In 1994-95, as part of a national campaign, I travelled through hundreds of Indian villages, mofussil towns and cities, explaining how miracle-mongers make sly use of chemicals and herbs and exploit the ignorance of common people about certain natural phenomena to fool the gullible and win their unquestioning devotion.
A British TV crew led by legendary producer Robert Eagle followed our team for days and documented our work and the people's response in the now famous TV documentary, Guru Busters. Unknown people cheered us and supported us through our 18-month campaign. That was 20 years ago.
Later in 2008, during a TV appearance to counter superstitions, a famous tantric claimed on live TV that he could kill anyone with his magic chants. I offered him the chance to kill me with his tantric powers. He tried for more than an hour and then stopped, claiming that I (an atheist!) was protected by some powerful gods. He was given a second chance and his believers sat chanting and performing seemingly menacing rituals with fire, mustard and some red herbs spread around a voodoo doll, presumably me.
At the end of it all, I was still laughing while the tantric sat and sweated in the shadows behind the cameras. The programme was viewed by several million people. I did not get a single hate mail then. Everywhere I went, the crowds encouraged me. That was seven years ago.
That was a time when in different parts of the country, several brilliant rationalists emerged. The new wave of rationalism emboldened thousands of youngsters to speak out openly. They took to the internet and social media to accelerate the spread of critical and reformist thinking.
Those days you could criticize the holy cows of Indian society without fear of guns or goons.
When the Church pushed a miracle story for the beatification of Mother Teresa — it claimed that a woman Monica Besra was cured of tumour when the missionary's photo was placed on her stomach — I provided evidence publicly that she had got the growth surgically removed before the claim was made.
When Sathya Sai Baba died at the age of 80, I pointed out how his own prediction that he would live up to 96 had gone wrong.
So, when did things start changing? When did we begin persecuting and assassinating those who promote the spirit of critical inquiry?
Six years ago, I had proved that the miracle of a "crying Jesus" was caused by a leaky drain. The faithful crowd then stopped going there to collect the "holy water". But when I came out of a TV studio after a panel discussion on this "miracle", I was threatened by men armed with sticks. This was followed by death threats and several complaints of blasphemy against me. I heard about an online conspiracy to have me killed by a cell mate if I was arrested. I left briefly for Europe on a lecture tour. I find it dangerous to return to India, and live in Europe now.
Narendra Dabholkar, my friend and fellow campaigner, invited me to return to India and even promised to protect me if I went to Mumbai. Four days later I heard about his assassination. Dabholkar's and Govind Pansare's murder as well as the recent killing of M M Kalburgi have striking similarities. I hope investigations go into all the important questions.
Rationalists do an important job in a society such as ours by liberating millions from irrational fears. They are helping build a modern, civilized, responsible India.
They are aiming to create a society where people can rise above religion, caste and gender and become more humane. Guns cannot stop rationalists.
I am inspired and charged by the encouraging calls and mails I receive from all over India. If the defenders of unreason try to stop the rise of rationality, others have to make sure that the achievements of our civilization are defended and fortified.
The end of reason would mean a return to the Dark Ages. We can't afford that.
(The author is the president of Rationalist International)
Originally published in THE TIMES OF INDIA