A new law against superstition and black magic in India’s Maharashtra state has triggered a debate between religious groups who say that the state is interfering in personal faith, and rationalists who say religious malpractices violate human rights.
The law was hurriedly promulgated four days after Narendra Dabholkar, an activist who had been campaigning for it for a decade, was assassinated. Dr. Dabholkar headed the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith, which has 180 branches across Maharashtra and has exposed many Hindu preachers purporting to conduct miracles and black magic.
“We will challenge the law as it is ambiguous and interferes with personal faith,” says Abhay Vartak of the Santan Sanstha, a Hindu organization. “The law does not define much of what it outlaws – ghosts for instance. The government itself is not clear whether ghosts exist! And if belief in ghosts is to be outlawed then what about the Hindu scripture the Atharva Veda, which says a lot about how to get rid of ghosts who come to inhabit a body?” he asks.
The law specifically outlaws 12 practices, making them punishable by a jail term of seven months to seven years. Of the 12 clauses, two relate to belief in ghosts. The first one forbids recommending violent and sexual practices for purging ghosts from the body – including drinking urine or stool, being tied with a rope or chain, and touching heated objects. It also outlaws creating fear by threatening to invite ghosts.
“The law has too many ’etceteras’ which will be used indiscriminately against private faith, and only against Hindus,” says Vartak of the Sanatan Sanstha.
Avinash Patil, acting president of the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith, says that law does not mention any religion. “We are not against private faith, only the exploitation and violence that comes when blind faith is used publicly by seers, god-men, and tantriks,” says Mr. Patil.
Opponents of the bill are unable to point out problems with the specifics of most of the clauses – such as branding women as witches and making them walk without clothes and beating them; persuading people to substitute medical aid by tying threads or getting bitten by a snake, dog, or scorpion; threatening to bring evil upon someone through supernatural powers; claiming to change the sex of the fetus by inserting fingers in the womb; claiming that one’s supernatural powers can help a woman get pregnant if she had sex with him; and claiming that a disabled person has supernatural powers and thus using them for commercial purposes.
However, one clause that religious groups are particularly objecting to is about the use of miracles for commercial exploitation. Critics say that if magicians can perform miracles in ticketed magic shows and if miracles could be attributed to Mother Teresa and Sufi saints, why should others be prevented?
“I don’t think it’s outlawing claiming miracles, but exploiting the poor by using them,” says lawyer Vrinda Grover.