The dark clouds against secularism and rational thought are gathering speed and taking on a diabolical hue if the attempted murder of veteran Communist Party of India leader Govind Pansare and his wife, Uma, in Kolhapur is any indication. Pansare who on Monday was returning after his morning walk accompanied by Uma, were shot at by two men on a bike. Fortunately, they survived and are recuperating in hospital.
The attack on Pansare resembles the one that killed his associate Dr Narendra Dabholkar in Pune in August 2013. In that instance too, two men on a bike shot at the renowned rationalist at close range as he was on his morning walk. He died instantly. The killers have not been caught despite a nine-month-old investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation under instructions from the Bombay High Court. Both Pansare and Dabholkar were staunch anti-superstition activists and forcefully put across their rationalist thoughts often angering right-wing activists, particularly those associated with the Sangh Parivar. The attacks on the two personalities, well-known and popular among one section even while irritating another section, can be construed as an assault on democracy, free speech and action. The intolerance to alternative thought and against those who speak against fundamentalism is a sign that the Indian society is possibly moving towards a harsh future where one can get killed for holding certain views. While India is proud to show to the world that it has survived as a democracy for close to seven decades, the flip side is that this can no longer be taken for granted. It is true that the attacks have taken place only in one state but that does not mean the rest of India can remain complacent. If civil society is shown up as ignoring the attacks, it won’t be long before such actions spread to other parts of the country.
The Maharashtra state government under the Congress-NCP earlier and now the BJP coalition, beyond lip service to Dabholkar’s family and to Pansare, have done little to show they mean business. Someone like Pansare, though he belonged to the CPI, associated himself with other social causes that went beyond party affiliations. His work with unorganised labour including farm workers, domestic workers and auto-rickshaw unions have been much appreciated. What got the goat of his detractors was his vigorous anti-superstition activities along with Dabholkar. The threat to democratic thought in Maharashtra is a worrying sign and civil society activists across the country must stand up and protest against any attempt to dilute anywhere the most valuable asset India has – freedom of speech and expression.