[He had many enemies, having spent decades trying to weaken the pervasive cultural influence of gurus, godmen and religious activists in India. Among his endeavors was a roadshow in which activists performed what some people called feats of magic, such as lying on a bed of nails, in order to debunk them. They told crowds, “Just remember, miracles can never happen.”]
By Ellen Barry
Mourners paid their respects to Dr. Narendra Dabholkar in 2013.
Credit Strdel/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
BANGALORE, India — A court in western India on Saturday ordered a member of a right-wing Hindu sect held in connection with the 2013 murder of Narendra Dabholkar, a physician who spent his adult life crusading against spiritual practices he considered fraudulent.
The killing of Dr. Dabholkar, who was shot at point-blank range while walking near his home in Pune, took place at a time of rising ideological change in India, when more conservative strains of Hinduism have been gaining resonance nationally.
The suspect, Virendra Tawde, also a doctor, appeared in a Pune courtroom on Saturday and was ordered held until Thursday. Dr. Tawde had known Dr. Dabholkar for years and had clashed with him over his campaigns against superstitious practices, according to the victim’s son.
Dr. Tawde is associated with a division of Sanatan Sanstha, an organization based in Goa that immerses its followers in a regimen of meditation and chanting, offering what it calls an escape from addiction and materialism. The group’s founder, a former hypnotherapist known as His Holiness Dr. Jayant Athavale, has called the shooting “a blessing from God” because Dr. Dabholkar had escaped dying from old age.
At the time of his murder, Dr. Dabholkar had been lobbying intensively for the passage of legislation banning a list of mystical practices, including animal sacrifice, the magical treatment of snakebites and the sale of magic stones.
He had many enemies, having spent decades trying to weaken the pervasive cultural influence of gurus, godmen and religious activists in India. Among his endeavors was a roadshow in which activists performed what some people called feats of magic, such as lying on a bed of nails, in order to debunk them. They told crowds, “Just remember, miracles can never happen.”
Hamid Dabholkar, Dr. Dabholkar’s son, said that several years ago Dr. Tawde and his father had lived in the same city, where Dr. Tawde led violent protests against his father over the issue of ritual immersions of Hindu idols in rivers and lakes. Dr. Dabholkar opposed that practice, saying it polluted natural water sources.
Later, Mr. Dabholkar said, Dr. Tawde confronted his father over the legislation against black magic. “It indicates that it was cooking for a long time, planned and executed in cold blood,” Mr. Dabholkar said.
The police turned their attention to Sanatan Sanstha immediately after Dr. Dabholkar’s killing, searching its ashram and compiling a list of nearly 100 members to be interrogated. After that, however, the investigation seemed to founder.
Mr. Dabholkar said he believed the political authorities and law enforcement officials had been reluctant to single out Sanatan Sanstha because of its religious nature. He said progress seemed to be made only recently, after the state’s high court was directed to monitor the investigation and began to apply pressure.
There have been calls to ban Sanatan Sanstha since 2008, when people linked to the group were convicted of bombing theaters. Spokesmen for the organization, however, say it is opposed to the use of violence.
Inside its Goa compound, members live a spartan, celibate life, cataloging their sins each day in handwritten notes that they post on a bulletin board.
The organization distributes books and newspapers promoting a movement to establish a “Hindu nation,” a step it says is “needed to challenge the onslaught of Western culture.” It encourages members to file police complaints against “people who criticize Hindu Dharma” and to take “actual physical action” to promote Hindu practices and beliefs.
Durgesh Samant, one of the organization’s trustees, said Sanatan Sanstha held certain beliefs in common with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group that is the ideological branch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party.
The main difference, he said, is that Sanatan Sanstha emphasizes spiritual practices. “You might say we are like-minded on social issues,” he said.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Suhasini Raj from Nainital, India.