|The spot where Narendra Dabholkar was shot; (Right) Dabholkar
Nagpur, Aug. 20: Narendra Dabholkar, the anti-superstition campaigner whose assassination today spread shock across Maharashtra, was a kabaddi player and had once represented India against Bangladesh.
Friends credit his ability to stay calm in the face of provocation — he would not lose his temper when fanatics lashed out at him, they say — to his being a sportsman. The kabaddi training might also explain his tenacity — he had been campaigning doggedly for an anti-superstition law for 18 years.
“I can’t fathom why somebody chose to kill him, a pacifist to the core and someone who would listen even to his most vitriolic opponent?” Dabholkar’s close friend and former MLA Kumar Saptarshi said from Pune.
“My appeal to the government is to pass the bill as early as possible; that will lessen the damage those assailants have done, by killing Narendra,” he said.
Dabholkar was killed at 7.10am as he was crossing a bridge near Omkareshwar temple in Shaniwarpeth, barely a hundred metres from a police post.
A witness who saw two youths in their twenties shoot him from behind has given police the registration number of the black motorcycle they were riding. One of the youths, wearing a cap, fired four rounds at the 65-year-old before the two sped away in the direction of Ravivarpeth.
The police have released a sketch of one of the killers based on the witness account.
Pune police commissioner Gulabrao Pol said it appeared to be a meticulously planned operation.
Dabholkar is survived by wife Shaila, a gynaecologist, son Hamid, a psychiatrist, and daughter Mukta, a lawyer. Dabholkar had named his son after close friend Hamid Dalwai, a Muslim social reformer who died young.
The youngest of 10 siblings growing up in a family in Satara that has a long history of social work, Dabholkar trained as a doctor, earning his MBBS degree from Miraj in Sangli. He practised medicine in Satara for 10 years before becoming a full-time activist against superstition in the mid-eighties.
He would often say his life was shaped by the “samskaras” (values) he had imbibed from his eldest brother, the late educationist and Gandhian, Devdatta Dabholkar.
In 1989, he founded the Maharashtra Andha-Shraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Anis), bringing together progressive thinkers from across the state to combat superstition and address age-old traditions that sharpened discrimination. The organisation now has about 200 branches.
His initiation into social movements had begun in the mid-seventies, with his association with the “one-village-one-well agitation” of activist Baba Adhav. Much later, Dabholkar founded Parivartan, a de-addiction centre in Satara. He was also associated with Sanal Edamaruku, a rationalist who now lives in exile in Europe following death threats and blasphemy cases.
For two decades now, he had edited the Marathi weekly Sadhana that was started in 1948 by the socialist reformer Pandurang Sadashiv Sane and served as a voice for socialist thought during the Emergency.
Hundreds today thronged the office of Sadhana, where his body was brought for people to offer their last respects before being taken in the evening to hometown Satara for the last rites. In Satara, shops were closed and autos stayed off the roads.
Dabholkar had on numerous occasions spoken about the threat to his life. Although Pune police today said there was no intelligence report of an immediate threat, home minister R.R. Patil said in Mumbai that Dabholkar had refused the government’s offer of a Z-security cover. A socialist to the core, he lived a modest life.
Early this month, Dabholkar had criticised the chief minister for not keeping his word to pass the bill in the monsoon session that ended on July 31. “This is the only bill that has figured in the list of business for last seven sessions, but has never come up for discussion,” he had said, urging the chief minister to ensure it was passed this year.
Prithviraj Chavan said last week he was in talks with groups opposing the legislation and hoped it would be passed in the winter session.
This afternoon, Dabholkar was to address a news conference to appeal to devotees to immerse idols in water tanks rather than rivers to protect the water bodies from being polluted.
As the news of his killing spread, there was shock across the state. By afternoon, hundreds of people — activists, political workers, commoners — were on the streets to protest the killing and demand the arrest of those behind it. Joining the chorus were leaders of all political parties, who have called a shutdown in Pune tomorrow.
Dabholkar’s Nagpur-based niece Pragati Gokhale, still to come to terms with the loss, said her uncle had on a trip from Pune to Satara a few days ago recited a poem he had scribbled recently. One line, she recounted, read: “Rikamach alo hoto, baharoon jato ahe” (I came empty handed, but I am leaving fully blossomed).