Do we need an anti-superstition law?

November 24, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 01:22 pm IST

YES | Mukta Dabholkar


The IPC is not equipped to deal with crimes on account of black magic and other superstitious practices


Mukta Dabholkar

India needs legislation on superstition, though what should go into it requires debate. Every superstition cannot be removed by the force of law. For that, a mental change is necessary. However, superstitious practices that are utterly dehumanising, brutal and exploitative need to be dealt with by a law that specifically addresses them.

Brutal exploitation

Maharashtra has implemented the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013. The rest of the country could learn from it. In Maharashtra, the Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti and my father, Narendra Dabholkar, fought for 18 years for such a law to be put in place. There were several groups which tilted the conversation by projecting it as a law against religion. Narendra Dabholkar had to fight a relentless battle against them.

We need to understand that this is a law that addresses exploitation in the name of religion. Opponents to the legislation in Maharashtra had claimed that the law would affect the religious practices of Hindus; that it was anti-Hindu. But after examining more than 350 FIRs lodged across Maharashtra in the last four years, we found that these claims were unfounded. Data show that the accused persons belong to various religions.

I want to highlight inhuman practices in the name of religion. For example, in Maharashtra, there were several cases where people murdered or brutally injured others and held them responsible for some deaths in their families, merely on suspicion. We masked these practices by calling ourselves developed. Maharashtra, too, boasts of being a developed State. Around seven instances of human sacrifice have been reported since the passing of this law in 2013. Two such instances could have been prevented through timely intervention. Before this law, acts involving human sacrifice could not be stopped as they were preceded by some puja and offerings — not banned under any law. Now they are. The cognisance of human sacrifice is in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) only after the murder is committed. Thus, legislation has a capacity to act as a deterrent. The Maharashtra legislation has stopped the act of human sacrifice.

The present IPC is not equipped to take care of crimes committed on account of black magic and other superstitious practices. A separate law is necessary because the relationship between a devotee and so-called godman is of a peculiar nature, often marked by violence. Consider the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, 2005. There are provisions in the IPC to punish violence, but the peculiar nature of the violence faced by women within the family needed a separate law.

Check on conmen

The anti-superstition law also makes it possible to curtail activities of so-called godmen before they become too powerful. Recently, the Maharashtra police arrested one who called himself Patil Baba and an avatar of god. He abused disciples by calling it his blessing; he prevented them from going to doctors. He had a huge following and if this law wasn’t in place, nothing could have been done to stop him. There is a section in the Maharashtra legislation which specifically addresses and checks claims made by ‘godmen’ who say they have supernatural powers. Once something is made illegal in the eye of the law, it will not be possible for anyone to openly support fraudulent godmen.

As told to Anuradha Raman

Mukta Dabholkar is an activist and assistant editor of the ‘Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti’ magazine

NO | Raghav Pandey


Enacting special laws for each set of crimes is no solution and makes the problem worse


Raghav Pandey

An anti-superstition law may seem necessary, but it cannot take cognisance of all realities.

The domain of such a law is to curb superstition, associated primarily with religious and occult practices. It has to be impressed here that almost everything associated with any religion can be considered superstitious for the simple fact that there is no scientific rationale behind the same. For instance, going to a temple, a mosque, or a church can be termed superstitious because there is no scientific data to support the fact that such a practice yields any good. Such practices can’t be curbed because they don’t harm anyone. The fundamental tenets of a liberal democracy give us the freedoms of conscience and to believe in things even when science and rationality don’t support them.

Existing laws enough

But certain other practices, like throwing children on thorns, parading women naked, etc., obviously harm others and can’t be allowed in the name of religion. However, the question of whether we need a separate law to curb such practices has to be answered in the negative. This is because the substantive legal framework of our country is sufficiently adequate to address such crimes. For instance, throwing a child on thorns is an offence under Sections 307 and 323 of the IPC. Similarly, parading a woman naked can also be addressed specifically by Section 354B of the IPC.

This is not to discount the fact that certain changes in the law pertaining to the procedural rules and the law of evidence may be necessary to establish the commission of such crimes. These can be addressed by amendments in the Criminal Procedure Code and Indian Evidence Act. If a further nuanced approach is desirable, then a separate law may also be enacted for framing a separate set of rules of procedure. However, a substantive law of such a nature is not required; it works to the detriment of the larger objective it seeks to work for.

The Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Act, 2017 prohibits the two above mentioned practices and several others. It can be stressed with authority that most of such acts, which have been made punishable by the Karnataka legislation, are already punishable by the IPC and other existing laws. Therefore, having a new law to re-criminalise such acts doesn’t make much juridical sense.

Bad implementation

Law and order is a State subject, so States are free to enact specific criminal laws. In the same way, States are also free to make amendments to Union laws. Therefore, ideally, Karnataka or any other State is free to amend the IPC, to accommodate specific requirements.

If the executive is serious about curbing such practices, active implementation and enforcement of existing laws need to be made more effective. Studies in criminology have already established that certainty of punishment curbs the rate of crime and not the type or the quantum of punishment.

We already have a reputation of having good laws but bad implementation. In legal parlance, it is known as ‘over-criminalisation’ — more laws but less ‘rule of law’. Therefore, the enforcement machinery needs a major overhaul to make criminal justice more accessible. Enacting special laws for each set of crimes is no solution and makes the problem worse.

Raghav Pandey is a Research Fellow with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay

IT'S COMPLICATED | Chandan Gowda


Should we find a solution with a new law or find a way out from within the belief system?


Chandan Gowda

Religions are aware that faith is vulnerable to improper use. And stories of fake sadhus and deceitful sanyasis have long been around.

Other challenges

Bigger challenges to religion have come from mutually reinforcing, external sources. In their own distinct ways, modern science, secular statecraft and liberal legal principles question the validity of theological views and seek to limit their operation in social and political life. Religions in India came under the scrutiny of all three with colonial rule. In asking for a ban on Sati in the early 19th century, Raja Ram Mohan Roy argued that it did not have approval from within Hindu religious texts. This was a commonly heard refrain in later decades too — that vested social interests and not Hindu dharma were responsible for these practices.

Rationalists offered another response on the place of religion in modern society. Included among them are figures like Periyar, who debunked religion as superstition, and the communists, who felt religion distorted reality. Driven by more modest aims, many rationalists laboured tirelessly to denounce miracles and astrology as cheap tricks.

The superstitions of modern societies haven’t invited the same activist zeal. The slightest show of body temperature makes many reach for a paracetamol. The techno-smug moderns hold other superstitions too: if petrol runs out, we will switch to hybrid cars, okay?

In any case, whether integral to religion or a later accretion, practices like human sacrifice are hard to defend. And if it takes state legislation to prevent them, so be it.

Over recent decades, around 800 women in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha have been killed for practising witchcraft. Laws that aim to prevent this practice exist. Faith healers, on occasion, inflict physical injury to exorcise spirits or cure ailments. The supporters of the recent law in Karnataka that aims to prevent “inhuman evil practices and black magic” across religions cite other practices like branding children with heated objects and using spurious surgical methods to change the sex of a foetus. Lacking access to proper health care, it is the poor, it is argued, who fall victim to such methods. The new legislation also forbids made-snana , a ritual where devotees from across castes roll over the leftover food of Brahmins in certain temples to cure themselves of skin diseases.

The best way forward

Is law the best means of addressing such practices? Wouldn’t a discussion initiated between the temple authorities and devotees throw up alternative rituals more satisfying to devotees? Put differently, can the moral resources for replacing unacceptable practices be explored within tradition? While activists rightly point to the continued silence of temple authorities, who host these practices, to show the need for legal remedies, one still wonders whether working through the belief systems is preferable to resorting to punitive law. This is the moral reform stance often seen among, for instance, Bhakti and Sufi saints, and, later, Gandhi.

Secular temptations and anxieties of money and power in the modern world explain better perhaps the growing popularity of astrology TV shows and the rise in need-based rituals for placating deities than inner tendencies within religion. The greater difficulty lies in how legal discussions view religions as essentially the same phenomenon that goes by different names. Monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam and polytheistic ones like Hinduism are so different that the rationalities needed for a proper engagement with them cannot not be as various.

Chandan Gowda is professor of sociology at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

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