India’s answer to James Randi, Penn & Teller, and the Mythbusters was murdered this past Tuesday. He was a fervent crusader against both New Age and millennia-old bullshit of all types, from yogi mystics claiming miracles and fraudulent snake oil salesmen peddling useless concoctions to people who don’t know they’re being lied to.
For nearly three decades, an earnest man named Narendra Dabholkar traveled from village to village in India, waging a personal war against the spirit world. If a holy man had electrified the public with his miracles, Dr. Dabholkar, a former physician, would duplicate the miracles and explain, step by step, how they were performed. If a sorcerer had amassed a fortune treating infertility, he would arrange a sting operation to unmask the man as a fraud. His goal was to drive a scientist’s skepticism into the heart of India, a country still teeming with gurus, babas, astrologers, godmen and other mystical entrepreneurs.
Dabholkar was a mix of James Randi, Penn & Teller, and the Mythbusters … and a fervent crusader against both New Age and millennia-old bullshit of all types, from yogi mystics claiming miracles and fraudulent snake oil salesmen peddling useless concoctions to people who don’t realize they’re being lied to. In doing so, he received constant death threats and amassed a list of enemies as long as his arm. Not so surprisingly, it consisted of those who would stand to lose by their clientèle discovering that their saviors were frauds.
That mission ended Tuesday, when two men ran up behind Dr. Dabholkar, 67, as he crossed a bridge, shot him at point-blank range, then jumped onto a motorbike and disappeared into the traffic coursing through this city.
Dabholkar was an atheist, but still encouraged people to believe in their god provided they eschew superstition. He fought for a number of other causes like feminism and environmentalism, but the primary focus of his attention in recent years was a statewide anti-black magic bill:
The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill was designed to outlaw several exploitative activities by charlatans preying on the vulnerable.
Details of the new ordinance were not yet available but an earlier draft bill proposed bans on beating a person to exorcise ghosts and on raising money by claiming to work miracles.
I was going to say something snide along the lines of “they needed a law for this?” but then I remembered the kind of crap some folks do in this part of the world when they think someone is possessed … and it’s not much better. Anyway, as you can tell from the context of the description, the law was finally passed after decades of debate and constant watering-down by groups convinced that the proposal was a curb on “religious freedom”. I suppose if your religion relies on selling people crap, then I suppose it does, but I don’t think that falls under the category of freedom of expression.
It also says that this is a statewide law, not nationwide. I guess that means if you want to beat demon-possessed people, levitate, handle cobras, activate some DNA, or talk to ice crystals you’ll have to move somewhere else. There’s nothing available about whether this will be implemented in other states or go national anytime soon …
Mr. Shankar [a palm reader] had heard about Dr. Dabholkar’s death, and about the sudden progress of the new legislation. He shrugged off the idea that it would have any effect on him. “No, mine is a science,” he said. “This is palmistry! Numerology, palmistry, astrology, these are sciences! The law cannot ban them.”
… but considering millions of other Indian citizens feel the same as Mr. Shankar, any national consensus on this issue will be a long time coming. Clearly the non-religious movement clearly has a long road ahead of them.