“India is a curious mixture of scientific advance and traditional superstitions. Superstitions are deeply ingrained and cannot be eliminated overnight. They cannot be removed by diktat, but can be countered by rational arguments…” — Jayant V. Narlikar.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati has taken strong exception to a ritual performed at a temple in southern Karnataka on December 10, 2010. After watching the telecast of the ritual on a news channel, the Chief Minister demanded an immediate ban on the practice which drove Dalits to roll on used plantain leaves with leftovers of the food eaten by “upper caste” people. Dalits did so believing that the ritual would cure them of skin diseases. Characterising the practice as “inhuman, humiliating, and derogatory,” Ms Mayawati added that “it was quite apparent that the objective behind the practice was only to humiliate the socially downtrodden,” because Dalits constitute the majority of the participants
The temple at the centre of the controversy is the Kukke Subramanya temple in Subramanya village in the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. The village is about 100 km from the port town of Mangalore. The “urulu seve” (rolling ritual) was held after appeals from several progressive organisations to the government, the temple authorities, and math heads to put an end to the “unhygienic and unwanted” ritual failed. When the police denied them permission to stage a demonstration, the protesters left the temple premises.
Many newspapers have published detailed accounts of the performance of the rituals by hundreds of people from different regions of the State. A number of TV channels, including popular ones, have given wide coverage. Most reporters of the print and broadcast media did a commendable job, not concealing their disapproval of the inhuman ritual. The extensive and sensitive coverage took the issue to a larger audience.
The temple authorities repeatedly “clarified” that not only Dalits, but also people from other castes, including Brahmins, performed the ritual and did so of their own accord. Journalists on the scene confirmed that the participants in the “urulu seve” included non-Dalits but pointed out that Dalit participants accounted for the majority of the participants in the ritual. Another point made in the reports was that apart from the indignity caused to Dalits on caste grounds, all participants would run the risk of getting infected. In short, the practice was depicted as inhuman as well as anti-science.
Taking on superstition
Others on the scene included activists such as social reformer G.K. Govinda Rao and folklorist Kale Gowda Nagawara. They did not succeed in stopping the performance of the ritual, or in dissuading the participants but they had struck a blow for humanity and for science. Such interventions generally take time to show results.
A curtain raiser, published in the Mysore edition of The Hindu on December 8, noted that significantly the ritual perhaps for the first time in its 400 years of existence had to confront a protest from Dalit and backward class organisations. On December 7 the activists of these organisations from Mysore, Kodagu, and Sulia arrived in substantial numbers at Subramanya village to persuade the temple authorities to stop this undesirable ritual, and advise the devotees who were inclined to participate to keep off. Just how many of the participants responded is yet to be known. The activists met the seer of the Kukke Subramanya math, who has reportedly agreed that the ritual was “a social evil” but could not go further because, in his view, a 400-year-old ritual could not be stopped “immediately.”
Taking on age-old superstition is a strenuous process and demands a lot of dedication and dogged patience. What is needed to end such practices is a multi-pronged campaign by the media but also by teachers, doctors and scientists. Science journalists have the potential to educate the readers on developing a scientific temper. The government, of course, has a big responsibility in this regard. Article 51-A (h) of the Constitution of India states: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.” The government should take this message to larger sections of the people, especially in the countryside.