NEW DELHI — The killing of an Indian crusader against superstition and religious charlatans prompted hundreds of protesters to shut down a city near Mumbai on Wednesday as a group of Indian scientists decried an "atmosphere of intolerance and anti-science attitude" that could undermine development.
Police were hunting for two unidentified men suspected of firing four shots at Narendra Dabholkar as he was taking a morning walk Tuesday in Pune. A witness reported seeing the assailants flee on a motorcycle. Police released a sketch of one suspect and said the two were believed to be in their 20s.
Dabholkar, a 67-year-old doctor-turned-activist, had been receiving death threats for years since he began traveling by public buses to hundreds of villages around Maharashtra state to lecture against superstitions, religious extremism, black magic and animal or human sacrifice, according to his friend and fellow activist, Deepak Girme.
"He wanted to expose the people who cheat the poor in the name of gods, who promise false cures for cancer or do black magic to perform so-called miracles," Girme said. "He would say he was a medical doctor but that superstition was a bigger disease causing a lot of harm, especially to the poor and the gullible."
Hundreds of students and activists marched through the streets of Pune to protest the killing. Some carried banners in the local Marathi language reading "You can kill a person with a bullet, but you can't kill his thoughts" and "We are all Dabholkar."
Dabholkar had refused to join any political party and, while Hindu by birth, eschewed its traditional teachings. Instead, he believed that the best people could do for society was to "live in harmony with each other and use your brain," Girme said.
Dabholkar's body was cremated Tuesday night in his home town of Satara, where he ran a clinic for alcoholics.
Responding to the public outcry, Maharashtra's government said it would pass long-stalled legislation that Dabholkar had worked on to ban religious exploitation and fraudulent medical workers. Activists and scientists urged the federal government also to pass a bill.
Girme said Dabholkar's organization, the Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Committee, would continue its work in lecturing about the benefits of scientific attitudes and social cooperation and lifting women up from religious subjugation.
Physicist Yash Pal, former chairman of the University Grants Commission, said that Dabholkar's killing amounts to an attack on reason and science and that India is jeopardizing its future by allowing superstition and fanaticism to grow.
"One of the objectives of development should be the development of a scientific temper," he said.
A group of several Indian scientists, including Yash Pal, issued a statement Wednesday saying that attack on Dabholkar underlined an ongoing struggle within India between religious fundamentalists and voices of secular and scientific reason.
"The atmosphere of intolerance and anti-science attitude is sweeping the Indian subcontinent," the scientists said in a statement. "There is a deliberate plot to push our society towards fanaticism."
India is well known for its cacophony of cultures, with designations by caste, clan, tribe or religion, including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. There are hundreds of languages spoken by its 1.2 billion people, with no true common language.
Countless places of worship, from lavish and enormous compounds to tiny altars that can be packed in a car trunk, can be found across India.
The country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, deliberately made secularism the keystone of the constitution, and in 1958 the parliament unanimously passed a "Scientific Policy Resolution" to encourage scientific questioning and discovery.
But as India's growing prosperity and its population boom have expanded the gap between rich and poor, many have reinvested in religion as they seek comfort, security or better fortune in the future.
Politicians often offer prayers or consult astrologists before important elections, and Hindu yogis famous by TV can amass millions of dollars in donations.
"Half of India is hungry, half is uneducated. These babas and gurus who preach all this humbug, it doesn't translate into betterment of society," Girme said. "It's like the Dark Ages in Europe."
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