Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and criticism of Religion in India – A Neglected Ethnography


Despite its publication and release in 2012, both the book entitled, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and criticism of Religion in India, and the theme it attempts to capture stand understated today. Johannes Quack, ethnologist of Religion Studies from Frankfurt, began work on the book as his Master’s thesis project in 2009, which was released in the market as a published book in 2012. The book comprises chapters that help readers proceed from a historical understanding of the idea of ‘rationality’, to Quack’s analysis of the ethnographic accounts of one of the largest Indian Rationalist Organisations, active even today.

When I say that the theme of the book remains understated, several of you might disagree since many accounts narrate the story of an ‘India’ which followed a ‘secular’ and ‘rational’ path, the Constitution of this land urging her citizens to develop scientific temper as a fundamental duty, several secular movements which shaped the nationalist struggles in India leading to her independence from the colonial rule etc. However, since we are collective witnesses to a time when the complexities of ‘rationality’, ‘secular’, ‘science’ and other such terms belonging to the same family stand unabashed and naked in front of us, I think it may be helpful for a piece of work of this nature to be part of our memories – collective or individual. Moreover, primarily as a student of the social sciences and humanities, I believe such books will reorient us to the pasts we seemingly fought to enter into the post-80s turn in languages, art, literary criticism, social theory etc. which is broadly and controversially known as the ‘postmodern’ turn.

In the introduction of the book, Quack briefly mentions that even after the formation of India as a nation-state, in comparison to the West – she remains representative of a land where religion dominates over all other ways of life. Alongside removing the veil of this (mis)understanding of India significantly formed by the colonial forces, the book is an ethnography of the rationalist organisation in India, the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (Organisation for the Eradication of Superstition in Maharashtra, also known as ANiS). Even though I knew of this organization having lived in Pune as a school student, it became embedded in my memory especially after we lost its head, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar on August 20, 2013, while he was out for his morning walk. The book has mentioned Dabholkar, and includes many of his quotes. On reading it today, the book undoubtedly gives a glimpse of his life and beliefs, especially related to his work amidst people, and of the probable reasons behind why he lost his life.

In the beginning of the book, Quack locates the advent of Indian rationalist movements with popular historical names such as Gora, Periyar and Jyotiba Phule, whose social reform movements mark the 19th century pre-independent India. He mentions that ANiS also acknowledges the contributions of Pandita Ramabai, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi etc. to the development of scientific temper as a duty for Indian citizens. Alongside these names, the organization repeatedly remembers, refers to and brings to its conversations, saints who pioneered the Bhakti traditions in Maharashtra, and Babasaheb Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism. At this point, an interesting contradiction in the organisation’s beliefs is observed, which Quack also acknowledges in his pages. On the one hand the organisation’s understanding of rationality is located under the larger ambit of 19th and 20th century secular movements in pre-independent India, which adhered to ideas of western secularism observing a strict division between the church and the state. On the other hand, it called upon these “religious’’ movements which had some or the other notion of ‘God’ attached to it. Quack understands this contradiction as a ‘strategy’ to develop relations with the people whom the rationalists want to ‘disenchant’, and also emphasizes that such a rhetoric helps this organization position itself outside the ambit of discourses of rationality that came directly from the ‘West’. However, this contradiction could have been a point where Quack could explore the essence of the ‘movement’ which the organization upholds. In 2013, after Dabholkar’s murder, the organization held many events in Pune, some of which included film screenings on saints who belonged to the Sufi and Bhakti traditions from the Medieval times. During those discussions, the organisers emphasized that the engagement and admiration of the rationalists towards such movements conjures at a political level. This is because some of the important issues addressed by the rationalists, which include discrimination on the basis of social categories, extortion in the name of God and holy scriptures, anti-brahmannical emphases on lived realities etc. match with those of these movements. Therefore, in those events, the activists had emphasized that for many years they had imagined a solidarity between these movements and the rationalist movement they pioneered. They also evoke these movements and saints on their online portals, publications and grass-root level activities vehemently. Indeed, it is possible that these evocations are as much strategic as a call for a mutual political recognition for a world with mutually developed characteristics. It is also possible that somehow Quack was unable to catch the depth of such contradictions in his ethnographic endeavors, but he could explore it in other ways and arrive at the political side of this organization, which the book overall lacks. Moreover, in the epilogue, Quack invokes groups which may be critical towards the stances of such an organization, and names scholars like Ashis Nandy, Dipesh Chakravarty and others who he counts under the broader ambit of ‘postcolonial’ scholars, who argue against the rationalists for propagating ‘western imperialism’, without acknowledging other kinds of histories and knowledge systems, and slyly imposing the rational mode of knowing, on the general masses. Till the end of the book though, readers do not find out why and how this happens. Perhaps a further exploration of the kind of political movement and social change aimed by the organization through this contradiction could help answer this question. The book strikes a great balance between concrete reality and the abstract, to formulate new ideas. One of the best instances of this gets portrayed when Quack acknowledges the internal conflicts between the members of the organization. Like any other movement, this movement comprises both moderate and extremist members. Dabholkar and other moderates believe that as long as religion and faith do not harm and exploit, the rational and scientific side should not interfere and impose itself on people. They believe in the ‘secular’ that the Indian Constitution supposedly adopted, respecting the existence of all religions equally. The extremists on the other hand, propagate scientific rationality as a life ethic, and dismiss the notions of religion and faith altogether. These conflicts are then closely analysed to critique relevant social theorists like Max Weber and Charles Taylor, to finally express that there are different ‘modes’ of unbelief, which these theorists have knowingly or unknowingly shoved under a uniform umbrella of ‘secular’ and ‘modern’ without studying the complexities of these categories. Alongside the general philosophical contradictions and organizational conflicts, Quack is successful in informing his readers about the organisation’s most ardent rivals, i.e., the ‘Hindu Nationalist’ groups. The rivalry remains till date, and gets stoked with every scientific demonstration or act by the organization as they comprise parodies of and attacks on dhongi babas who trick people with their supernatural powers, claimed to have attained directly by God, and exploit the general masses. An important chapter in the book also marks the continuation of these ideas which led to the drafting and proposal of the Maharashtra Anti-Superstition Bill, which saw its passage into law only after and because of Narendra Dabholkar’s death in September, 2013.

The theme of the book also evokes questions on the general idea of science. With the horrors of the 20th century, especially carved by the Stalinist reign and the Second World War, an overall critique towards the arrogance of scientific rationality was born in various fields such as art, literature, social sciences and languages. Maybe with a story of an organization which is trying to apply the tenets of scientific rationality – albeit with a few characteristics changed due to the nature of the organization – one can rethink the understanding of science when applied and thought for the sake of a movement at a very local level, and also when directly attached to both policy and polity. Even though there are instances wherein some readers may have to force themselves through pages due to some nuanced ethnographic details, Quack has been successful in presenting a telling narrative of the people he lived with and knew. This book also helps in understanding social movements that are small-scale, evokes many images from the demonstrations, events and interactions with the audiences of the rationalists, and is especially recommended for readers of non-fiction and the student communities at all stages.

Anamika Das is currently pursuing her MPhil in Social Sciences from the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Her current research interests include women’s movements as a whole, with a focus on the post 2010 women’s movements on gender and sexuality in India. Email id: [email protected]



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