Millennium Post

Faith, rationalism and law

It was a coincidence that on the day the rationalist, Narendra Dabholkar, was shot dead in Pune, the newspapers carried the report that all the local bodies in Niyamgiri, Odisha, had voted against the proposed mining for bauxite in the region by a multinational company.

The vote was in accordance with the Supreme Court’s directive that the opinion of the locals should be obtained before any industrial project was allowed in the area. The court had taken note of the religious belief of the tribals there that the Niyamgiri hills was the abode of the deity, Niyam Raja, and that any mining would affect their ‘religious rights’.

The identification of natural objects with divinity is a feature of prehistoric times when primitive man regarded natural phenomena with awe and fear. If the mountains aroused their veneration, the apparent reason was their proximity to the heavens because of the altitude. Hence, the designation of the Himalayas as the abode of the gods and the identification of Nanda Devi and Mount Kailas with divine beings.

Dabholkar’s Andha Sraddha Nirmoolan Samiti or the organisation for the eradication of blind faith did not target religions faith, but only the unholy offshoots of beliefs which fostered occult practices and allowed sundry godmen to cast a spell on their followers. He was the motivator, therefore, for the Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill.

However, the fact that the legislation has remained pending fort the last 17 years in the Maharashtra assembly shows that not everyone is an inveterate opponent of black magic. If the state government is now bringing an ordinance, it is probably to exploit the anger among ordinary people against the Right-wingers, who have always opposed Dabolkar, rather than because the politicians have become sudden converts to his belief.

Among the explanations for the earlier reluctance of the legislators to pass the bill is the suspicion that it will alienate the rural voters who have faith in the supernatural. It is also known that there are many devotees among the urbanites of godmen who run large and profitable establishments.
It goes without saying that Dabolkar was a rarity among Indians, a vast majority of whom tend to give andha sraddha a higher rating than rationality. Few will deny that the faith of Niyamgiri’s Dongria Kondh and Kutia tribes in the sacredness of their hills falls in this category. It is also undeniable that an assault by earth movers on the verdant greenery to set up the ‘satanic mills’ excoriated by Marx will hurt their religious sentiments.

In this context, the judicial diktat to elicit their opinion on whether to allow the mining project underlines the democratic process. If the people are not to decide what they want or do not want, who else can ? At the same time, it may be necessary to ascertain whether the popular verdict is based on blind faith or on an informed assessment of the pros and cons of the project.
That andha sraddha is not infallible is not unknown. Had it been, sati would still have been legal. In the case of the mining venture, what needs to be known is whether the ban entails the continuation of the present existence of the tribes as shifting cultivators with little access to facilities such as roads, electricity, schools and hospitals. If they are satisfied with their present living conditions, which border on the primitive, there can be no quarrel with their decision to stop the project. But, the question remains whether they have been misled or whether their rejection of industrialization is based on the fear of the unknown, including the threat of being uprooted from their hearth and home where they have lived for generations.  

It is not impossible, however, that cynical calculations are colouring the controversy with political leaders and NGOs believing that standing up for the ‘rights’ of the locals will boost their electoral prospects and social credentials by showing them as doughty opponents of rapacious multinationals.

A ruling party politician, who spent his last birthday in Spain, even told a meeting of the tribes that he will be their ‘foot soldier’ in Delhi.
It is unlikely, however, that any one these city-based supporters of their ‘cause’ will care to live in their villages for any length of time even if some of them have romantic notions of the idyllic existence in natural surroundings of these ‘anthropological specimens’, as Jawaharlal Nehru called the tribes.
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