People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 36

September 08, 2013



The Assault on Reason


Sudhanva Deshpande


IT was a candid and honest self-critique. Romila Thapar, one of India’s pre-eminent historians, while speaking on ‘The Assault on Reason’, a panel discussion in the wake of Dr Dabholkar’s murder organised by Studio Safdar and May Day Bookstore and Café in association with the Delhi Science Forum on August 26, said that after Independence, there was a naïve hope and belief that something called the ‘scientific temper’ would eventually triumph in India. Professionals from many fields, not just scientists, thought that if they based their work on the principles of rationality and reason, in time, superstition and unreason would be a thing of the past. Thus, Prof Thapar said, the front-ranking historians of her time worked to articulate a scientific, rational and progressive approach to history. Today, however, as we see unreason and irrationality growing all around us, we have to admit that ‘our generation failed’.


Prof Thapar came down heavily on the political mobilisation based around religion, which characterises every religious group in India. “There has been a reformulation of religion – religion is used today as a political tool. A communal position is when your religious interests are so organised that you can use them for mobilising political interests,” she said.


The panel also featured media researcher and blogger Vineet Kumar and Dr Satyajit Rath of the National Institute of Immunology, and the discussion was moderated by D Raghunandan, president of the All India People’s Science Network. Vineet Kumar gave an insightful and entertaining presentation in Hindi, in which he argued that the electronic media runs a ‘24-hr workshop on superstition and consumerism’. It is easy to criticise the so-called ‘religious channels’, he said, but what we often miss is how much the regular entertainment and news channels help to promote superstition. He spoke about the successive Ramayana serials on TV, starting with the famous version by Ramanand Sagar back in the late 1980s, which directly fed into and reinforced the Ram Mandir agenda of the Sangh Parivar. Today, the Ramayana serial has to compete with the Cartoon Network, which explains its most recent tag line: Ramayana, Ek Achhi Aadat (A Good Habit).


The only god the media worships, the only ideology it bows to, is the bottom line. Occasionally you might find an article critical of superstition in a paper like the Hindu or the Indian Express – but the same papers will not bat an eyelid carrying full page advertisements for this or that mythological series.


Dr Satyajit Rath paid a moving tribute to Dr Dabholkar who began his movement three decades ago with a handful of associates, but today his organisation has units all over Maharashtra, and membership that runs into thousands. This became possible because Dr Dabholkar was as much a rationalist as he was a political activist. He never asked anyone to give up their belief in God which, he argued, was a private matter. So long as they were opposed to superstition and irrationality in the public domain, anyone was welcome in his movement. Dr Rath said that it is not coincidental that the largest protest demonstrations after Dr Dabholkar’s murder took place in the smaller towns in Maharashtra, not Pune or Mumbai. This attests to the successes of the movement, but also to Dr Dabholkar’s practical and down to earth approach. An example of his pragmatism was his response to the astrology columns of newspapers and magazines. He knew that editors would not agree to remove these columns altogether, at least to begin with. So he would ask them to print, in small type, a notice saying that this column was being carried for the entertainment of readers. This was in fact done by several papers and magazines.