If, like me, you live in North America, you probably haven’t heard of Narendra Dabholkar. The picture of him below would suggest nothing remarkable: an ordinary man, in his sixties, slightly dishevelled, with the look of a bank manager or an accountant. Yet Dabholakar was a great man, and his death in August is a tragedy for the human race.
Yet beyond the tragedy and injustice of his death is the fact that Dabholakar died a hero, and more than that, a martyr. Not a martyr for any religion or political movement, but for human dignity and the power of reason. In one sense, this is the purest form of martyrdom: driven not by belief in an eternal reward, nor by blind adherence to a political dogma, but by the necessity of doing what is right for its own sake. A medical doctor who dedicated the last thirty years of his life to battling against the forces of superstition and exploitation in his native India, Dabholkar was gunned down by religious extremists on August 20th of this year. He was 67.
Twenty years ago, when I was a university student, a friend of mine who had lived in India described it as a country “dominated by televangelists”. It was in that environment that Dabholkar founded the Committee for Eradication of Superstition. I will let you read for yourself about the details of his lifelong commitment to fighting to free people from ignorance and fear and standing up for the marginalized of his society; there are far better summations of his life available than what I could provide. The most powerful and moving of these tributes is his obituary in The Economist.
One detail stands out to me as especially noteworthy. In rural India’s small villages, mentally ill people are routinely treated as demon-possessed, subjected to bizarre, and often dangerous, exorcism rituals. Of course such horrific things even happen in educated North America, in the present day. It was the marginalization of the mentally ill, who are routinely subject to abuse and scorn in so many parts of the world, and their exploitation by conniving religious conmen that was one of the powerful motivations for Dabholakar’s life-long crusade for reason and rationality in his native India. Dabholakar was not, technically, a teacher. But he was something much greater: an educator.
May he rest in peace.