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The fight against superstition gathers momentum

By Nikita Puri
October 19, 2017 14:13 IST
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Though the list of superstitious beliefs is long, often dissolving distinctions of class, caste, religion and education, Karnataka's anti-superstition bill is seen as a big step ahead.
Nikita Puri reports from Bengaluru.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

 Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

It took a 'talking' bird for Edgar Allan Poe to write The Raven. All it took for its crow cousin to become the subject of news in Karnataka was its deciding to sit atop Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's car last year.

The crow would weigh heavily on the chief minister's fortunes, television channels predicted. The prediction was repeated earlier this year when a crow's dropping fell on Siddaramaiah's white dhoti.

This time, a headline read: 'Siddaramaiah haunted by crows.'


With reports centred on the misfortunes-to-come, Siddaramaiah had to make a statement. 'Crow is just a bird. But a section of the media, banking heavily on superstition, said a crow on my car was a bad omen which may cost me heavily. They made a mountain out of a molehill then.'

'When I was in Kerala, a crow pooped on my dhoti, and the headlines screamed that Siddaramaiah will surely lose power this time,' the chief minister said.

Fighting superstition has been one of Siddaramaiah's pet projects ever since he came to power in 2013.

The same year, the state announced The Evil, Inhuman and Superstitious Practices Prevention Bill. But it was only last fortnight that the Karnataka cabinet finally cleared the Bill, with a few touch-ups and under a new name: The Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill, 2017.

Some feel that the bill, drafted with suggestions from an expert panel from Bengaluru's National Law School of India University, has been watered down in its new avatar: Practices such as vastu shastra, astrology and numerology have been kept out of its purview.

But as Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, says, "Something is better than nothing."

The road for the draft Bill, to be introduced in the legislature during the winter session in November, has only been uphill. This comes as no surprise considering how superstitions are a profound part of even urban value systems.

Sample this: While filing their nomination papers in 2013, a majority of candidates vying for a place in the Karnataka assembly used only either blue or green ink; black and red, they believed, bode ill.

One of these ministers swears by his fur hat to woo Lady Luck.

Some were advised by astrologers to wear four or six layers of clothing over a pre-decided colour of undergarments, while one of them was asked to file his nomination in the nude!

Though the crow that hassled Siddaramaiah and the naive black cat (which supposedly unleashes bad luck on unsuspecting folk) remain outside the purview of this Bill, they do highlight practices not rooted in science.

"There are, of course, harmless superstitions that all of us believe in. The idea is to tackle the harmful ones that enable exploitation and oppression," says Alok Prasanna Kumar of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Kumar was part of the team that helped draft the Bill in 2013.

If the Bill is passed, it will outlaw black magic done in search of treasure, tantric acts that include physical and sexual assault, assailing people under the pretext of exorcism and creating panic in the name of ghosts.

It will also outlaw rituals involving self-mutilation, such as piercing jaws and tongues with rods (locally known as baibiga), and the practice of rolling on food left over by Brahmins in some of Karnataka's temples.

While it will allow pujas, yatras and parikramas at religious places, it will ban occult practices to treat dog and snake bites, or other illnesses.

For years, Bengaluru-based health care professional Sushi Kadanakuppe has had patients approaching her in advanced stages of oral cancer, by which time they are often beyond help.

Rituals directed by traditional healers and astrologers had kept these patients from seeking scientific, professional help. This, she says, will change.

Another positive, says Kadanakuppe, is that the Bill "seeks to address indignities against women such as ostracism during menstruation and pregnancy, or parading them naked in the name of worship."

Women, in fact, are a targeted majority by those peddling superstition. Nayak recounts the time a 25-year-old computer science graduate approached him in Mangaluru about an astrologer. "When his solutions didn't solve her problems, she was told they'd vanish if she slept with a Brahmin," says Nayak.

When she seemed upset, the astrologer reportedly tried to placate her by saying, "There's no lust here, he'll only be helping you. And don't worry, I can arrange the Brahmin for you."

If and when the Bill is passed, it will outlaw such exploitative practices.

A day after writer and rationalist Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi's murder in 2015, Nayak had stood alongside journalist Gauri Lankesh in a protest march in Bengaluru.

During that event he had asked ministers how many rationalists would have to be killed before a law came into place.

A month after Lankesh was murdered, Nayak says, "It's ironical that this bill is going to the cabinet after Gauri was killed."

In many ways, the assassination of rationalists and activists like Narendra Dabholkar (2013), Govind Pansare (2015) and Kalburgi (2015) cemented the route to outlawing superstitious practices.

While the Karnataka anti-superstition bill is still a step away from becoming law, Maharashtra already has such a law -- the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, which was originally drafted by Dr Dabholkar. This law was passed just days after Dr Dabholkar's murder.

In Karnataka, Lankesh's assassination was the trigger for the state government to pass the bill just a few months before the assembly elections are scheduled to be held.

"Unfortunately, it took such sacrifices for it to happen, but that's how politics works in our country," says Dr Dabholkar's son Hamid, who is also a member of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, the rationalist organisation his father founded.

There is evidence that laws such as these work as a deterrent.

Earlier this year, the Maharashtra police arrested Rameshsuresh Bagal, a self-styled baba who had been selling palm-sized stones with a face painted on it using ash and sindoor, saying the 'divine' stone could cure anything, including schizophrenia.

Bagal's arrest is one of the 400-odd cases registered in the state since the law was enacted.

Till recently, people in Maharashtra had been flocking to 'Tomato baba', a godman who passed off tomato juice as a magical remedy. Cases of hospitalisation here were growing as people had discontinued their medication for chronic condition, waiting for the baba's tomato cure to work.

This man shut shop when he heard there was going to be a police complaint, says Hamid Dabholkar.

"If such a law existed in Haryana, that lady wouldn't have had to write to the prime minister and Gurmeet Ram Rahim would have been arrested much sooner," he adds, referring to the case where a sadhvi wrote anonymously to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002, alleging rape by the self-proclaimed godman.

The Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti has worked with over 2,000 policemen to help them gather evidence that can stand in court against such exploitative babas.

Karnataka's Bill, too, has provisions for a vigilance officer to investigate cases such as these.

After Karnataka, there have been calls from several groups in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Punjab and Haryana to have similar laws for their state.

West Bengal, too, announced its plans for a law against black magic a few months ago.

Maharashtra's law has clearly had a snowball effect, says Hamid, adding how the state has always been a pioneer in bringing about social reform. He cites the contributions of Dr B R Ambedkar and Savitribai Phule.

Similarly, Tamil Nadu's history of Dravidian rationalism and Bhagat Singh's influence in Punjab and Haryana have helped rationalist arguments.

In Karnataka, the writings of literary figures such as U R Ananthamurthy (Samskara, 1965) continue to influence generations by questioning orthodox rites and traditions.

Before Maharashtra's law, an existing law aimed at combating superstition was the one against witch-hunting: 12 states including Assam, Jharkhand, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have this law in place. But it hasn't eradicated the practices it proscribes.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that close to 3,000 people -- mostly women -- have been killed in India since 2001 on suspicion of practising witchcraft.

"Law is one way to address bad social practices, but it alone can't bring about lasting changes," says Chandan Gowda, professor of sociology at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He points out how untouchability stands abolished by law, but many still practise it.

Kumar uses the "imperfect historical analogy" of Sati to back the Karnataka bill. "I would compare it to the Sati prohibition law that put an end to the practice but it was many years before widows could lawfully remarry or inherit property," he says.

Even if the practices are put to an end through police action, it will take a while for superstitious beliefs to be removed from people's minds, he adds.

Any legislation that targets a social evil needs to be followed by awareness campaigns. Kadanakuppe does this through a Facebook page and posters in schools and villages across the state.

These posters feature graphic illustrations of children at the receiving end of heated rods and babas invoking ghosts.

They are the stuff of nightmares: Visuals of self-mutilation by Shia Muslims, photographs of babies being dropped from a height as part of religious activities, bodies recovered after suspected cases of human sacrifices.

Change is coming, reckons Hamid. The fact that the movement against superstition has only gained strength after its leading lights, such as Dr Dabholkar and Kalburgi, were assassinated, has given greater hope to rationalists.

For long, one was accused of being anti-religion if one questioned these self-proclaimed babas, but that narrative is evolving, says Hamid.

The nexus between politicians and self-proclaimed gurus has also become more evident. "So there is rationalist thought growing because, irrespective of religion and background, it's the common people being exploited," says Hamid.

Though the list of superstitious beliefs is long and dreary, often dissolving distinctions of class, caste, religion and education, the Karnataka bill is being seen as a big step ahead. The road ahead, however, is still long.

With astrology and vastu shastra and other such beliefs being kept out of its purview, the battle between rationalists and believers continues.

Since 2001, for example, A S Natraj, founder of the Bengaluru-based rationalist association Akhila Karnataka Vicharavadi Sangha, has been inviting fortune= tellers to prove that at least 80 per cent of their predictions will come true.

The challenge remains unaccepted, and the prize money of Rs 1 crore remains unclaimed.

Author and environmentalist Arefa Tehsin recalls a story her uncle would tell of the time he visited China. Confused at a society that did not have any religious practices, he reportedly asked his Chinese host, 'Tell me something, friend, when you're facing a problem, whom do you pray to? What do you do?'

The man replied saying, 'Why, my friend, we solve the problem.'

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Nikita Puri
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