But scientists like Narendra Nayak, then an assistant chemistry professor at the Kasturba Medical College in Mangaluru, continued conducting demonstrations on the day after. In the evening, his lab lost electricity supply. All of a sudden, some members of his audience pelted him with stones, giving him scalp wounds. He spent the night in hospital. Later, he said, he discovered that his attackers were attached to a right-wing organization.
“They had been part of the crowd and were asking all kinds of questions. I was engrossed in my demonstration while they had been preparing the attack,” said Nayak, who is now president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations.
It was not the first attack on a rationalist, and would not be the last. Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in August 2013. In subsequent years, other well-known critics of superstition such as Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were murdered.
This is not how it was supposed to be. Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar both felt that political freedom needed the protections of scientific modernity. Despite their differences, they were united in their adherence to reason and critical thinking. “Stories of Gods are cooked to make you into fools,” Ambedkar said, “and you all are trapped in all these kinds of false stories.”
Nehru, entranced by India’s ancient civilisations, had written influential books about Indian history, but warned that glorifying the “golden past” was a “foolish and dangerous pastime.” His government’s Scientific Policy Resolution, finalised in 1958, underscored the importance of “encouraging individual initiative for the acquisition and demonstration of knowledge, and for the discovery of new knowledge.” A couple of decades later, a Scientific Temper Statement signed by scientists and intellectuals stressed, once again, the value of reason in a culture where faith seemed to dictate so much of social life. The signers hoped for this statement to bring about “a second Indian Renaissance.”
Some religious critics condemned idol worship itself as the carrier of superstition and Brahmanical hegemony. In 1953, the Tamil social activist and politician EV Ramaswamy, known as Periyar, led an agitation to break statues of Ganesh, or Pillayar, as he is often known in Tamil Nadu. “We have to eradicate the gods who are responsible for the institution which portray us as sudras, people of low birth, and some others as Brahmins of high birth,” he told his followers. “We have to break the idols of these gods. I start with Ganesa because it is he who is worshipped before undertaking any task.” When Ambedkar’s Dalit followers began to convert to Buddhism, he asked them to take 22 vows, one of which was: ‘I shall have no faith in Gauri, Ganapati and other gods and goddesses of Hindus nor shall I worship them.’
Yet republican ideals never really dented hyper-religiosity. By 1995, the convictions of two of India’s most influential anti-caste revolutionaries were largely forgotten. That September day, in homes and temples, pools of milk stagnated under idols; rivers flowed down the drains. Among believers, there was a febrile excitement. The miracle had evoked some sort of shared sensus divinitatis, one that people could see, and recreate for themselves, in real time. Regardless of rational explanations, how could eyes lie?
In the aftermath of the phenomenon, terms such as ‘mass hysteria’ and ‘religious frenzy’ cropped up frequently. Vasant Sathe, a former cabinet minister and an avowed rationalist,
said “In the age of computers, it is an insult to human intelligence to say that the gods are drinking milk.”
A scientists’ petition urged educated people to take on the responsibility to prevent a “form of primitive obscurantism… at the dawn of the twenty-first century.” But such appeals had equal and opposite reactions. The former electoral commissioner TN Seshan denounced them as “pseudo scientists.” Kamala Ganesh, then reader in cultural anthropology at Bombay University, said in an interview to The Times of India: “During every election, paeans are sung to the rationalism of the electorate, and yet the word ‘superstitious’ is now being used to characterise the believers. A godman performing tricks, I believe, is quite different from the present phenomenon, which has much more to do with belief than with magic tricks.”