The Times

He argued and argued. So he was murdered

David Aaronovitch

August 22 2013

The death of a brave Indian rationalist reminds us that people are still killed simply for opening their mouth

On Monday night Dr Narendra Dabholkar, a man in his late sixties, took an evening train from Mumbai to Pune. He arrived after midnight, but still got up early the next morning to go for a walk in the Sambhaji Garden. Shortly after 7am two men, who had parked their Honda motorbikes by a Hindu temple, walked up to Dr Dabholkar and shot him four times in the head and body. By the time the police arrived he was dying.

To some of the people who knew of him Dr Dabholkar was a hero of an unlikely kind. For years he had led a campaign against superstition in India, against the false fakirs and miraculous charlatans, who took the money of the credulous and left them with nothing or — often — worse than nothing. He died as his home state of Maharashtra was, finally, about to pass an anti-superstition Bill outlawing the most dangerous practices of the various babasand yogis who infest that place.

Dr Dabholkar relied on one weapon alone. Reason. He never hurt anyone, never threatened anyone, never roused a mob to attack a building containing his enemies. He published magazines, articles, appeared on television and argued, argued, argued. And for that cursed arguing he was murdered.

India, though prey to superstition and various mumbo-jumbos (or perhaps because it is prey to these things), has given birth to a vigorous and often brilliant rationalist movement. Times readers may remember the report of the activities of Sanal Edamaruku, the head of the Indian Rationalist Association. When a celebrated tantric guru claimed on television that he could kill a man using only his magical powers, Mr Edamaruku challenged him to prove it. In front of millions the berobed guru Pandit Surender Sharma chanted, sprinkled, waved a knife and fluttered his hands for hours, and Mr Edamaraku simply smiled. And lived.

But Mr Edamaruku has always run risks by interfering with people’s beliefs and the economy that feeds on those beliefs. He had a burning clay pot smashed in his face by a faking fakir and was threatened with arrest by the government of the state of Kerala when he revealed that it was their officials — like baddies in Scooby-Doo — who were behind the flaming apparitions that drew many money-spending pilgrims to behold the miraculous fires.

Last year Mr Edamaruku offended the Roman Catholics of Mumbai by showing how a “miracle” involving a water-dripping statue of Christ on the Cross was no such thing. They then sought to have him arrested for having broken a section of the penal code outlawing “outraging the religious feelings of any class”. The penalty for such outraging of feelings is up to three years in jail. Fearing that there was a reasonable chance of him ending up in Mumbai chokey, Mr Edamaruku decamped for Finland.

Rationalists don’t make good martyrs, though enough of them have been killed over the years. In Paris a friend recently came across the statue of a rather casual-looking young man known as the Chevalier de la Barre. This particular monument replaced another removed and melted down during the Occupation at the behest of Marshal Pétain. The original had shown de la Barre being burnt at the stake and had stood outside the Sacré-Coeur church in Montmartre.

In the summer of 1765, in Abbeville, a large wooden crucifix was damaged by a vandal. Popular opinion was outraged, but no one knew who had done it. A local 19-year-old rake, Chevalier de la Barre had, however, been seen ostentatiously not doffing his hat to a Corpus Christi procession. When his room was raided he was discovered to possess erotic literature and, worse, a copy of Voltaire’sPhilosophical Dictionary.

For this he was sentenced to have his tongue cut out, his legs crushed, his head cut off and to be burnt at the stake together with his copy of Voltaire. A statue was erected before the Great War, then moved to somewhere less offensive to the Church, destroyed and then, finally, remade in 2002.

The French at least have a statue. Britain’s last rationalist martyr, Thomas Aikenhead, has, as far as I know, no memorial at all. A student at Edinburgh University, Aikenhead had had the gall to tell friends that he thought that the holy scriptures were fables and poetical fictions, that miracles were just pranks and that the idea of the Holy Trinity was preposterous.

For this he was prosecuted for blasphemy and sentenced to be hanged. The Church of Scotland, who had the power of intercession, refused, citing its fear of “abounding impiety and profanity”. On January 8, 1697, the boy was put to death in front of a large crowd.

Even when it was just one young student, the threat to the beliefs of the society around him, to the “feelings” of the pious, had been too great to permit him to live. There was no question of him hurting anyone or raising rebellion. He had argued, and the thing that could not be borne was argument.

In modern Pakistan and Iran people are still being persecuted for the crime of blasphemy — for the sin of saying or doing something that offends the sensibilities of believers. This week the Muslim cleric in Islamabad who was accused of framing a Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, for having burnt pages of the Koran, was freed and charges were dismissed.

By then the girl and her whole family had fled to exile in Canada and the other Christians who had lived in the area had felt obliged to move out. Out of fear.

The case of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blaspheming against the Prophet as part of a village argument by a well, has led to the killing of one — if not two — Pakistani politicians. Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging and her case was taken up by the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer.

Taseer argued that the Pakistani blasphemy laws, which among things outlaw the “wounding of the religious feelings of any person” by any word, any sound or any gesture, or placing “an object in the sight of that person”, should be repealed.

For making this case Taseer was pilloried in the Pakistani media, threatened by clerics and in January 2011 murdered by one of his own bodyguards. The assassin-bodyguard became a hero. Taseer, wrote his son Aatish, though religious, had wished for “a society built on the achievements of men, on science, on rationality, on modernity” and was killed, said Aatish, by a man “whose vision of the world could admit no other”.

Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl who upset the Taleban by wanting an education, very nearly became another such martyr: for arguing, not for hurting anyone. In the country she left, Asia Bibi is still in prison under sentence of death, being moved from jail to jail in case someone piously slits her throat. No one in the Pakistani Government dares to call for her release.

I daresay Narendra Dabholkar, the elderly doctor murdered on Tuesday morning, had never heard of Thomas Aikenhead, the Scottish student — separated as they were by those miles and those years. Before his execution, in his dying statement, Aikenhead wrote: “It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure.”

And if it isn’t, it should be. Long live the ideas and the memory of Dr Dabholkar!