Organizational Structure and Setup of ANiS
Organizational Structure and Setup of ANiS
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter introduces the organisational structure of ANiS alongside an ethnographic description of the organisation's meetings and activities, their publication of books and magazines such as Thought & Action (in English) and Vartapatr (in Marathi), as well as an outline of their collaborations with other rationalist organisations. It highlights the fact that ANiS, despite the charismatic leadership of Narendra Dabholkar, has a democratic and decentralised structure and depends to a large extent on the voluntary work of its members. The importance of gender is stressed given that there are far more male rationalists than female. Further, the average ANiS member is middle-aged, has completed at least a basic education, lives in a city and belongs to the Indian middle-class. The caste background of the members, for the most part, reflects the caste structure of Maharashtra.
ANiS is one of the most active rationalist organizations in India and one of the larger social movements in Maharashtra. According to their own assessment, ANiS has some 2,000 official members and 180 local branches in 27 of the 35 districts in Maharashtra. ANiS’ main office is in the town of Satara but a great deal of its organizational work is coordinated in Pune, where the head of the organization, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar edits the well-known weekly Sadhana 1.
The stronghold of ANiS lies in central Maharashtra and the Marathwada region (especially the districts within the triangle formed by Dhule, Nanded, and Kolhapur). While their actual outreach in the various regions of the state is difficult to evaluate, my fieldwork experiences in the areas around Nashik, Pune, and Nanded showed me that there is a close net of their supporters spread primarily over urban areas but also in villages. One long-term ANiS goal is to open a branch in each tālukā in Maharashtra (tālukā are the 353 administrative units below the 35 districts of Maharashtra state).
Leadership and Internal structure
As the “founder–working president,” Narendra Dabholkar is the undisputed head of ANiS. Dabholkar hails from a well-known family in Maharashtra2; he received his basic education at the New English School in Satara, studied at Willington College in Sangli, and in 1970 earned his M.B.B.S. from Miraj Medical College. After working for a few years as a general practitioner, in the early 1980s he became a dedicated social worker. Dabholkar was, for example, associated with Baba Adhav in the “One Village-One Drinking Water Well” agitation. Besides his work for ANiS, he founded an institute for rehabilitation from drug addiction called Parivartan (change, reform) in Satara. Dabholkar is currently also the executive president of the Vivek Vahini (rational teaching), an organization affiliated with ANiS which aims to provide special education to college teachers and students in Maharashtra in the field of “scientific temper.”
Dabholkar was busy with several things at the same time whenever I met him. Each of my longer conversations with him was invariably disrupted more than once by the ringing of either his landline or his mobile phone. He usually listened intently to my questions, but answered them more in the style of his lectures stating ANiS’ official position. All in all he maintained a respectful distance toward me but there was not a single question which he did not answer with an openness and assertiveness that revealed his conviction in his work and the work of ANiS. His attitude was that his work was the absolute right thing to do and that he had nothing to hide in this regard.
Although Dabholkar, as founder–working president is the single head and by far the most famous ANiS proponent, the future of the organization is not—as is the case with some other rationalist organizations in India—bound to the destiny of its leader. Other, older rationalist organizations were primarily dependent on the charisma and guidance of their leaders (figures like M. N. Roy). This is also true for some of the current movements in other parts of India (Sanal Edamaruku, for (p.147) example, embodies the national ambitions of the Indian Rationalist Association). In opposition to such structures, ANiS managed to implement an organizational structure with flat hierarchies and membership participation on various levels. Second to Dabholkar is Avinash Patil, the “working president” of ANiS. Patil is a full time social worker and an extremely energetic and well-liked activist who coordinates most of the grassroots work in the various parts of Maharashtra as well as collaboration with likeminded movements, organizations, and NGOs. In 2010 N. D. Patil was the honorary president of ANiS; Dr. Pradeep Joshi (Jalgaon), Vijay Salankar (Nagpur), and Prof. Anirudhh Jadhav (Latur) served as vice-presidents, while Milind Deshmukh (Pune) and Sushila Munde (Thane) functioned as secretaries.
From top to bottom, ANiS features positions at the state level, the district and tālukā levels, and in “local units.” The basic work is generally done by the local units which try to meet weekly and which elect representatives for organizational meetings at the tālukā or district level. These representatives, in turn, elect representatives for coordination meetings at the state level which take place quarterly and which are usually attended by between 10 and 15 people. Furthermore, each year four large State Committee meetings take place at the state level, during which all active members can participate in planning and decision-making (as will be described below). ANiS provides internal training sessions and workshops for the general information of the members as well as for the specific training of their volunteers. They also send activists to external programs. (For example, I attended a workshop on how to use everyday material to conduct scientific experiments at the University of Pune with a group of ANiS activists). Similar programs are held by the various local units which use teaching material provided by ANiS in the form of books, magazines, and pamphlets.
Most of the information and training materials aim to teach the members of the organization how to conduct “educational” or “awareness” programs in schools, colleges, teacher seminars, villages, and elsewhere. The central issues addressed in these programs are based on ANiS’ general agenda. In order to formulate a more sound position on the various topics addressed by rationalists in such programs, ANiS representatives consult members or sympathizers who can provide them with elaborate and reliable material on the respective fields. An architect, for example, wrote a book on the pseudoscience behind vāstu-śāstra (traditional Hindu system of architecture) which is now a major point of reference for other activists. Further, as shown earlier, psychiatrists were consulted on the issues of possession by ghosts and mental illness. Some ANiS representatives, especially Dr. Dabholkar, have written general introductory books which are often consulted by the local units.
Apart from such guidance, and some control with respect to the core ideological issues from the center of the organization, the respective district and local units are self-contained and work more or less independently. The organizational structure is in practice very decentralized. Major decisions are taken by all active (p.148) members democratically during the State Committee meetings. Most of the minor decisions are taken by the Executive Committee which consists of 8 members who meet on a monthly basis, generally on the last weekend of every month. The structure at the district level as well as at the local unit level mirrors the organizational setup at the state level, which I reconstruct here based on interviews I conducted with activists at district branches in Nanded, Nashik, and Jalgaon. Although Pune is an ANiS center, there are currently no regular ANiS meetings held there. Several members explained this to me as related to the different lifestyles in cities such as Pune and Bombay, where people face greater constraints on their time. For each of the five regions of the state (Marathwada, Khandesh, Konkan, Vidarbh, and South-West) one representative is elected as member of the Executive Committee; this person is also part of a team heading a district or local section. There are usually other offices such as that of collector, as well as a number of “secretaries” who are in charge of specific topics like the promotion of scientific temper, magazine contributions, performances of “miracles,” organizing workers and teachers’ camps, and often also a women's representative.
There are two kinds of ANiS membership. “Well-wishers” must fill out a form and pay 20 rupees a year in subscription fees. The more important type is the “active” membership. Active members pay 500 rupees per year or 2% of their annual income, whichever is less. It is officially mandatory for them to attend at least 50% of the regular meetings but this seems to be more a formality (activists informed me that this regulation is not usually enforced just as the fees are not collected on a regular basis). There are, to my knowledge, no rules or codified restrictions on who is allowed to become a member.3 The actual status of a member depends primarily on the time, energy, or money he or she is willing to donate to the movement. Nobody is paid for work done for ANiS, although expenses incurred while working for ANiS are reimbursed. In other words, the thrust of the organization's activities is dependent on the dedication and commitment of the volunteers, who form the backbone of the movement.
Meetings of anis
Throughout the time of my research the ANiS activists allowed me to participate in all their activities, meetings, and campaigns (which was not the case for other rationalist organizations I visited). For such a large and active organization as ANiS, regular meetings and coordination at all levels is important. This chapter provides not only an overview of these meetings, but also attempts to capture some (p.149) of the “rationalist spirit” experienced at them by drawing on the ethnographic material gathered through a participant observation of several of such meetings. As all the meetings I attended cannot be described here in detail, I focus on the State Committee meeting in Dombivali in August 2007 (while I also integrate material from other meetings, especially of the State Committee meeting in Nagpur in December 2007). During such meetings, all ANiS activists willing to participate are given the opportunity to attend and contribute to discussions and participate in decisions on various organizational, strategic, and ideological topics. I chose this kind of meeting because it reflects how all active members can participate in planning and decision making of concern to the organization as a whole.
To attend the meeting in Dombivali, I had arranged to meet a few Pune-based rationalists early in the morning along the main road to Bombay. I hopped on a local bus to reach the meeting place before the agreed time and was surprised to find the activists who had organized our trip already waiting. One of the more well-to-do rationalists, Arvind Pakhale, had offered to drive three people from Pune in his car (most of the others traveled by train). On our way to Dombivali, I learned from the conversations in the car that these meetings are not only meant for activists to contribute to decisions that concern and affect the national work of ANiS, but are also a good opportunity to see old friends and colleagues. My fellow travelers already knew whether or not most of their friends were attending the meeting. According to Milind Deshmukh, it is not easy for activists in other parts of Maharashtra to take a few days off and travel all over the state. When we arrived I learned that the largest number of attendees comes from the area in which the meeting takes place. During the meeting, the number of local activists attending varied from a handful to several dozen as some of them went home now and then. In addition, some 40 members from the rest of Maharashtra assembled to take part for the complete duration of the meeting.
The meeting was organized by the members living and working in Dombivali. Their preparation included the organization of a room big enough to meet in during the day and sleep in at night. Lunch and dinner were also prepared by the host activists. A large number of plastic chairs were assembled on the roof of a three-story building and as long as there was daylight the meeting was held there, the wind providing fresh air to attendees. The rest of the meeting took place in a big hall on the first floor of the same building, with rugs spread over the floor and attendees forming a circle all more or less facing each other. Most were equipped with writing materials along with their belongings for the night.
The structure of the meeting at Dombivali followed the usual procedure of these meetings. Before the last expected participants had arrived, the meeting was opened at noon on the first day by the founder–working president Dabholkar and the president of the local unit. To begin, all attendees introduced themselves briefly. People were encouraged not to spend too much time at this since most knew each other already. It was stressed that they had two days of intense meetings ahead of them and any wasted time would be at the expense of longer tea breaks.
(p.150) Once the official meeting began, there was an immediately productive atmosphere which did not detract from the informal and friendly style that prevailed in the morning. Back in Germany, reading through my “field books,” it is striking how often I noted the level of engagement and attentiveness of ANiS activists during these meetings. There was always the verve of social activism in the air. It did not take long to find volunteers whenever some were needed for a special task. Although there were at times long discussions which got heated and intense, the shared concerns as well as the convictions and aims constitutive of ANiS were always present and these by far outweighed any disputes and controversies. I remembered what I had been told in the car on our way to the meeting: It is a meeting of old friends and there is a lot of joking, recounting of anecdotes, and narration of recent stories which punctuate the seriousness. Although there is actually little time for extensive personal communication, the members manage to share a lot in the time they have.
One of the most striking elements of the meetings for me was the role played by the singing of specific rationalist songs. This reinforces my point that ANiS is not comparable to an ordinary NGO and is much more than a debating club. The social and collective importance of the larger rationalist movement experienced in such meetings exceeds the intellectual discussions and abstract ideologies. While this is palpable and observable in many ways, it is best illustrated for me in the role songs play at such meetings. I knew that the rationalists would sing songs during their programs (especially since Indians generally tend to sing more than Germans) and I had heard them before during their programs, but I assumed these were meant to be didactical tricks to spread their message in the villages. This is indeed the case; the rationalists deliberately take famous folk melodies and children's songs and rewrite the text according to their own worldview in order to use the songs in schools and villages. However, they also like to sing their songs as a central part of their organizational bonding. Nearly all members know the songs by heart and they provide various songbooks to new activists (some of which consist of “social activist” songs not specific to the rationalist movement).4 I take this as one of several signs of how active and lively the organization is. After all, these songs are not part of public life outside the rationalist movement. Not only do they have to write these songs but others have to learn and spread them, which only works if people meet and work together regularly.
The longer meeting sessions were opened by songs and songs were sung in the evenings before everybody grabbed a blanket to sleep on the floor of the large hall. After the long first day, I was totally exhausted and looking forward to the night as it was the only opportunity to escape the working atmosphere of the meeting. However, “lights out” happened to be rather early in the morning since most of the (p.151) activists carried on sitting together discussing the issues of the day, interrupted only by further songs.
I will add a few general impressions before I turn to the issues debated during the meeting. The second major point I noted several times in my notebooks was that none of the activists seemed shy or unassertive. Whether in discussions among themselves, whether younger members objected to arguments made by more senior members, or whether they approached me to ask about my fieldwork, all ANiS members were direct, communicative, straightforward, and outgoing. This might be due to the flat hierarchy and good relationships within the movement, where every contribution is listened to and discussed irrespective of who presented it. Another reason might be that most ANiS activists are used to presenting their position in front of an audience, as well as defending their point of view against critics. In any case, it was obvious that all statements were made by self-assured men and women, convinced of what they say and do.
The underlying productive and open atmosphere is surely also due to the fact that Dabholkar is very good in managing and guiding such meetings without turning them into a one-man show. On the one hand, he is the center of all discussions and activities, while on the other, there are other representatives and activists in charge for each of the aspects debated such that respective people can contribute to and make decisions based on their specific expertise. During the meeting in Nagpur, the older leaders had to leave the room in order to attend a press conference. Some of the remaining younger activists took over coordinating the discussions, and continued to do so even after the main representatives returned. The senior leaders just sat quietly on the floor. All these are signs that ANiS as an organization is intact and that it is not just dependent on one or a few leading veterans.
I have so far only given my general observations on the atmosphere and general setup of the State Committee meeting. The official reason they come together is, however, not the social aspects of these meetings but so that issues central to the organization can be discussed, decided on, and planned in a democratic way. The most important topics of the meetings that I attended are introduced below by describing selected agenda items: (1) reports (from the local units, FIRA delegates and the science-van team); (2) strengthening the organization; (3) attracting younger members; (4) increasing the readership of Vartapatr; (5) working with the media; (6) promoting the Anti-Superstition Bill; (7) resolving problems and criticism (“varia”). This list does not include all agenda items since some are discussed elsewhere in this book. For example the question of whether ANiS should collaborate with religious organizations is analyzed in chapter 13.
A central part of the State Committee meetings was dedicated to the various local groups reporting on their activities. Each representative stood up and reported on (p.152) their own activities, which varied from a ten-page report on several activities to a one-minute glimpse into their ongoing work. Further reports were given by people in charge of special programs and campaigns conducted by ANiS. During the meeting at Nagpur, for example, the collaboration with ādivāsi groups as a part of a larger Anti-Witchcraft Campaign was summarized by the coordinator Avinash Patil. A further report was given by Milind Deshmukh, the official representative of ANiS at the last Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) meeting in Ayodhya. The most important and most debated of all these reports was that of the activists who had worked with the two science-vans over the past few months. During the meeting in Nagpur, the activists that I had accompanied on their science-van tour around Nanded district gave an account of their work. This team, consisting of a man and a woman, had continued to pay their visits to schools, colleges, and villages until shortly before the meeting. They announced that they had conducted 41 programs in 16 different tālukā locations within the past 35 days. Between the two science-vans, some 63 schools were visited in the previous few weeks and 44.880 Rupees in donations had been collected in addition to 8.879 Rupees earned from selling books. These numbers were relatively high and the activists were widely complimented on their success. I also learned that the Nanded branch had visited the schools in advance, explained to the students the importance of books, and asked them each to bring 2 Rupees so that ANiS could raise funds for their social work.
Strengthening the Organization
In the meetings that I attended, financial matters were discussed under the rubric of “strengthening the organization.” In Nagpur, people were asked to announce how much money they would try to raise before the next meeting through donors. Similar to the idea to set a bar for how much money can be raised within a certain date, the activists also set themselves the goal of increasing their membership of new activists by 10% by the end of the year. A further discussion addressed the way in which local groups should organize the general structure of their weekly meetings and other regular gatherings. It was proposed that these should always include the performance of one “miracle” and giving its scientific explanation and the discussion of one relevant topic of the group's own choice; the meeting should end with the singing of an ANiS song. It was also stressed that although all kinds of topics can be discussed during these regular meetings there is a book written by Dabholkar that suggests a topic for each meeting throughout the year. A further plan to strengthen the organization involved recruiting more lawyers, doctors, and other senior professionals to support ANiS’ aims and activities. In order to achieve this, it was recommended that a list of well-known people in each city be drawn up and each of them approached personally. The attempt should be to convince them at the very least to become a non-active “well-wisher” of ANiS; any further active engagement would of course be even better.
A more important and lively discussion was how to attract the younger generation to the rationalist movement. Here, the older members asked the younger ones what they thought and it was suggested that each of the various local units bring a couple of youngsters together. They should form small groups to discuss subjects that are of major concern to them including unemployment, globalization, choosing life-partners, gender discrimination, equality, and scientific temper. After this they could participate in ANiS’ general meetings at the local and higher levels. Some of the younger members argued that it would be good to invite experts in the respective subjects in order to have a more in-depth discussion that young people could not easily find elsewhere. Some objected that the subjects under consideration for such youth groups were not directly related to the aims and work of ANiS, but these concerns were rejected by most attendees who stressed that rationalism was relevant to all aspects of life. In this respect, one member directly formulated the argument I make in chapter 12, that rationalism cannot be reduced to certain topics but should result in an all-compassing rationalist way of life: “The point is that young people should realize the extent to which rationalism is related to their own lives and thus find it interesting for their self-development.”
Increase the Readership of Vartapatr
An issue related to the debate on how to attract younger members was the question of how to gain a larger readership of the Marathi magazine Vartapatr, since the number of readers had declined slightly for the first time. In this context, general suggestions to improve the magazine were made. It was agreed, for example, that more articles by members from other organizations in the FIRA be added so that people could learn more about the activities of rationalists in other Indian states. The debate reflected that ANiS members were growing more and more aware that they are part of a larger Indian rationalist movement, an insight that was highlighted by the fact that ANiS organized the FIRA conference 2007 in Pune. Another suggestion, which found fewer assenting voices, was that the magazine should not remain dedicated only to the concerns of ANiS. For example, a young man suggested that “personal development articles should be included.” Others argued against such a widening of focus and held that “andharūdīcyā beḍya to ḍā (breaking superstitious practices) such as pilgrimages, conmen, or quacks should be the central part of the magazine as that was the specialty which makes the magazine unique.”
Working with the Media
Another debate topic was the general role of the media with regard to the spread of scientific temper and the eradication of superstition. Most TV (p.154) channels were seen as counterproductive to the aim of educating and informing society. As one member of ANiS summarized it: “They are by and large oriented to increasing their viewership even if that means spreading superstitions and irrationalities, against the work ANiS does.” It was therefore decided to increase attempts to spread influence through such a medium. Dabholkar reported that some sort of cooperation was planned with the TV station IBN7 to come up with a rationalists’ show on which “godmen would be exposed” through “conducting a sting operation” by setting “traps” for them with hidden cameras or similar tricks.
The Anti-Superstition Bill
A recurrent theme during my fieldwork was the progress of the so-called Anti-Superstition Bill that ANiS is trying to get implemented in Maharashtra. In both State Committee meetings that I attended, strategies to convince the Vidhān Pariṣad (Legislative Council) to approve the bill were discussed. One approved suggestion was to send as many letters as possible to the chief minister and the minister of social welfare asking for the bill to be passed. A second idea was the mobilization of Dalits as well as others not active in ANiS to do the same since their voices would probably count for more than letters from the rationalists (a plan that has not yet, to my knowledge, been implemented to any degree).
Problems and Criticism
Under the rubric “problems and criticism” everyone was given the opportunity to raise issues not yet debated. One activist in Dombivali asked how they could motivate members who are not as active as they could be or used to be. This issue was of special importance to representatives from a local unit that had become increasingly inactive: “What is to be done if the district working committee is inactive and how can we get more sincere people to participate in our work and come to the executive working committee meetings?” Some of the general suggestions the activists agreed upon during the following debate were that, for example, Dabholkar should visit each local team at least once a year since he has a knack for inspiring activism in people. There should also be regular training sessions complementing the regular meetings for each group, where activists could meet other activists and spend more time together. Another suggestion was to introduce identity cards that could be provided to each active member of the movement. It was also suggested that the police as well as representatives of the Revenue Department and of the Forest Department be invited to some of the local meetings. It was argued that a closer collaboration with these groups would increase the efficacy of ANiS work. One member added: “it is not only us who need them; they need the programs we offer as well.”
(p.155) The debate on how to motivate the activists finally revealed that the central “excuse” for most less-active members is a lack of time, since only the so-called full-timers (people who are financed otherwise) can dedicate enough time to ANiS. The obvious answer to this problem is that only samarpaṇ (“dedication” or “surrender”) to their cause could make people work for ANiS. In the end this debate motivated a couple of the attendants to stand up and declare what they were willing to do for ANiS in near future. During the tea break that followed, I asked one of the younger members about this discussion; he told me that he agreed with the general topic of the discussion: “If there is no dedication, if you cannot stimulate their dedication, there is little you can do.”
Another issue that was raised in the “problems and criticism” section of the meeting and which stimulated controversial debate, was the suggestion by a member to create a special fund for ANiS activists which covers health and legal problems. Although most considered this a good idea in general and some even offered to collect the necessary funding, the voices raised against this suggestion convinced the others not to implement it. Critical to this argument was the fear that such a move might lead to internal problems such as complaints, comparisons made between the severity of the problems encountered by the individual activists, regret, and discontent since it would be hard to find objective criteria for how this money should be distributed in each case. Many also pointed to the fact that ANiS helped in emergency cases anyway; the activists involved in the incident at Beed district (see chapter 15) confirmed that they received timely and helpful support from other ANiS members.
Debates like this showed me once again that ANiS is more than a loose association of people with shared interests—it is a community of people who share much more than a set of convictions. In the subsequent chapters, I will continue to describe the unifying aspects which make ANiS and its activists so distinct; to them something more than mere formal membership in an organization was at stake. These meetings are born of and supported by the collective “mode of unbelief” the rationalists share. The collective and unifying elements of this worldview must be highlighted since it is hard to imagine the activism and lived form of rationalism that characterizes ANiS in the case of individuals outside such an organization. Part of this unifying element is clearly visible during their larger meetings, where shared convictions and dedication produce an atmosphere of joint mission (in the many senses of “mission”). This feeling of coming together to pursue a shared mission is palpable from the first to the last minute of a meeting. At the end of two intense days, some volunteers are honored for their work. The next to last point in the program is that people can stand up and make announcements or general statements. Here people are also congratulated for and supported in their work for the movement. The last announcement is about when and where the next State Committee meeting is to be held (in this case, May 2008 at Toranmal District, Nandurbar). The meeting ends with singing the “hymn” of the movement. It is the Hindi translation of the anthem of the US Civil Rights movement “We Shall (p.156) Overcome” (ham hoṅge kāmyāb).5 While they generally referred to this song as povāḍā (a form of Maharashtrian folk song) one ANiS member whispered to me just before they started to sing: “This is a song sung by brave people for brave people.”
Based on time spent with ANiS members, the interviews I documented and recorded, and a questionnaire that I handed out during a State Committee meeting in Nagpur in December 2006, I was able to gather a set of basic data about ANiS activists. In this chapter these data will be analyzed with a focus on the more active members of the organization. The major findings, which will be discussed in detail below, are these: The average long-term ANiS member is male, middle-aged, not of the highest or lowest caste, has completed at least basic education, has a family with one, two or no children, lives in a city and belongs to the Indian middle class. The average length of membership of the respondents I selected was 10.7 years.
Most of these findings are not very surprising. The engagement with the aims and activities of the rationalist movement is much easier for people from a certain educational and financial background. Although there are some members with only a very basic level of education, many have not only completed the full schooling, they have studied at colleges or universities or received some further training. The members’ occupations are heterogeneous but the number of teachers is notable, while there are also quite a few journalists, doctors, and government employees. These backgrounds make it likely that the rationalists do not live in villages but in the smaller cities or the two largest cities in Maharashtra, Pune and Bombay.
The fact that the respondents to my questionnaire had on average only 1.7 children and an average age of 44 is also not unexpected given that rationalists have supported birth control and the concept of small families ever since the social reform movements encouraged people to do so in the 19th century. The total fertility rate in Maharashtra is above two, which is still low if compared to other states in India. Specific figures about the average number of children from Maharashtrian families with a similar sociodemographic background are not available.
Further aspects of the membership structure that were part of my questionnaire and the interviews and conversations with ANiS members were the issues (p.157) of “religion” and “caste.” My experiences during a year of research and the quantitative data I collected on long-term members shows that the caste background of ANiS members is rather diverse. There are few Brahmins in the movement, although the head of ANiS, Dr. Dabholkar, is from a Brahmin background. Some consider it problematic that an anti-caste organization is run by a Brahmin, even if the caste mark is rejected by the respective person (as it is done by Dabholkar). Two sympathizers of the organization told me independently that for them a Brahmin leader contradicts to some degree the fact that ANiS sees itself in the tradition of “untouchable movements” (most famously that of “Mahatma” Phule) some of which were clearly anti-Brahmanic. Within ANiS, I did not encounter critical comments in that respect, and one active member told me that the policy of ANiS is that “caste does not matter at all.” A senior female member told me: “We do not think in terms of caste. Dabholkar does not have a caste anymore, neither do I. We would reproduce caste boundaries if we excluded those of high-castes.”
More or less all ANiS members told me they reject the caste system. When I asked them about their “former castes,” most answered freely. According to my data, members with a background in higher castes (besides the Brahmins) including marāṭhā constitute roughly one-third of the movement. The second most important person at ANiS, Avinash Patil, is for example from a marāṭhā family who make up more than 30% of the state's population and therefore fill a large part of the jāti (the endogamous sections of Hindu society usually translated as caste) pyramid in Maharashtra. Marāṭhā either claim to be of the kṣatriya varṇa (system of four religious “classes” including the Brahmins [priests and teachers], kṣatriya [administrators and warriors], vaiśya [trader and peasants], and śūdra [servants]) or are seen to be “peasant marāṭhā” who used to be known as kuṇbī (a term that is still in use).
A little bit less than one-fifth of ANiS activists belong to caste groups with a lower status, belonging to the artisan or service jāti (of the śūdra varṇa) such as the kōḷī. Finally, roughly another third of active ANiS members belong to a jāti outside the varṇa-system, the so-called Dalit, Untouchables, or Scheduled Castes (SC) such as the mahār as well as members of the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC).6 In this respect it is important to highlight that the mahār-community became famous through a mass conversion to Buddhism organized by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in 1956 (see Bhoite 1999, Beltz 2005, and Omvedt1995, 2001). Those who have turned to Buddhism following the lead of Dr. Ambedkar now call themselves Buddhists or neo-Buddhists; about (p.158) one-tenth of ANiS activists noted “Buddhism” as their religion in the questionnaire!7
Taken together, all this information indicates that ANiS members have diverse caste backgrounds while the organization as a whole roughly represents the caste structure in Maharashtra (with only the “tribals” being considerably underrepresented). These conclusions must remain rather general here, not just because I do not have data for all ANiS members, but also because those I asked, personally or through the questionnaire, at times refused to answer the questions concerning religion and caste, and instead remained silent on the issue, left the questionnaire blank, or (most often) noted mānavatā (humanity) or sometimes “Indian” with respect to categories of caste and religion (these make up one-fifth of the answers on caste and one-fourth of the answers on religion). This is an even more telling statement since I asked them specifically about their former caste and religion. One of the rationalists noted on the back of the questionnaire what others had told me personally: Being a rationalist means overcoming the castes and creeds that separate humanity and therefore such questions should not be answered.
A further important and striking point with respect to the membership structure is of course the unequal representation of the sexes (discussed also in chapter 10 and the epilogue). In general, issues of gender are present and highly visible in the larger rationalist movement in India. With respect to ANiS as well as all the other rationalist organizations that I came across, it can be said that the number of active women make up less than one-fifth of the membership. Interestingly in this respect, the rationalist movement stands in the tradition of the early feminist movements in India and part of the focus of most social reform movements were notions of “female emancipation.” In the 19th century, many predecessors of the rationalist movement engaged with issues such as female education, widow remarriage, sati (or “suttee”) and equal rights for women. Rationalists continue to emphasize these aspects in their work and today the most famous feminist writer associated with the Indian rationalist movement is probably Malladi Subbamma from Hyderabad (see her publications 1987, 1990, 1994, 2003).
One of the rationalists’ central arguments against organized religion is precisely the exclusion and subordination of women in their theologies and practices. On (p.159) the other hand, it is a fact that there are hardly any women active in any of the rationalist organizations in India or elsewhere, past or present. It is obvious that the world of Indian rationalism is a “men's world”—or to be more precise “educated, middle class men.” The fact that there are so few women active in the organization is of course also recognized by the rationalists themselves. In 1975, the magazine of the IRA, Freethought, published a “women's special issue” within which the editor C. A. Seshadri writes on the one hand, that “women form the sheet anchor of conservative religionists” and on the other, that
there could be as many women who are equally capable of doing the outdoor work and becoming bread winners of the family. In such an event, we should be prepared to reverse the role of men and women. Have we prepared ourselves for engendering this sort of a society? (1975: 131)
In the same issue, a membership list of the IRA features no more than 8 women out of 280 members, or less than 3 percent (see IRA 1975c: 151–157). ANiS organized a special campaign under the rubric "Freeing Women from Superstition” to not only fight superstitions prevalent among women but also to recruit more women to the movement. The section “Women & Blind Faith” on the ANiS homepage begins with the following paragraph:
The male dominated culture of our society has enslaved women for so long that they have lost all sense of self-esteem and self-respect and feel completely helpless in the struggle for survival. Having lost all hope of any achievement or success in life, they develop a negative outlook of themselves. No wonder, that superstition is so deep-rooted in the minds of women in India. To deal with superstition, therefore, we will have to concentrate on women. The society as a whole and women themselves have to be made aware of this fact and of the need to prepare a plan of action to free women and the society from this mental apathy and slavery. (ANiS n.d.-i)
Publications and the use of media
Following their predecessors in 19th- and 20th-century England and India and like most other contemporary rationalist organizations, one of the ways in which ANiS tries to spread their message is through print media. ANiS is prolific in producing written material and in this respect they are also representative of most rationalist organizations. Besides two regularly published magazines, their publications include some 40 books in Marathi and English, annual reports on their work in Marathi and English, and the material presented on their homepage (www.antisuperstition.org). In addition, there is gray literature such as pamphlets, leaflets, internal documents, protocols and newspaper articles. While all this has been studied, I focus here particularly on the two magazines published by ANiS: Thought & Action (in English) and Vartapatr (in Marathi), as well as some of their books, most of which are written by their Dabholkar.
In the first issue of Thought & Action Dabholkar writes that “there were inquiries from non-Marathi speaking areas and by sympathizers who can’t read Marathi to know ANiS’ modus operandi and the activities they undertake to spread their worldview. We hope this journal will fulfill this need.” He adds that they hope that (p.161) “this journal will serve as a platform for communication between various rationalist organizations spread all over India” (2001: 2).
The front page of Thought & Action usually features a quote from a famous (usually Western) intellectual such as Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins (see figure 11.3), and Bertrand Russell. An index to the content of the issue, usually some five to eight articles, is also printed on the cover. The articles report on ANiS’ work (their campaigns, conferences, and successful exposures of “godmen”), discuss abstract and philosophical issues, inform readers about the “objectionable practices” of “godmen” (and sometimes politicians) in Maharashtra and the rest of India, and inform them of legal issues relevant to the work of the rationalists. They further write about the work of other organizations in India or the rest of the world, narrate the lives of famous rationalists, review or reprint excerpts from books, reprint classic articles written by other rationalists for their own magazines, and reprint articles from national Indian newspapers relevant to the aims and activities of ANiS.
The second magazine ANiS publishes is called Vartapatr (vārtā means “information” or “advice” and patr “paper” or “letter”). Vartapatr is a Marathi
Although most articles address issues limited to Maharashtra and are therefore primarily of interest to Maharashtrians, there are in most issues one or two articles on topics of wider concern. These can range from reports about the space mission of Sunita Williams to discussions of superstitions in other countries—for example, an article on Uri Geller (see figure 11.3) and his trick of bending spoons with “mind-power.” Since 2008, a new “E-varta” has been available which can be downloaded from the ANiS homepage.
Vartapatr is the successor of the monthly magazine Bhram Niras—Andhashraddha Nirmulan Patrika (Clarifying an Illusion—Superstition Eradication Newsletter) which was first published in the late 1980s in Marathi and for which the Indian Sceptic reports a circulation of 3,000 copies (1990). In the beginning, topics of primary concern to ANiS members were addressed in the magazine. Yet, over the years, attempts were made to widen the readership to people who were not directly linked to the movement, especially to rural teachers, journalists, and other people who could function as “multipliers” of their message. During my research, one of the frequent contributors to and editors of Vartapatr, Prabhakar Nanawaty, told me about how the magazine had again changed its focus over the last few years in an effort to boost urban readership.
It should not become a stale magazine; it should become more interesting. All the while they were thinking that only rural teachers and primary teachers are the target. But it has got better potential to reach also the educated from the urban areas. They might also be interested to know about all these things. And therefore our magazine should not become routine report like a documentation thing that reports only on who got exposed when and where. It should provide some thought-provoking articles as well.
A further function of the Vartapatr is to reproduce and spread the ideal application of rationalism in the lives of the people. Stories on ANiS members provide the readership with role models to look up to, especially with respect to non-religious celebrations of lifecycle events such as births, marriages, or funerals. Most important here is specific propagation of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages or secular marriage without religious experts or large expenditures, as well as secular funerals. Nanawaty further told me, and this can be seen in the magazines: “If some (p.163) people have deviated from religious practices, we give a lot of publicity to non-religious ceremonies in our Vartapatr. A lot of publicity is given so that somebody else becomes motivated by such practices.”
Thought & Action is not merely a translation of the articles from Vartapatr. Thought & Action addresses more theoretical questions and aims to address the educated English-speaking intellectuals from all over India and the rest of the world. Many of the articles engage with more philosophical questions and the contributions are on a much more general level. In comparison, the articles in Vartapatr focus more on concrete questions and problems ANiS activists come across in their everyday lives. Vartapatr also reports much more extensively on ANiS activities and largely addresses issues that are of interest primarily to Maharashtrians. Although the intent is to move the Vartapatr to some degree in the direction of Thought & Action, the underlying strategy remains to address two distinct groups of readers. This strategy seems to have been quite successful, and the people in charge are proud of their work.
Besides these two magazines, ANiS has begun to publish a compendium of articles at the end of each year, some reprinted from Vartapatr and others written particularly for this publication that serves as a kind of annual report in Marathi. This report is usually several hundred pages long and it is the only publication subsidized through advertisements (besides the dīvālī version of the Vartapatr). Central to it are the stories on successfully exposed “godmen” and other ANiS activities.
By far the most prolific writer for ANiS is Dabholkar. He is known not only for his vivid writing in Marathi but also for his powerful speeches. ANiS provided me with a couple of speech manuscripts in Marathi and English on topics like “Ethics and Eradication of Superstition,” “Women and Eradication of Superstition,” “The Ruckus of Astrology,” “Scientific Outlook,” and “Faith and Superstition.” Dabholkar writes frequently for Thought & Action and the Vartapatr and has also written some 12 books on topics connected to the aims and activities of ANiS. Especially influential within the organization is a book which acts as a guide to the independent local units of ANiS entitled Vichar va Sangatna Margdarshika (Thoughts and Organization Guide), while some of the contents are excerpted from his book Shraddha-Andhashraddha. Vichar va Sangatna Margdarshika consists of one general chapter and 26 specific chapters—as local branches should meet at least every second week and during each meeting they should go through one of the 26 specific chapters. The female activist Smita Shirsale told me that for them this is “almost like a religious book.” For people not familiar with the aims and activities of ANiS one of Dabholkar's most famous books is recommended: Ladhe Andhashraddheche (Fight against Superstition) which addresses topics exemplifying the kind of work ANiS does by way of short articles and which allegedly got a State Award for literature. Other ANiS members have also written books on particular issues. Like many other rationalist organizations ANiS publishes a lot of written material. Some of the more than 40 books ANiS had published in Marathi and English by 2007 are in their 12th editions.
Regarding the use of other media such as television and the Internet, the rationalists have high hopes that their message will be spread more effectively. The degree to which this is realized varies, however, from organization to organization. The ANiS homepage is elaborate and frequently updated (www.antisuperstition.org). Its design was changed completely in June 2009. Aside from their homepage, ANiS focuses its work primarily on print media, although ANiS also produces other promotional material, such as for example, a promotional DVD intended to help obtain passage of the Anti-Superstition Bill. Some ANiS members are active on Internet platforms or social community platforms like Facebook or Orkut, but this is not true of the organization as a whole. Given the success other rationalists in India have found collaborating with TV stations or setting up blogs, it is likely that ANiS will try to increase its activities in this direction.
The work of ANiS is almost totally dependent on the dedication of its volunteers. The organization nevertheless needs a certain financial stability to fund their activities. I was surprised to see how open ANiS members were in talking to me about internal matters, including financial issues. At no point I was asked, for example, to leave a state or executive committee meeting because the issues debated were seen as confidential. This might be connected to the unlimited confidence they have in what they are doing. Why should something be kept hidden if one is doing the right thing?
The only financial support Dabholkar, Patil, or any of the other activists receive from ANiS are allowances for special expenditures—for example, if one member attends the conference of another rationalist organization as a representative of ANiS. Costs for travel and accommodation are at times borne by the activists themselves. Only those activists who spend months traveling with the science-van from village to village may take advantage of “pecuniary compensation.” This covers more than the costs they incur during this time, but it is neither comparable to a decent job, nor is it enough to earn a living of a relevant standard, especially not if there are family members dependent on such an income.
All incurred costs are met by the money ANiS earns through membership fees, sales of their publications (magazines and books), and especially donations. The majority of the donations stem from well-to-do members or other famous sympathizers (for example the poet V. D. Karandikar or the film and theater actor Dr. Shriram Lagoo). As described above, the members are asked from time to time to raise money for the movement. Financial support from outside India is a delicate issue. I only know of three such instances. In 1991, ANiS received a check of £600 from the Secular Society, London. I was told that it was decided at the ANiS Executive Committee meeting that the money would be used to purchase books in English related to the aims of ANiS. In 2006 Dabholkar received an award from the Maharashtra Foundation USA and dedicated the prize money to the movement. (p.166) The largest donation was related to the purchase of the two science-vans by ANiS, which were partly financed by the Rotary Club, Chagrin Valley (USA). These are allegedly the only donations ANiS received from outside India. ANiS representatives are explicit on this issue and told me that they had rejected many other options of financial support from the United States and Europe, the reason being that they did not want to give their critics, primarily Hindu fundamentalists, more reason to label them as “agents of the West.”
However, given that ANiS has continuously expanded since its establishment in the 1980s, and given that a set of large projects is already planned for the future, the question of “donations” will remain an important issue. Most of ANiS activities are planned to be more or less self-sustaining with respect to financial matters, but projects as large as the science-van program need of course a large amount of money to render them possible.
There are also some ANiS collaborations with the State of Maharashtra from which they also receive some financial support. For example, ANiS wrote a proposal for the “Cultivation of Science and Technology Temperament in Rural Maharashtra through Vigyan Shodh Programs.” This project comprises several smaller plans. The 36-page-long proposal lists the contents of three subprojects and the places where the programs are to be held (in general all over Maharashtra), and requests government funding amounting to 1,130,000 Rupees. Periodic training camps are held for teachers from primary or secondary schools under the label Vigyan Parichay (science introduction); the teachers are in turn expected to communicate the material to their students. Under the Vigyan Prayog (science application) scheme “awareness” is “cultivated” among the rural population through science demonstrations. Finally the proposal asks for financial support to add a so-called Vigyan Patrika (science newsletter) to ANiS’ monthly magazine Vartapatr in order to “cultivate” scientific temper in magazine readers.
Collaboration With other Organizations
India will become a testing ground for the validity of rationalism for the future of humankind. (Paul Kurtz 2002: 5)
I will now outline ANiS’ collaboration with other Indian rationalist organizations and their international contacts by describing ANiS’ hosting of the large national conference of FIRA in 2007. I address further a change within the rationalist movement from a focus on people who “cheat others in the name of religion” toward people who “cheat others on the basis of false scientific claims.” This latter problem is tackled by rationalists in India, following the lead of rationalists in Western countries, under the label “pseudoscience” and primarily covers issues grouped in the West under the label of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). This issue leads into a discussion of the general relationship of ANiS to likeminded movements and organizations outside of India which will be addressed again in the epilogue.
(p.167) At the national level ANiS’ most important membership is in the umbrella organization FIRA. FIRA comprises more than 50 organizations. The first national conference of FIRA was held in February 1997 at Palakkad, Kerala. The founder-convener of the federation was the oldest and most famous living veteran of the Indian rationalist movement, Basava Premanand. Subsequent conferences where held in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The 6th FIRA conference was organized and hosted by ANiS April 27–28, 2007 in the B. J. S. College of Arts, Sciences & Commerce in Pune. The conference was entitled “Indian Rationalists Movement: Present, Past and Future.”8
The chief guests of the conference in Pune were the cine-artist, senior rationalist, and outspoken atheist Dr. Shriram Lagoo, the vice-chancellor of the University of Pune, Dr. Narendra Jadhav, and of course B. Premanand. Participating organizations included among others: The Satya Shodhak Sabha from Surat, a rationalist
Most delegates attending the FIRA conference were as excited as the anthropologist to have such a large gathering of Indian rationalists (some several hundred) in the one place. The two main aims of the conference were to let delegates from all over India meet and learn what their colleagues were doing, as well as to discuss and support two bills that FIRA plans to promote. The first aim, to exchange information between the different delegates and organizations, was part of the official program, but primarily occurred during the breaks and in long conversations and discussions through the night. One large section of the meeting consisted of the different organizations giving reports on their work, size, and structure. These reports showed that most have similar convictions, are similarly structured and do work very similar to ANiS. Furthermore, it became obvious that the rationalist movement as represented by FIRA is stronger in the south of India (p.169) given that there were only three comparatively small organizations from other parts of the country.
The second major aim of the meeting was making policy with respect to two bills. On the one hand, the executive board of FIRA had prepared a Bill for the Separation of Religion and Politics in India in order to “fulfill the national claim for secularism.” The idea was that this bill should be promoted through politicians well disposed to the assembled rationalist organizations in the various Indian states as well as at the national level. In this respect, discussions took place on what kind of activities could increase influence on political decision-making. The same problems were debated with respect to the second bill, the Maharashtra Eradication of Black Magic, Evil, and Aghori Practices Bill, 2005—commonly known as the Anti-Superstition Bill. Dabholkar reported to the delegates of the other organizations on the problems encountered and achievements made by ANiS toward getting the bill passed in Maharashtra. It was decided that the bill should be translated into several other Indian languages so that it could subsequently also be introduced in other states in the country. Based on this, it was further agreed to strive in the longer term for a single law which should be passed by the central government to cover the whole country. An even more ambitious and far-reaching goal was formulated: to establish a National Anti-superstition Committee in order to promote scientific temper on a larger scale all over India.
Besides these two official aims of the FIRA conference, a third topic emerged as an important conceptual point for the various rationalists organizations: the concept of “pseudoscience” and the shift in focus from “traditional godmen” to the claims and practices of a “new generation of godmen.” With respect to the use of the term pseudoscience in relationship to superstition, it can roughly be said that the moment superstitious beliefs and practices claim to be “scientific” they become labeled as pseudoscience by the Indian rationalists. This goes hand in hand with a more forceful attack on those practices that are usually lumped together in the West under the label Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). A close reading of the large body of magazines from different rationalist organizations which cover more or less the time from the first publication of the magazine Reason in 1930 until the present, I found that the term pseudoscience entered the worldview of the Indian rationalist at the end of the 20th century. From then on it was quickly adopted by intellectuals and is now used more and more among the Indian rationalists. My hypothesis is that the term came to India though the ongoing exchange with rationalist organizations in the West. In Europe and America, a central focus of likeminded organizations is to defend proper science from the threat of pseudoscience. They have engaged extensively over the last few decades with the body of practices summarized as CAM.10 Besides the rejection of CAM, the rejection of (p.170) pseudosciences in India extends also to the sphere of what has come to be known as the “Vedic sciences” in India. Of these, the the rationalists object most strongly to jyōtiṣ-śāstra (astrology) and vāstu-śāstra (traditional Hindu system of architecture). These debates gained momentum at the beginning of the new millennium when the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the University Grants Commission of the BJP Government decided to introduce “Vedic astrology” as a discipline of study at Indian universities. This decision was not only rejected by the Indian rationalist organizations but also by the wider scientific community.
The head of FIRA, Narendra Nayak, is one of the most active rationalists in India and promotes ideas from Western rationalist organizations (see 2006). In his speech Nayak raised the issue that rationalists must realize that they are now dealing with a new generation of godmen and that this should be understood in the context of pseudosciences. Drawing on his own experience in fighting superstition and training rationalists, he elaborated on the importance of two levels of training. At one level, volunteers are to be taught to perform tricks that are similar to those performed by stage magicians (and described in chapter 10). On the evening of the first day of the conference, a competition took place whereby delegates from the different organizations could compete for a prize for the best “miracle” performance. According to Nayak, all this is valuable and important, but he stressed that one should recognize that there is now a new generation of “godmen” who present their false claims in increasingly subtle and complicated ways. In order to expose them, people must learn how to deal with the claims made in the realm of pseudoscience. Nayak explained his concept in the following way:
Pseudoscience is putting up his head everywhere.…We have these pseudo-systems of medicine that are going on in the names of naturopathy, homeopathy, electro-homeopathy, color therapy, aroma therapy, etc. The Supreme Court made a list of 14 of these practices and said that none of these should be promoted as systems of medicine and yet they are promoted in the name of alternative medicine, holistic medicine. Of course when I talk to those who promote this medical system I say it is “whole-istic”—because all these systems are with the intention to make a whole in the pocket of the patient.…Then we have pseudosciences like vāstu [-śāstra], astrology, numerology, all in the latest manifestations. If you don’t want to do astrology from an outside astrologer, no problem, you can go to the computer centre and have a computerized horoscope. They all use the clues of modern science to promote superstition in the name of science.
Nayak's focus was clearly on the realm of public health, healing, and medicine. Representatives of this new generation of godmen include for Nayak people like Ram Dev, Deepak Chopra, or Shri Shri Ravi Shankar's “Art of Living” since, according to Nayak, all of them make wrong and unproven claims that are advocated and sold to the public as scientifically proven.
It is very difficult to fight these people because their aims and objectives are very subtle. Take somebody like Ravi Shankar, with two “Shris” in his name, who claims to have (p.171) solutions to every illness. Do you know that you only have to do his sudarśan kriyā yogā (central component of the “Art of Living” courses offered by Shri Shri Ravi Shankar) and everything goes away?…Another guy is Ram Dev who does all kind of physical fraudulence on the TV and [makes] all sorts of claims. None of these were ever supported by a shred of scientific evidence, all of them are anecdotal. And science does not work through anecdotes, but through systematic studies and double blind trials.
In order to challenge and expose such tricksters, “people have to be trained to ask for evidence and to question the scientific basis of such claims.” According to Nayak, one should try to come up with systematic studies of their most ridiculous claims, which are currently not available. He suggested that the rationalists should try to “win scientists for this fight” since the best way to tackle this new generation of “godmen” is, according to Nayak, not in direct confrontation, but through “pressure groups” consisting of well-known scientists. “That is what our new challenges are in the 21st century: fighting pseudoscientific new godmen alongside the tricksters and charlatans of the usual type.”
Such claims by Nayak were widely discussed during the conference and were also picked up by the media representatives reporting on the conference. The headline of the Indian Express was, for example: “Rationalists target yoga, spirituality, Art of Living. Activists call them ‘pseudoscience’ and say they are superstitions” (2007).
All the other larger meetings and conferences of the pan-Indian rationalist movement I attended (in New Delhi, Palanpur, Pune, Bombay, and Vijayawada) were strikingly similar in structure and content to the FIRA conference. They differed only in size, ranging from local meetings to larger international conferences. The largest conferences held in India were the seven “Atheist Conferences” (held at the Atheist Centre, Vijayawada) and the three “International Rationalist Conferences” (organized by the IRA) which have taken place in India since the 1990s and were all visited by an impressive list of international guests. Such conferences are overwhelmingly attended by already-active rationalists, who themselves had previously attended several such conferences. The speeches given and the miracles performed are known by nearly all of the attendees, since they do not differ greatly from those they themselves give and perform. After a year of fieldwork, I got the impression that the topics and debates, as well as the performances, repeat themselves. My interpretation is that the most important point of these gatherings is not what is said in the speeches, but the fact that they strengthen the cohesiveness of the group. During such meetings, reciprocal encouragement is given and one's own work and worldview is constantly reaffirmed. In that respect, these larger meetings differ from ANiS internal meetings where more controversial issues are raised and practical and relevant decisions are taken.
This interpretation of the larger meetings as having primarily a social function and as providing self-affirmation was also confirmed to me by Indian rationalists as well as members from similar movements in Germany such as the Society for (p.172) the Scientific Investigation of Parasciences (Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften-GWUP). I can confirm from my own visits to their meetings (such as their annual conference in May 2007 in Darmstadt) that the meetings are strikingly similar to those I attended in India. Similar speeches are given, similar miracles are performed, and the atmosphere is comparable. This is another point where overlaps between the general worldview as well as the concrete practice between the Indian and the Western rationalist movement can be found: The historical genealogy outlined in the second part of this book suggests that aspects of these movements can be traced back to the same roots. The interconnections between the rationalists worldwide developed further throughout the 20th century. Today, most of the Indian rationalist organizations have close contact with likeminded movements outside India. On its website, ANiS lists links to other organizations, especially American ones including the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Michael Shermer's Skeptic Society and Skeptic Magazine, and the James Randi Education Foundation (see the epilogue). Yet, in contrast to those Indian rationalists who seek collaboration and close interaction with their Western “colleagues,” Dabholkar and ANiS focus their attention on Maharashtra which can be seen as a sort of modesty in outlook.11 Quite a few other organizations consider themselves to be “national” or even “international,” have attractive homepages, and like to stress their worldwide relations, while their concrete work in India is comparatively low-key or nonexistent. ANiS does not place great emphasis on international contacts, but has set as its main goal “to have a branch of ANiS in each part of Maharashtra.”
The most important activity for ANiS is the staging of programs to spread scientific temper and to eradicate superstition in villages, schools, and colleges. Besides these programs, there are a multitude of other activities conducted by ANiS, which are briefly outlined and discussed in this chapter. All in all their programs, campaigns, and rallies cover a much wider spectrum of themes than their official aims and agenda might suggest. Besides their main lectures and demonstrations with their science-vans, ANiS provides programs such as granth yātrā (book exhibitions), granth prakāśan (book publications), vijñān yātrā (science exhibitions), and ākāś darśan (celestial observation). They also address topics like sex education and (p.173) environmental issues, and they have a program to fight addiction. This chapter aims to provide an overview of this large spectrum.
One of the four main aims of ANiS, is a “constructive criticism of religion” and one example of how this is put into practice is their attempt to abolish animal sacrifice. Every year, the kāḷubāī yātrā takes place in Satara district, an occasion when literally hundreds of thousands of devotees visit the kāḷubāī temple near the city of Wai. The crowds are so large that in 2005 several hundred people died in a stampede. On the main day of the 10-day festival, a large number of animals were sacrificed in honor of the goddess Mata Kalubai. According to ANiS members, some parts of this festival were abolished as a result of their intervention against the “slaughter” of animals. Patil told me: “The limitation of animal sacrifice was only possible because the district collector was involved [District Collectors are officers of the Indian Administrative Service and are the most powerful government officials of the district]. ANiS alone could not have done this.” Another example of how ANiS “constructively” criticizes religious beliefs and practices through campaigns and activities is their campaign to encourage women to cut off their matted hair. In parts of Maharashtra naturally matted hair is believed to be a call from the goddess Yallammā and should lead to dedicating the lives of the girls to the goddess. The removal of matted hair is considered an offence against the goddess that could lead to her exacting revenge. However, according to the rationalists, matted hair is not only wrongly associated with religious powers, but is also unhygienic. They try to convince women to cut their matted hair publicly in order to make a statement against the irrationality of the associated beliefs.
A second central aim of ANiS is to fight the spread of blind belief by tackling directly and publicly “godmen.” These activities of the rationalists are some of the most visible events because news coverage on their debunking and exposing activities is probably their best-known trademark. Beside frequent coverage in the local newspapers, ANiS constantly reports on such activities in its monthly Marathi publication Vartapatr with summaries in its annual reports. Thus, there is no need for me to list all the cases ANiS claims to have exposed. In my fieldwork I collected several reports by ANiS and ABANS; what follows is an ANiS report covering a period of only one year:
1. Curing diseases through prayer. Large advertisements in local dailies announcing that a “Miracle Mela” (festival) would be held at Kasturchand Park, Nagpur by Rev. Miko Huggins, Rev. Roger Jude and Sister Judy Such of U.S.A., along with Rev. Martin Bullhman of Switzerland, claiming that all diseases and physical disabilities, could be cured through prayers. ANiS strongly objected to such advertisements and complained to the police. ANiS also organised a rally with physically handicapped people and challenged the “godmen” to cure them. They could not and so were finally arrested by the police under the Drugs and Magical Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Act, 1954 and a violation of the Medical Practitioners Act 1961 (Maharashtra). 2. Shaikh Farid Baba: He claimed to cure diseases like cancer, blood pressure, diabetes, filariasis, etc. (p.174) through the application of ash. He also claimed to speak all languages and to possess telepathic powers thereby misleading and misguiding the gullible people. ANiS challenged his claims and proved them to be false. The police arrested him under the above listed acts. 3. Pandit Hari Dayal Kalicharan Misra: He claimed to be a renowned astrologer. He claimed to cure people of incurable diseases by suction, by keeping a coin on the navel and used to collect 10,000 to 20,000 Rupees in charges. ANiS had him arrested under IPC 420. 4. Dr. D.P. Pande Maharaj: Claimed to be an avatar of Vishnu; on Thursdays he would collect patients for a cure by acting as if he was possessed by god. ANiS held a strong demonstration against him and also organised a hunger strike when police failed to take action. He was later arrested by police under IPC 143, 323, 506, 34 and under the Drugs and Magical Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Act, 1954. 5. Oundekar Maharaj of Nanded: Through jādūṭo ṇā (a comprehensive term for different kinds of “black magic”) he cheated people by claiming to cure diseases of all kinds. ANiS again succeeded in having him arrested by the police. 6. Lalu Shankar Ustad of Barshi: He claimed to be possessed by Goddess Kali and exploited people, threatening them with dire consequences. ANiS exposed him and removed the related fears of the people. 7. Sachidananda Baba of Nanded: ANiS exposed the claims of this Baba and also those of Kishore Shastri of Nasik and ultimately had them arrested by the police. 8. Gulab Baba: claimed to have divine powers which allowed him to create anything from nothing and to drive a jeep without fuel. ANiS challenged him to prove his claims under fraud-proof conditions. He could not accept the challenge and ran away. ANiS organised a large campaign against this Baba, attended by thousands of people. 9. Prabhu Das Shene: A sorcerer claiming to have mantrik powers; ANiS took him to the police station and had him arrested.
More instructive is to see how such activities are generally exposed. Most of the operations against “godmen” are well planned. Undercover activists visit them and try to document their practices with photos and videos. Once enough evidence has been collected, they approach the police to take action.
With respect to minor issues or incidents which require immediate action, ANiS volunteers do not shy away from acting themselves. On October 18 in the city of Jalgaon, I happened to be sitting with the rationalist Dilip Patil when he received a phone call informing him that other members were attempting to challenge a local healer who had set up a small performance space in a suburb of Jalgaon. By the time he and I had reached the scene, there were already other activists present to inform those just arriving that a woman and her son had arranged a ceremony to strengthen their reputation for having miraculous healing powers; they would “prove” their power by walking over glowing coals. The activists also reported that around two hundred people had gathered, that preparations for the fire-walk were over and the spectacle was about to begin. After a short discussion at a house very close to the gathering, the group agreed to challenge her by walking over the coals themselves and explaining to the crowd that this was possible without any alaukik śaktī (supernatural powers). No sooner had the decision been (p.175) made than they performed the “miracle” themselves. Before anybody had realized what was going on the first rationalists were walking barefoot over the coals. While some of them shouted slogans at the bystanders, others grabbed the microphone and tried to confront the women and her son in front of the crowd. This was, however, not easy, since a very large group of people had gathered, some of whom were not amused by the rationalists’ intervention. People began to debate with the rationalists and the scene became rather chaotic. In an effort to prevent the already heated atmosphere getting worse, the rationalists decided to leave as quickly as they had appeared. They gathered in the nearby house of a member to calm down, to review their actions, and to discuss the level of their success and what should be done differently next time.
I relate this incident to show that some of ANiS’ activities are not only controversial, but they also place members in situations of personal risk since they cannot always predict the reactions of either those they challenge or the audience. Having said this, I must add that such direct confrontations by the rationalists are the exception. The majority of their debunking activities do not target particular “godmen” but are meant to encourage a critical outlook among the people.
In order to teach their activists lokāncyāmadhe jāṇīv nirmā ṇ karūn (creating awareness among the people) and how to conduct the respective programs, ANiS provides workshops where the activists are trained on specific topics. I attended one of these on the topic “how to spread scientific outlook to uneducated and rural kids” with a couple of young ANiS activists. During this workshop 12 male ANiS activists, 4 women from another nongovernmental organization (NGO) (Intervida Awakening Jagriti), and I were taught how to use everyday materials in teaching science and raising scientific temper. A similar, but much larger project in which ANiS is involved (Dabholkar called it a “sister organization”) is called Vivek Vahini (rational teaching). The aim of Vivek Vahini is that activists (primarily members of ANiS) train college students and teachers over a weekend so that they can act as “multipliers” of scientific temper. Vivek Vahini has gained accreditation from the Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra State and works under the chairmanship of all the lecturers and professors from colleges which have joined the program. The idea is that the college students can only initiate change in society and the nation if they themselves change. ANiS claims that they have so far trained between 14,000 and 15,000 schoolteachers:
making students into Thoughtful, Discerning, Judicious, Ethical, Principled, Civilised, Honourable, Rational, Wise and Cultured Citizens, enabling them to put their rational thinking into practice through concrete programmes for the betterment of themselves and society. (ANiS n.d.-d)
So far, I have discussed activities that are more or less directly connected to the general rationalist worldview and the main aims of ANiS. There are also, however, activities that address other issues, for example the Vyasan Muktī Abhiyān (addiction liberation campaign) which is based, as an ANiS member told me, on the (p.176) dictum that a “healthy mind needs a healthy body.” The official ANiS position of ANiS states that drinking alcohol, smoking or chewing tobacco, or taking other harmful drugs are irrational actions since they harm one's health and can end up also harming others.
The focus on issues of addiction is a long-time ANiS interest. On February 7–8, 2004 ANiS organized a conference with the title “Awake and Highlight Ethical and Rational Values in Society” that was attended by the then–Minister for Higher Education of Maharashtra, Laxmanrao Dhoble. The aim was to “counter the increasing unethical and irrational thinking in society”; to indicate the direction that should be taken instead, a resolution was passed. This featured issues like: “I will refrain from any type of addiction” or “While realising the ever-increasing threat of AIDS, it is best to refrain from premateial [sic] sex to gain momentary sexual gratification and to resolve personally to be loyal to one's marital partner” and “I will insist to refrain from any form of violence under any circumstances” (see Girme 2004).
The fact that ANiS conducts drug addiction rehabilitation programs does not mean that all members of ANiS are teetotalers, but most do object to alcohol and cigarettes and some of them told me that this point is one way in which they apply rationalism in their everyday life.12 One leading member of the movement told me in detail how he stopped drinking when he joined ANiS. ANiS also started specific campaigns against the habit of getting drunk on New Year's Eve. It has become, according to the rationalists, more and more common in Maharashtra to celebrate on the December 31 by drinking large quantities of alcohol. In opposition to this, ANiS members conducted a “rally in order to say no to beer and no to drinks” at the end of the calendar year. Their suggestion is that instead of drinking on the December 31, people should animatedly celebrate the January 1 as an inter-caste marriage day, since this is the anniversary of the birth of the social reformer Savitri Phule, the wife of “Mahatma” Phule. ANiS—in common with most other rationalist organizations in India—aims to provide help in conducting non-religious rituals on important occasions such as births, marriages, or deaths (see chapter 14).
There are other ANiS activities which do not connect directly to ANiS’ official aims. One example is that ANiS has also placed environmental issues on their agenda: In their annual report for 2007–2008 it is stated that the eco-friendly immersion of Ganesh statues and further offerings during the Ganesh Utsav (Ganesh festival) has been an important issue for ANiS for more than ten years. The Ganesh (also called “Ganapatti”) festival was introduced and spearheaded by Bal Gangadhar “Lokmanya” Tilak during British rule; today it is one of the most celebrated festivals in Maharashtra. During utsav days, a statue of the god Ganesh is worshipped. Each family has at least one special statue of Lord Ganesh and in addition to these, housing societies, commercial and social organizations, and cities (p.177) as a whole provide larger statues for public worship. On the anant caturdaśi (the last day of the festival), the statue is then finally given over to the water (usually a big river or the sea). The environmental problems that can arise are primarily due to the colored dyes with which the statures are painted. While idols were earlier made of plain clay and colors that caused minimal pollution, ANiS observed that now a variety of synthetic substances are used to make idols. According to them, it is the insoluble plaster of Paris, plastic paints, dyes, adhesives varnish, lead, and mercury which pollute the water when statues are immersed in lakes, wells, rivers, and the sea. Accordingly, ANiS started a petition to forbid the use of toxic paints for statues which are dumped into rivers. In the 2007–2008 annual report they wrote:
A noteworthy development conducive to ANiS' work is that this year the Maharashtra Government Pollution Control Committee has issued orders to provide alternative facilities for this purpose in accordance with Supreme Court directions for controlling pollution. The demand made by ANiS is thus met with concrete action. (2008: 4)
The issue of eco-friendly immersion of Ganesh idols was widely discussed in the newspapers of Maharashtra and elsewhere. Rasika Dhavse reported in the newspaper India Together that ANiS collected “over 35,000 idols across Maharashtra in its donation campaign” (2004). It should be noted that ANiS is not the only group or organization to campaign for alternative forms of immersion or coloring. However, ANiS was criticized because Hindu groups suspected that Ganesh statues might be mistreated by the rationalists or the ceremony might be otherwise blemished. Bhadrapad Shuddha Ekadashi wrote on the homepage of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS):
The outcry of the so-called environmentalists over water pollution during Ganesha festival has been proved wrong by the data published by the Government. As a matter of fact, it has been found that pollution is reduced to a certain extent due to immersion of idols which is nothing but a miracle. Sree Ganesha is controller of the 8 directions and is the deity that reduces the effect of ‘Raja and Tama’ components coming from these 8 directions. [A] festival celebrated to worship such deity, in fact, reduces pollution and the so-called environmentalists should take a note of it before making unrighteous statements under the guise of pollution. (2008: para. 1)
Another example of ANiS’ environmental concerns includes a conference organized in collaboration with the State Forestry Department on January 18–19, 2007 under the slogan “We will not let anybody be killed by snake bite; will not kill any snake and will not violate any law” in Aurangabad. Finally, ANiS works for the prevention of tree-felling and burning of cow dung during the Holi Festival (the “festival of colors”).13
The aim of this chapter was to introduce the organizational structure of ANiS as well as ethnographic impressions of their meetings and activities, and descriptions of their collaborations with other rationalist organizations. We can conclude that it is a comparatively small but extremely active organization primarily based on the voluntary work of its members. On the one hand ANiS has a democratic and decentralized structure, and on the other, the charismatic leadership of Narendra Dabholkar is a central and guiding influence. Central decisions are taken in large State Committee meetings and the way in which these meetings are conducted and their general atmosphere shows that ANiS is not just a loose group of people but a social movement with shared goals and a large pool of dedicated activists willing to devote their time and energy and to live and act based on their shared convictions.
The overwhelming majority of ANiS members are male, and this is true by and large of all other rationalist organizations that I encountered. The average ANiS member is middle-aged; has a family with one, two or no children; lives in a city; and belongs to the Indian middle class. Nearly all ANiS members have completed at least basic education while more than half have a higher degree and work, for example, as teachers, medical doctors, advocates, or journalists. The caste background of the members for the most part reflects the caste structure of Maharashtra, with an underrepresentation of those lumped together under the umbrella of “tribals.”
ANiS is part of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) and collaborates on specific issues with other Indian rationalist organizations and NGOs within Maharashtra, and units within the Maharashtrian government. Collaboration with religious organizations, even in cases of social work where their activities overlap with those of ANiS, is not an avenue that ANiS pursues. ANiS has limited contact with rationalist organizations outside of India. Compared to the exchanges other Indian rationalist organizations have with international rationalist organizations, these ties are not very strong, but are expected to grow in the coming years.
ANiS tries to spread its message influence their fellow Maharashtrians in several ways. There are two monthly ANiS publications: Thought & Action (in English) (p.179) and Vartapatr (in Marathi), as well as a large collection of published books. The sales of these publications together with donations received gives ANiS some financial resources which are, however, minimal compared to the very large amount of voluntary work done by their activists. ANiS’ presence on television is not as common as is the case with representatives of other Indian rationalist organizations, but the ANiS homepage is comparatively large and frequently updated. ANiS is publicly most visible through its campaigns and programs. Furthermore, ANiS is active in the legal field, opposing people they suspect of cheating or exploiting others, especially in the area of “traditional” and “religious” treatment of health issues. Another part of ANiS’ agenda is to address topics like sex education, addiction to alcohol and other drugs, and environmental issues. This demonstrates how all-encompassing the concept of rationalism is for ANiS members. A more detailed analysis of what “rationalism” means for ANiS members is given in the next chapter on the profile and agenda of ANiS.
(1.) Sadhana celebrated its 60th anniversary in June 2008. The so-called progressive weekly was started in 1948 by a noted author, the late Sane Guruji, best known for his novel Shyamchi Aai. Although today it has barely 10,000 subscribers it is well known and respected all over Maharashtra.
(2.) The Dabholkar family is active in different fields of social work. Narendra Dabholkar's elder brother was vice chancellor of Pune University. His son married the daughter of the Indian (secular) philosopher M. P. Rege who also was the co-founder of Indian Secular Society and was working for Bombay University. His younger brother is a psychologist working in Nashik. For more information on Dabholkar and his family see the unpublished thesis of Salunkhe (2007).
(3.) Other rationalist organizations might be slightly stricter in that respect. The head of the IRA Edamaruku told me for example: “most of those who claim that they are Hindu rationalists, most of these people are still in the broader frames of Hinduism. But they are out from most of the religious hangovers of Hinduism. So I would encourage them. But to become a rationalist you have to come out of the purchase of religion as far [as possible]. I would not give them a membership of our organization but encourage them to take the next step.”
(4.) Isabel Laack developed an interesting approach to analyze the role of music with respect to collective identities that she applies to religious groups but which could also be applied to unbelievers (2009).
(5.) The original text (of which the Hindi text sung by ANiS is a translation) is derived from a gospel song by Reverend Charles Tindley and goes:
We shall overcome, We shall overcome, We shall overcome some day
Chorus: Oh deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome someday
We’ll walk hand in hand, We’ll walk hand in hand, We’ll walk hand in hand someday
We shall all be free, We shall all be free, We shall all be free someday
We are not afraid, We are not afraid, We are not afraid today Chorus.
(6.) SCs used to be called “untouchables” (or ati-śūdra) and are now usually called Dalits (oppressed). STs consist of recognized tribal groups. Those that do not fit into any of the recognized categories are summarized under the category OBC. The situation, however, is not as clear as these categories might suggest. In the context of large controversies about different forms of reservations some marāṭhā, for example, demanded OBC status and reservations in Maharashtra.
(7.) The converts from Hinduism to Buddhism were and are still called “Neo-Buddhists” and some were radicalized in the movement of the Dalit Panthers. For a description of a prototypical “conversion” of a Mahar untouchable to Buddhism and Rationalism, see the article “The Birth of a Rationalist” by K. N. Kadam published in The Experience of Hinduism (1988). The editors Eleanor Zelliot and Maxine Berntsen write that the story of Kadam is drawn from a collection of essays he wrote for private circulation entitled “Buddhism as Rationalism and Humanism.” Zelliot and Berntsen go on that they included Kadam's experiences as a child in the volume since they “tell us much about religion in Pune in general in his days. His entrance into the world of rationalism was a process not confined to Untouchables, but shared by a number of high-caste intellectuals in Maharashtra. The atheist strain is not out of place in a volume which is concerned with the reality of the religious scene in Maharashtra” (1988: 280–281).
(8.) A further FIRA meeting took place in 2008 in Ayodhya where the official ANiS representative Deshmuk reported that some 3,000 people gathered from 12 different states of India. Most of the local attendees were from the Arjak Sangh. The Arjak Sangh was founded by Ramswaroop Verma (1923–1998) as a rationalist and humanist organization which emphasizes social equality and is strongly opposed to Brahmanism.
(9.) The most influential rationalist organizations and individuals that did not take part at the FIRA conference in Pune should be listed in here as well. The Bihar Buddhiwadi Samaj (Bihar Rationalist Society) which was founded in 1985 by Dr. Ramendra Nath who is still active, while Dr. Kawaljeet is currently the president of the Society. Together they published the E-book Rationalism, Humanism, and Atheism in Twentieth Century Indian Thought (2007) and produced a considerable number of further publications in Hindi and English. Next is Bharatiya Bigyan O Yuktibadi Samiti (Science and Rationalists' Association of India, SRAI) which was established in 1985 by the charismatic activist Prabir Ghosh and is the most active rationalist organization in Bengal. Ghosh is the only rationalists who wrote a book against a “godwoman” (Mother Teresa & Sainthood, 2006). To my knowledge this organization is not part of FIRA because of the SRAI's political activities with respect to leftist groups in Nepal and northeast India. Then, there is Sanal Edamaruku as the president of the Indian Rationalist Association (IRA). For an overview of rationalist and atheist organizations in India see Hiorth (1998a: 245–266) and Rationalist Society Haryana (2007: 69–93). For rationalists/skeptics in the world see for for example Sofka (2000: 22).
(10.) The focus of likeminded organizations in the West was and is on pseudosciences, especially parapsychology. See Truzzi's article on the controversy between science and pseudoscience (1981) and his various other publications; these are, however, influenced by his split from CSICOP.
(11.) ANiS’ collaboration with and referrals to these groups is not as marked as the international contacts of other organizations and individuals such as Sanal Edamaruku (the head of the IRA in New Delhi), the Atheist Centre (see chapter 8) and the Humanists around Innaiah Nasretti and Gogineni Babu in Hyderabad. Babu was for several years the executive director of the International Humanist & Ethical Union (IHEU) which sees itself as representing the global humanist movement, defending human rights and promoting humanist values worldwide. Founded in 1952, the IHEU is the sole world umbrella organization for humanist, atheistic, rationalist, secularist, skeptical, laique, ethical, cultural, free-thought, and similar organizations worldwide.
(12.) There are several “Secular Organizations for Sobriety” in the United States such as Save Our Selves and Rational Recovery.
(13.) The Times of India wrote that ANiS activists, who “were successful in their campaign against water and noise pollution during Ganapatti and Diwali festivals have now taken upon themselves to discipline Holi celebrations as well. The Pune unit of ANS has appealed to people not to cut and burn trees for Holi. According to ANiS, with the tree cover of the city diminishing fast over the years, every citizen should endeavor to save whatever trees are left, rather than cutting them down to celebrate Holi. T. S. Raskar, working president of ANiS, Pune, told TNN on Friday that they had urged people to undertake cleanliness drives in their areas and to collect the dry garbage littering the streets. ‘The garbage thus collected can be burnt in place of wood.…Thousands of Holi pyres are burned in the city and a staggering number of puran polis are burned in them. They could be collected and distributed among the poor to avoid such criminal waste of food,’ Raskar said. Last year, ANiS collected over 20,000 puran polis in Satara and an equal number in Kolhapur” (2003).