People in Mumbai protest against the murder of Narendra Dabholkar, an anti-superstition activist who was shot dead in Pune on August 20, 2013. (PTI Photo)
Two states have taken a leap of faith in India’s fight against superstition, triggering a debate on whether the government can encroach upon the realm of ‘beliefs’.
The Maharsathra assembly passed a bill to curb criminal activities in the name of religious practices on Friday, around four months after anti-superstition crusader Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead during a morning stroll in Pune.
The Karnataka government has proposed a similar bill to do away with practices causing physical or mental harm and financial or sexual exploitation, among others.
But the question doing the rounds is: when to draw the fine line between beliefs and superstition in a country where pujas go hand in hand with witch-hunting?
“This is an important distinction to make. That part of belief which oppresses (somebody) is superstition,” said S Japhet, director of the social exclusion centre at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore.
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Political undertones have added fuel to the controversy over the importance of an anti-superstition legislation.
The BJP and ally Shiv Sena have opposed the Maharashtra bill. Apprehensive about a dent in its traditional vote banks, the ruling Congress too has taken a cautious approach.
The bone of contention has been the inclusion of all religions. “We are not against it, but we cannot accept the discretionary spirit... The rituals and customs followed by Hindus are made punishable, while it is silent on the customs followed by other religions,” a BJP leader has said.
Amendments in the original bill drafted by Dabholkar 17 years ago have already sent its proponents and rationalists in a tizzy.
Anand Grover, a senior Supreme Court advocate, argues, “It depends on what you mean by Hindu tradition. There are other traditions which have similar practices. But if these traditions are based on superstition, they need to be changed. ”
A section of sociologists believes even traditions carry the forces of resistance, and the government must strengthen it.
Karnataka-based seer KS Shivaramu set an example recently, protesting against the widely popular practice of rolling onto Brahmins’ leftover food to get rid of skin ailments.
Another question dominating the debate pertains to the economy of superstition. Self-styled godmans, who claim to have the power to cure everything — from pregnancy problems to homosexuality, are an influence group in modern India.
“The economy of superstitions is lucrative and accessed by all,” says research scholar Ritu Sinha, whose area of interest is religio-cultural texts.
“Religion gives birth to symbols and signs, and thrives on superstitions which are constituted by them,” she adds.
Moreover, many believe passing a bill, or enacting a law, is not a solution to the problem.
Sociologist Patricia Uberoi says, “The one in power gets to decide what is just, equal and decent.... we already have a law against homicide... why do we need a new law?”
Cultural critic Namvar Singh echoes Uberoi, saying the decision to decide on ‘what is superstition’ should be left to the people. “No religion or god is benefitted by superstition,” he says.
(Inputs: Surendra Gangan in Maharashtra)