Jitthe mehfil malang masanda di,
otthe aklan wale nahi behnde,
Jo soch vigyanik ban jave,
fir bharam bhulekhe nahi painde!'
(The men of wisdom do not sit in the gathering of fools, the men with scientific temper can never be fooled!)
Every day, round the year, in the towns and villages of Punjab, rationalist Jasvir Soni (55) and his travelling band of Tarksheel Society recite this couplet and explain magic tricks to schoolchildren.
Slaying sorcery with science, Tarksheel Society member Rajinder Singh Bhadaur guides children gathered around a mobile library to a book, at Government Boys School, Lehragaga, in Sangrur district; and his colleague, Jasvir Soni, explaining a common trick at DAV School, Lehragaga.
Close on the heels of five murders and the suicide of the culprit ‘tantrik’ (witch doctor) at a village near Moga on July 17, these men of scientific temper caution youth against witchcraft and self-styled godmen at a Lehragaga government school for boys in Sangrur district. “No magic but only hard work and education can give you a good life,” Rajinder Bhadaur, Soni’s fellow activist, explains to the children. The rationalists mingle with members of the school staff, discussing the challenges in educating people. The 30-minute lecture that includes the tales of tricksters’ magic also explains to people that it is not voodoo but plain science.
Later comes the display of books ranging from ghost stories (that dispel the myth) to Kalpana Chawla’s biography or Tasleema Nasreen’s ‘Lajja’ — the daily routine of Tarksheel Society during the morning assemblies in schools. The books are from the band’s mobile library. Children giggle as Bhadaur uses humour to explain the content of a book, “Pippal Wala Khoo”, the story of three boys who scare the villagers by playing tricks and posing as ghosts at a well under a sacred fig tree. The books are all affordable paperback editions, the price ranging from Rs 20 for a Punjabi folklore to Rs 120 for the biography of astronaut Kalpana Chawla. The society earns more than `1 lakh a month from the sale.
“Let the knowledge flow, only then they will grow,” said Bhadaur, smiling when pointed out that the boys had also picked a book on sex education from the racks. The van is on the move since January 2014 and has, so far, covered the entire Malwa region, and will go into eight more districts this year.
Pallo, who remained behind bars for a year on the charges of lynching her 5-year-old niece for human sacrifice.
Some 130 kilometres from the Lehragaga school where the myth busters are at work, Pallo ‘the exorcist’ rests in her poor dwelling at Moga’s Bhinder Kalan village. She was behind bars for more than a year, on the charges of human sacrifice, lynching her niece (5) “possessed by a demon spirit”.
Pallo, out on bail now, denies straightaway that she ever was into occult. She even claims that the video of her lynching the child is doctored. “Nobody catches the big fish, as we the poor lot are an easy target (of the law and the rationalists),” she complains.
Reacting to that, Tarksheel Society secretary (organisation) Rajinder Bhadaur said their job was only public awareness. “Unlike the big ‘babas’ who know they are fooling people, the faith healers and witch doctors are victims of a psychological disorder that makes them believe they have supernatural powers,” he explained.
The hazards of baba-hunting
Rajinder Singh Bahadur trying to explain magic tricks to schoolchildren.
Taking on the babas who have mass following is not easy. Bhadaur still remembers the severe thrashing that the followers of Sirsa’s Dera Sacha Sauda gave to one of his colleagues, Raja Ram. “They suspected him of circulating a woman’s open letter about her sexual exploitation at the dera. The dera was also alleged to be behind the murder of Tarksheel Society activist Ranjit Khanour, over the same issue,” he added.
On August 20, 2013, rationalist Narendra Achyut Dabholkar, founder-president of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), an organisation fighting superstition since 1989, was shot dead in Pune.
The pending Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Ordinance was promulgated in the state four days later.
Coming back to Pallo, her husband and she acknowledged, later, that they had been “treating patients” with the blessings of Gugga Maadi, the patron deity of snake worshippers in Rajasthan, southwest Punjab, and Haryana. Her husband also explains the “hathali” practice of “exorcising evil spirits” with the help of peacock feathers, but claims he is no more into it, for the fear of the people opposing it.
The poor middle-age couple, whose grown-up children are work as labourers, reason that Pallo’s sentencing was the result of political vendetta of the village landlords, as has been the village sarpanch in the past. The villagers who narrate the story of how Pallo kept beating the child till death would direct strangers to her house but not lead them to it. “Nobody stopped her (Pallo) as she kept thrashing the poor girl,” said an old villager, showing the way to her dwelling. Pallo’s neighbours would not talk on the subject.