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The Rediff Special/Amberish K Diwanji
November 04, 2003
How often do we read in the newspapers of†'Child sacrificed to help woman conceive', or 'Human being sacrificed to help man find treasure'? How many of us know that the stories that make it to the newspapers are just the most gruesome ones? How many of us know if the culprits are penalised for murder, or at least culpable homicide? Besides these, there are numerous cases where people are deceived by men (or women) claiming to possess magical powers.
While a criminal act (like murder or theft) can be punished, there is a lacuna in prosecuting those who make false spiritual claims and thereby derive mileage.
It is to overcome this shortcoming that the Maharashtra government is moving to introduce an anti-superstition law.
Currently the bill, the first of its kind anywhere in India,†is with the central government. Once it is cleared by the Centre, it will be tabled in the state legislature.
The organisation behind this bill is the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti, or the Maharashtra Superstition Eradication Committee, led by Dr Narendra Dabholkar, based in Satara, western Maharashtra. This organisation has been demanding such a law for 14 years now. In response, legislator P G Dasturkar had introduced a private member's bill against superstition in the Vidhan Parishad (the legislative council, upper house of the bicameral Maharashtra legislature), in 1995.
Dabholkar pointed out that it has taken the Maharashtra government eight long years to move the bill to its present stage, for scrutiny by the central government. While he hopes the bill will be passed in the winter session of the state legislature next month, a source in Mantralaya (the seat of the Maharashtra government) said it was doubtful if the Centre would clear the bill so soon.
The source explained that parts of the bill involve aspects of the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code, all of which require central government clearance. The Centre is examining the bill to see if any of its provisions clash with existing laws and, if so, to iron out the differences. Such a process takes time, which is why it will be a few months before the bill is sent back to Maharashtra for the state government to table in the legislature.
Dabholkar, however,†is confident that once tabled the bill will muster support. "This bill has the support of the legislators; it has cut across party lines," he said. "Over the years, I have met different leaders [from various political parties] and all have promised their support. So passing the bill in the Maharashtra house will not be difficult."
The difficulty, actually, is in defining 'superstition' or, rather, distinguishing 'blind faith' from 'faith'. The dividing line is thin, often blurred. Dabholkar acknowledged this and said that to overcome this difficulty, his organisation had listed 25 or so specific acts that should be listed as punishable.
"The key point is that we are not against any belief or superstition; we are against the use of such superstition or belief to cheat people," he explained. So far, he said, the Indian Penal Code lacked any section that punished people for cheating in the name of belief. The new bill will plug this loophole.
Additional Chief Secretary Suresh Kumar from the social justice ministry of the Government of Maharashtra, under whose purview the anti-superstition bill falls, said it will be called the Jadu Tona (Magical Powers) and Similar Anti-Superstition Opposition Bill.
"How does one define andha shraddha [blind faith]?" asked Suresh Kumar. "It is very difficult, because one man's faith is another man's blind faith or superstition."
Nothing proves this more than the recent controversy involving Union Minister of State for Human Resources Sanjay Paswan, who participated in shaman rites in Bihar, including walking on burning coals. When grilled by journalists, an angry Paswan asked how his belief was different from that of people who flocked to the likes of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Mata Amritanandamayi in search of solace!
Over the years, questions have also been raised about Satya Sai Baba, who commands a cult following numbering millions, but who, his critics say, pulls off simple tricks to claim supernatural powers.
Paswan even tried to give the controversy a caste twist by claiming that what the dalits and lower castes believe in is termed blind faith whereas what the upper castes believe in is considered faith.
In order to tackle this very delicate question, the anti-superstition bill will not define superstition (or blind faith). Instead, it will list some 30 specific acts involving deceit and fraud that will qualify as superstition and specify that the person carrying out these acts can be jailed.
"If we try to make the bill too all-encompassing, then it will never get passed in the assembly where so many believers of so many godmen exist," explained Dabholkar. "So, rather than say this or that constitutes blind faith, what we are aiming to say is that to cheat someone by claiming supernatural powers is an act of superstition that is punishable by law."
Former professor Prabha Purohit, a member of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti, has an easier definition. "To provide [religious] solace is an act of faith, but to do so for monetary gains is deceit," she said.
Yet, even on the question of monetary gains, the bill will have to tread carefully. Perhaps the best example is astrology. In India, little is done without consulting an astrologer: marriages, caesarean births (a famous industrialist had doctors perform a caesarean operation on his wife on the high seas, so that his child would be born at the perfect location at the most auspicious time and its stars would be just perfect!). Politicians are notorious for their faith in astrology: Cabinet expansions, swearing-ins, all are decided in consultation with an astrologer.
Dabholkar acknowledged the hold astrology has on Indians when he said that if the bill had listed astrology as an act of superstition punishable by law, chances were the legislature would never pass it. "Let us do what we can today and make progress slowly," he said.
Additional Chief Secretary Kumar said the bill will ask the State to promote a scientific temperament (as spelt out in the Constitution's Directive Principles) and a committee will be set up to ensure that the fight against superstition is making progress.
He pointed out that the bill became necessary when the state found it difficult to prosecute charlatans for religious fraud. "We could prosecute them under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code for cheating, fraudulent activity, theft, etc, but there is nothing saying that making false claims is a punishable offence," he pointed out.
The Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti has handled many such cases of fraudulent claims; the details are published in its monthly, Andhashraddha Nirmulan Vartapatra. One such case involved a Vani Baba who claimed that he could use supernatural powers to find buried idols. When members of the committee confronted him, he confessed that he would bury the idols himself before 'finding' them.
Hopefully, the next time someone claims he has magical powers, you can not only challenge him but also jail him.
YOUR SAY: Does India need an anti-superstition law?
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh