerful kangaroo courts that draw their legitimacy from tradition and can pass vicious directives.
Since Dabholkars death, our organisation has been receiving more attention from the international and national media and from like-minded rationalists, Samiti executive president Avinash Patil said at the organisations state headquarters in Dhule, northern Maharashtra.
Young people are eager to know why Dabholkar was murdered and what our organisation is about.
Patil said the Samiti specialises in confronting and exposing godmen, Babas and Matas who claim to be divine incarnations or to possess miraculous powers. It also takes ontantriksand quacks.
Whenever the Samiti is tipped off about a Baba, it sends pretend devotees who confront him and call his bluff. The police are informed beforehand.
It also works to propagate a critical attitude towards all matters, including religion, tradition and customs. It publishes a quarterly, Thought & Action, which carries articles to promote rational thinking.
Our objective is to check the exploitation of ordinary, gullible people, Patil, whom Dabholkar had groomed for about 15 years before his death, said.
Dabholkar had for years striven to get a law passed to check superstition and the exploitation of people through black magic. This was done immediately after his death, Samiti secretary Sudesh Ghoderao said.
The Assembly passed the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013. It bans people from propagating or promoting human sacrifice, occult practices and black magic on pain of jail terms from six months to seven years. More than 500 FIRs have been registered and 15 people convicted under this law.
The Samiti persuaded the Karnataka government to pass a similar law last year.
The Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2016 was passed later. It bans caste panchayats from ostracising people or families, punishing any violation with up to three years imprisonment.
Both these laws are a tribute to Dabholkar, Ghoderao said.
A caste panchayat is made up of influential people from a particular religion, caste or sub-caste and is called on to adjudicate on community matters, especially social disputes. It issues its directives orally or in writing. Often it directs ostracism of people it finds to have erred.
The caste panchayats operate as a parallel legal system, ruling on matters such as inter-caste marriages and passing orders that can be very harmful, Ghoderao said.
Almost every caste has a caste panchayat. These councils are outside the constitutional framework.
Ghoderao said a few states did have laws to check witchcraft but none had laws against superstition or caste panchayats before.
He said the Samiti had expanded its project of collecting used Plaster-of-Paris Ganapati idols from the cities and handing them over to the municipal corporations for environment-friendly disposal. Usually these idols are immersed in ponds and rivers, causing pollution.
Dabholkar started the initiative 10 years ago. The flowers and other offerings too are collected and handed over to the civic bodies to turn into fertiliser.
The Samiti and nearly 20 similar organisations from across India have formed the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, which has been organising conferences and coordinating these groups activities.
The Federation and the Samiti have been asking state governments and the Centre to inculcate the scientific temper among schoolchildren through textbooks. This, it feels, is particularly important at a time some states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have introduced chapters on yajnas (Hindu ritual sacrifices) in middle school.
A Federation delegation met Union human resource development minister Prakash Javadekar in January and handed him a charter of demands. One of them was about school textbooks helping foster scientific thinking among children.
Dabholkars was the first of a series of assassinations of campaigners for rational thinking, labelled rationalists, in the countrys southwest. Govind Pansare, a Leftist, was shot dead in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, on February 16, 2015; and progressive writer M.M. Kalburgi was killed on August 30, 2015, in Dharwad, Karnataka.
Journalist and Sangh parivar critic Gauri Lankesh fell to an assassins bullet at her home on September 5, 2017.
Police have arrested Virendrasinh Tawde and Sameer Gaikwad, both members of the Sanatan Sanstha and the Hindu Janajagaran Samiti, in connection with the murders of Dabholkar and Pansare. Two others have been arrested in connection with Gauris murder but the investigations into Kalburgis assassination havent progressed much.
Neither the Maharashtra government nor the Centre has come up with a policy to check attacks on the rationalists.
Our next task is get a law to check the attacks on rationalists, Ghoderao said.
Samiti representative Namita Jagtab said the organisation had recently held meetings in residential schools in the Malegaon area and found an encouraging response.