The name of the proposed law suggests that its ambit will be limited only to practices that cause obvious physical harm to individuals

A recent discussion on a regional television channel on devaluation of the Indian currency had a panel of numerologists and astrologers conclude that the crux of the problem was the shape of the rupee sign: it had a “downward-looking” shape which had led to its “downfall”.

Though rationalists would argue that this is a blatant instance of promoting blind faith and misleading people, the much talked about anti-superstition Bill that the government proposes to bring in may not address domains of this kind where the lines between faith, religion, cultural practice and superstition are hazy. The name of the proposed legislation — Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman Evil and Gory Practices and Blackmagic Bill 2013 — suggests that its ambit will be limited only to practices that cause obvious physical harm to individuals.

However, a panel of experts brought together by the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, is hoping to build a civil society debate around the issue of superstition in a more comprehensive way before the Bill is drafted. NLSIU is holding consultations and putting together a policy document that it will present to the government by October-end. The committee, headed by thinker and rationalist G. Ramakrishna, believes that the bill should go beyond what the recently-enforced Maharashtra Ordinance has done — of listing and banning a set of practices.

“Unless it is thought through, there is the danger of the law punishing only the small fry, such as roadside fortune tellers, while the more corporatised practitioners do not come under its ambit. That would be tragic, like how wildlife protection laws have gone against the interest of tribal people,” says S. Japhet, director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, NLSIU.

The second draft of the concept note prepared by the team, and now being circulated, states that the proposed law cannot be blind to “god men occupying privileged positions of power, enjoying immunity for their actions”, practices that are “prima facie injurious to human dignity but are still celebrated in the name of spirituality and faith” and “practices that reinforce caste, class and gender hierarchies”.

It pitches a set of questions for further debate: What does regulation mean in the private affairs of an individual’s faith? Are we pitting superstition against modernity or is it a faceoff between religion and secular character of the nation? Will the proposed law regulate or prohibit superstitious practices?

This is a treacherous terrain for any law to negotiate, admits V.S. Sridhara, associate professor at the centre and a member of the committee. He adds that it cannot be wished away. “For instance, if visual media is obliged to have a statutory warning on tobacco, why not when they air shows that promote obscurantist practices?” he asks.

Interestingly, the expert team demands a commitment to rationalism from the political class. The concept note says: “The State should become the first observer of the provisions of the Bill and stop encouraging practices based on irrational or blind belief in its own offices and shall not promote such practices.”

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