It took the murder on August 20th of an anti-superstition campaigner to remind India of the lot of its faithless. Narendra Dabholkar was on a regular morning stroll, in Pune, Maharashtra, when a pair of hitmen parked their motorbike and shot him dead (mourners paid their respects in traditional fashion, pictured above). He had campaigned for 18 years against those who pretend to use, or offer protection from, the arts of black magic or other religious or mystical harassment. He wanted a law to prosecute such con artists and to protect their victims from extortion and bullying.
A local sect and assorted Hindu right-wingers opposed his law, which Maharashtra’s state government finally agreed to enact, in Mr Dabholkar’s memory, on August 21st. He had received death threats before. The chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan, compared the killing of the rationalist to the murder of India’s most revered figure, saying that “just as Gandhi was killed by those who could not digest his thoughts…[Mr Dabholkar] too was eliminated”.
Who did so remains unclear, though the law he advocated must have threatened lucrative activity of various local groups. Indian atheists generally have an easier time than those elsewhere in South Asia. Prominent figures including the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the current defence and home ministers, plus the chief minister of Karnataka state, are cheerily irreligious. Buddhists, Jains and many Hindus hold no particular belief in God. Humanist groups abound and the taboo against refusing to express religious belief is falling. A survey in May found 81% of Indians were religious, a fall from 87% in 2005.