A number of prominent rationalists have faced attacks at the hands of Hindu extremists in recent years, with many having been gunned down in cold blood: Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti President Narendra Dabholkar in Pune in August 2013; Leftist politician Govind Pansare and his wife, Uma Pansare, in Kolhapur in February 2015; former Kannada University vice-chancellor and scholar M.M. Kalburgi in August 2015; and noted journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru in September 2017. All of them were openly vocal in their opposition of superstition, of Hindutva and its policies.

Interestingly, investigations reveal a worryingly similar modus operandi for all their murders, which were committed by multiple assailants on bikes who were aiming at the chest and the head. The Karnataka SIT also found 7.65mm country pistols similar to the ones used to kill Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi during the probe into Lankesh’s murder. A plot on the life of Kannada writer and critic K.S. Bhagwan was also revealed during this probe, along with a list of 34 people – all vocal in the same respects, and likely targets for assassination in the near future.

Persons arrested in all these cases belong chiefly to Hindutva outfits such as the Goa-headquartered Sanatan Sanstha and its affiliate Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS). Both, while claiming to be ‘spiritual’ organizations, have been proved to be involved in subversive activities like communal rioting and bomb blasts. In spite of this, calls to ban the outfits continue to go unheard.

In Maharashtra, where an Anti-Superstition Act was passed in 2013 with the efforts of Dabholkar and other rationalists, there does not seem to be much of a difference between the actions taken by the previous Congress government and that by the BJP. However, support does seem to be implicit in the latter’s silence on such issues. “It is a fact that these outfits are now fearless. The Anti-terrorism Squad should see through the operation to ban these outfits before they start killing not just rationalists but common people, too,” says anti-superstition activist and Founder of the Akhil Bharatiya Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (ABANS), Prof. Shyam Manav. According to him, “The change in government may not reveal significant change otherwise, but these outfits do feel capable of openly terrorizing intellectuals today because the ideology they endorse is running things”. As proponents of Hindutva, the Sanstha and HJS are indeed ideological allies for the BJP.

Elsewhere in the country, the government itself appears to be lending a hand to the hostility. “Many members of my organization have been put into jail for no reason,” says Prabir Ghosh, President of the Kolkata-based Science and Rationalists Association of India (SRAI). “The burden of proof has been put on them by the courts and the government, and they have been asked to prove that they are not terrorists and anti-nationalists. How does one prove that?”, he asks. According to Ghosh, all of this comes simply for speaking against religious superstition and quackery, or against government policies regarding such issues, on SRAI’s website and on social media.

For Prof. Narendra Nayak; President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA); the present “is a scary situation for those willing to get scared”. Nayak, whose name was on the list procured during the Karnataka SIT’s probe and who has narrowly evaded multiple attempts on his own life – the latest being in March this year – is now living under 24-hour security. “However, I am not one of those who shut up out of fear” he says. Nayak’s name appears to have moved up the hit-list due to his sustained campaigns against issues such as the Mid-Brain Activation scam that has tricked thousands of people all over Karnataka and the rest of the country. His trouble with Hindutva groups also owes itself to his criticism of people of the likes of Sri Sri Ravishankar and Jaggi Vasudev, as well as his fight to get justice for the RTI activist and BJP booth-level worker Vinayaka Baliga, who was allegedly hacked to death by his own party-members.

“Sanatan Sanstha and other Hindutva gangs plot to get rid of us [rationalists] because we are teaching people to question things, which hurts their business,” Nayak says, referring to the attempts made on his own life and that of others by alleged members of Hindutvawadi organizations. He, like many others, is of the conviction that the government is hand-in-glove with these organizations. “It is the attitude of the people at the top that emboldens these so-called ‘fringe groups’ to carry their threats and violence through. The government claims to have no control over these groups, but makes attempts to protect them”. In such an environment, anyone – be it rationalists, scientists, journalists or activists – who speaks against the ideals of Hindutva is under threat of attack.

It is not merely freethinkers themselves who are being targeted, however, but the very roots of their ideals as well. This can be seen in the vandalism of statues of EV Ramasamy Periyar – the pioneer of rationalism in the county – that took place in Tamil Nadu earlier this year. These incidents occurred directly after a post advocating destruction of these statues was made by BJP National Secretary H Raja on Facebook.

While the Constitution of India urges people to “develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform,” in Article 51A, the ruling party at center seeks to find – and fit in case it cannot find – all scientific answers in the Vedas. The pseudo-science thus founded is ironically considered superior to the ‘superstition’ that plagues ‘other’ religions, and thereby seeks to establish Hinduism and Hindutva itself as superior ‘ways of life’. When groups such as the Sanatan Sanstha and the HJS are the agents of propagating this pseudo-science, they naturally make an enemy out of any rationalists who seek to debunk the hoaxes of these ‘alternative’ knowledge systems.

Despite the precarious situation, rationalists refuse to back away from their criticism, both of superstition and of the government. “Dissenting voices have already decreased today. If we shut up now, they succeed,” says Nayak. “After all, we are not bothered by anything but our aim to make the present a better place to live in – to achieve a more rational, humanistic and questioning society”. Even as rationalists continue to face the threat of gunmen every day, their ideas remain bulletproof.

(Cover photo: Prof Narendra Nayak)