India's anti-superstition campaigner killed by gunmen

MUMBAI (AFP) - A leading Indian rationalist, who was campaigning for a law to eradicate superstition in a country famed for its mystics and gurus, was shot dead on Tuesday, police said.

Two gunmen on motorbikes fired at Dr Narendra Dabholkar, a medical doctor who had faced accusations of being anti-religion, as he was taking his morning walk in the western city of Pune, its police chief said.

"He was shot dead this morning, our investigations are on," Pune police commissioner Gulabrao Pol told AFP, adding that no suspects have yet been identified.

Dr Dabholkar founded more than two decades ago the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti - the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith - that aimed to change mindsets of India's deeply superstitious population.

Dr Dabholkar, known for his campaigns to promote progressive and scientific thought, had for several years been lobbying for Maharashtra state's parliament to pass legislation banning superstition and black magic.

Two years ago, in an interview with AFP, he rejected critics' charges that the bill was anti-religion.

"In the whole of the bill, there's not a single word about God or religion. Nothing like that. The Indian constitution allows freedom of worship and nobody can take that away," he said.

"This is about fraudulent and exploitative practices," he said.

Over the years, Dr Dabholkar had also challenged some of India's "godmen", self-styled Hindu ascetics who have huge followings, over their claims of "miracles" performed. He has also campaigned against animal sacrifices sometimes used during religious rituals.

Dr Dabholkar, whom Indian media said was aged 71, was editor of a magazine called "Sadhana" or spiritual practice, devoted to the propagation of progressive thought.

India's gurus and spiritual leaders play an integral role in the daily lives of thousands of Indians seeking a pathway to happiness and enlightenment.

Superstitious beliefs are still widespread in the fast-developing and officially secular country, where Hinduism dominates but a diverse range of ethnic groups and religious practices co-exist.

Maharashtra Home Minister R. R. Patil condemned the shooting and said those responsible would be brought to justice, media reports said.

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