Public outrage over the brutal slaying of renowned rationalist Narendra Dabholkar finally forced the Maharashtra government’s hand in clearing an ordinance against superstition and black magic. Based on a bill that Dabholkar championed for almost 20 years, it could be the first such legislation in India. The ordinance is a path-breaking one in a country which lionises godmen and is steeped in obscurantism. It seeks to curtail superstitious practices which are “misused to exploit people” or cause them “financial or physical harm.” Dabholkar did not target religion and concerned himself only with the misuse of faith to victimise innocents. The law he drafted — which faced years of opposition from political and religious groups — follows this impulse. The ordinance, which will have to be ratified by the State Assembly, seeks to ban a range of superstitious practices including “black magic,” displaying so-called miracles to earn money, or insisting that mantras, not medicines, will cure critical injuries like snakebites. Also, assaulting and humiliating people under the guise of exorcising ghosts, and the sexual exploitation of women after claiming supernatural powers will also be banned. Complaints are to be probed by trained policemen and can even be lodged by third parties not involved in an exploitative ritual.

While inculcating a scientific temper is one of the Constitution’s Fundamental Duties vide. Article 51 A (h), seeking to regulate personal faith and beliefs is always tricky. The Bill underwent as many as 29 drafts and was introduced several times without success. Many saw it as an impediment to the freedom of religion and feared it would even ban poojas where the priest was paid for his services. Or painful, self-inflicted religious practices. Pontiffs felt vulnerable to complaints by motivated individuals. There were concerns that religious pilgrimages would be monitored, even stopped. But Dabholkar had argued these fears were unfounded. The ordinance targets forced and exploitative practices, not those that are voluntary or that do not take a physical or financial toll on people. Chanting mantras on a personal level to ward off evil spirits will not constitute an offence. But forcing an expensive, exorcism ritual could attract a complaint.

Weeding out motivated complaints and distinguishing a forced ritual from a voluntary one will be a serious challenge. Yet, ensuring that a law which opposes a society’s entrenched beliefs is actually enforced is perhaps the greater challenge. The law will gain greater meaning when there is a parallel process of social reform and education against superstition, the very tradition that Dabholkar himself epitomised.

This article has been corrected for a factual error.

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