The assassination of rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar in Pune yesterday and the fierce protests in its wake forced the Democratic Front government to swing into action yesterday and take decisions that it has stalled for many years.
Within 28 hours of Dabholkar’s death, the state government cleared an ordinance to push the anti-superstition law that the slain man had championed for 18 years, without success.
Unprecedented public reaction to the killing in the form of several street protests, morchas and dharnas forced the leadership to work overtime and approve the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Ordinance, to replace a bill that had been in the backburner for eight years.
How the hours passed
Aug 20, 7.30 am: Dr Dabholkar is shot dead by unknown assailants at Pune while he is on his morning walk. News spreads like wildfire across the state, and is received with disbelief and outrage. People start pouring into the streets, sobbing, shouting slogans.
1 pm: Actors and social workers gathered at Shivaji Mandir in Dadar to protest the gruesome murder. Similar protests were staged in Pune. Reactions started pouring in from Satara, and the market was shut down. Silent protests and even jail bharo agitations followed in Ichalkaranji, Kolhapur, Nashik, Aurangabad and Nagpur.
2-4 pm: CM Prithviraj Chavan, who was in Kolhapur, cancelled his scheduled engagements and rushed to Satara with his cabinet colleagues. Deputy CM Ajit Pawar, who was in Mumbai, also reached the district for the rationalist’s last rites.
Home Minister R R Patil was in Mantralaya till late in the afternoon, from where he went to Pune to take a chopper to reach Satara in time for the last rites. He had a word with his deputy Satej Patil and Cooperation Minister Harshwardhan Patil, who also reached Satara.
>> At Satara, angry protesters gheraoed the CM’s vehicle. When Chavan arrived at Dabholkar’s home, the slain activist’s wife reminded him how her husband would spend hours waiting for an audience with him.
>> Chavan and his cabinet colleagues returned to Mumbai late at night, only to be greeted by news of the angry protests in the streets.
>> The statewide unrest prompted NCP Chief Sharad Pawar to intervene. He is believed to have spoken to deputy CM Ajit Pawar, R R Patil, and PWD Minister Chhagan Bhujbal.
The NCP’s urgency to push for an ordinance was prompted by the fact that it has a significant presence in western Maharashtra, and Dabholkar’s death could result in a serious backlash from its support base. The NCP’s panic was palpable in the press release it issued even before official confirmation of the decision had been received.
Aug 21, 10 am: The state intelligence department formally briefed Chavan and Patil about the statewide outrage. They were also informed about possible protests during the day. Angry reactions were reported from 17 districts across the state.
11 AM: At the cabinet meeting, Industries Minister Narayan Rane is said to have lamented the law and order situation in Pune. R R Patil responded that various issues related to his department stagnated once they reached the ‘higher’ level, indirectly taking a swipe at Chavan. The files relating to fresh recruitments, proposals relating to security were stuck for six months at a time. ‘I don’t have the power to transfer police officers. How am I to perform with such constraints upon me?’ he was heard grumbling.
>> Other ministers interrupted Patil, asking how a man of Dr Dabholkar’s stature could become the unwitting victim of a daylight murder. Patil responded that activists lack threat perception. He also admitted that his department had never sensed there was any danger to his life - his colleagues told him not to make such admissions in public.
12 pm: PWD Minister Chhagan Bhujbal broke in, raising his voice to complain that the murder had given the state a bad name. ‘We have lost face. It has sent a wrong signal. Now, the ordinance should at least be passed. If any legal hurdles exist, let them be solved right now. If necessary we can change the wording of the law and frame a new bill,’ he exhorted the cabinet.
1 PM: Hours after the meeting was adjourned, orders were issued to the social justice department to work on the ordinance. Principal Secretary
R D Shinde swung into action with a series of meetings with officials from the law and judiciary department. He directed his officials to get it all done on the same working day.
6 pm: Officials of the social justice department went to Shanmukhananda Hall to get approval from the CM. His approval was taken for the ordinance as well as the cabinet resolution also. Later, the file was routed through departments of law and judiciary, parliamentary affairs, the chief secretary’s office, and finally the principal secretary to the CM. Most of the officials from concerned departments stayed back at Mantralaya to complete the formalities.
The planned law
The new measure will empower the government to bring under its ambit:
> Social and religious evils
> Human or animal sacrifices
> Rituals to drive out evil spirits or ensure a male progeny, perpetrated by self-styled godmen, witchcraft and wizardry, often cheating the gullible public.
In the offing
By the end of the working day, all the approvals had been obtained from relevant departments, and the files were ready to be dispatched to Raj Bhavan for the governor’s final seal of approval. The governor is expected to officially promulgate the ordinance by afternoon today.
Two significant changes have been made to the earlier bill – Section 5, which suggests punishment for ‘physical and mental torture’ was removed after Minority Development Minister Naseem Khan pointed out that this could interfere with proceedings during Muharram. Section 13, which advocated penalties for companies or trusts that sell ‘miracle cures,’ has also been scrapped.