This week, the State Government proposed the Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman Evil and Gory Practices and Blackmagic Bill, 2013, quick on the heels of a similar legislation passed in Maharashtra. The Hindu examines the many faces of obscurantism, the commercial industry that exploits blind faith or superstition and asks experts on what they expect from the Bill.
At the face of it Anchamma's story presents a paradox. Last year, she lost her 12-year-old to two successive bouts of pneumonia because she couldn't afford timely medical care. Yet, she says, since then she has spent more than Rs. 7,000 on temple rituals, a charm, a vastu-adjustment plaque” for her home and “black magic reversal rituals”.
When asked how she cobbled together such a large sum, she hands out two receipts from private moneylenders, who were ‘recommended’ by their neighbourhood astrologer. “He’s known for fighting black magic. He said my son died because of black magic and graha dosha (planetary misfortune); how else does one die of fever?” Her husband, a house painter, doesn't agree but says he gave in when she returned convinced that their second child's life was in peril.
Within a one-kilometre radius of Anchamma's home in Chamrajpet, she says there are at least half a dozen astrologers, including two very high-end vastu experts. Some are way over her budget, with one couple charging as much as Rs. 4,000 for one sitting. A sitting involves an almanac reading (for planetary positions), suggesting “remedies”and recommending a specific priest, a place of worship or even a jeweller.
Anchamma's employer, a newspaper recycler, recently purchased a 'yellow stone' for Rs. 20,000 from a man linked to a Tamil Nadu temple known for“curing skin ailments”. These stones — where each colour claims to counter a different kind of human predicament — can cost up to Rs. 1 lakh, says an astrologer, who also sells his wares online, some even billed in dollars.
Obviously, like everything else, faith too is a commodity that is traded both online and offline. For those who make over three purchases a week, he offers a good discount for a three-state wide pilgrimage, operated by his cousin. It is barely surprising that households like Anchamma’s, who sold all the land they owned in Bellary two years ago and have nothing by way of financial cushion, are easy prey to these commercial spin-offs offaith. And no one knows this like Mahesh, a driver who once worked for a small-time astrologer. Mahesh explains that his main job was to keep his eyes and ears open. “My work was to find people in distress –those with health issues, problems conceiving, facing unemployment or a slump in business. I'd approach them indirectly to guide them towards my employer.”
While on the pay rolls of the astrologer, a network that sound almost like the police’s informant network, he says he managed to get many customers. “No one was forced. But there's so much misery around, it wasn't difficult to find people,” he explains.
But this fetish for obscurantist practices is by no means restricted to any class demographic as a quick look around the World Wide Web will reveal. Going by the number of websites selling everything from“power bracelets” to yantras/kavach — for “career success level 1 and 2” — it is evident that there's a huge market among net-enabled audiences. Some sites also offer consultancies via web chat services.
While rationalists have welcomed the newly-proposed Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman Evil and Gory Practices and Blackmagic Bill, 2013, they have also questioned whether the government will take on this industry that sits on the arguably thin, and the ever disputed, line between faith and superstition.
Law enforcers argue that the law must negotiate this line given that currently such crimes go largely unreported. A senior cop says,“Cracking down on such activities under existing laws is not simple. These are mostly classified as cheating cases. Unless the money is huge or rituals end in exploiting women or in deaths, people don't come to us. The law will create awareness.”
Jayakumar H.S. of the Bharatiya Gyan Vignana Samiti, a progressive science movement in the State, hopes that the legislation will also outlaw promotion of superstition and obscurantism by politicians and public figures holding office, and the media. Indeed, politicians in Karnataka have often worn their astrology fetishes on their sleeve. Come elections, these are out in full public view with the media reporting on politicians visiting places of worship or towns known for 'powerful black magic', or flaunting 20 rings on their fingers while filing their nominations, or some even shifting homes during election season for favourable vastu.
This positive endorsement of such practices is against the Constitution's mandate to promote scientific thought, says Mr. Jayakumar. “Also, several channels have shows promoting astrology and even showcasing so-called magic and miracles, and obscurantism. Astrologers pay to get on these shows as it increases their market value. Will the legislation also tackle these grey areas?” asks Mr. Jayakumar.