Not a matter of faith
Mahaveer Prasad and his wife, Pushpa were going through troubled times. Business was down and the couple's future looked bleak. Prasad, a jeweller based in Uttar Pradesh's Kannauj district, was then approached by his driver, Krishna Sharma. There was a way out of the financial doldrums, Sharma told Prasad, but a price had to be paid, at the end of which they would find a gift of 5 kilograms of gold! The couple was ready to do anything.
Sharma, also an exorcist, took the couple to the Annapurna Temple for prayers and headed towards a peepul tree between Piparia and Badhosa villages. The sacrificial lamb during this ritual would be the Prasad's 15-year-old daughter Kavita. Brought along in a semi-conscious state, Sharma first stripped the girl in front of her parents and then strangled her. As the parents stood close by, Sharma raped the lifeless body, collected blood by slitting her neck to propitiate the gods, and hid the body. The price had been paid and the couple eagerly looked for the buried 5 kilograms of gold. The gold proved elusive and the Prasad reported the Sharma to the police.
This isn't a stray incident. Between May and June this year, we've already heard of an 18-year-old girl being forced to eat cow dung in Maharashtra's Latur district to exorcise 'evil spirit'; villagers in Karnataka's Hubbali district drying out a lake purportedly on the instructions of a 'deity' to attract surplus rain; and a man digging up a highway in Telangana's Jangaon district in search of a 'Shiva Lingam' after he was 'asked' by Lord Shiva to do so.
Shocking, isn't it? We may be in the 21st Century but there are still people, mostly in rural areas, governed by black magic, witchcraft, and general superstitious beliefs. They would rather consult an exorcist or a 'tantrik' than a doctor or a financial planner to cure them of problems. At the heart of this conundrum perhaps lies our unshakeable belief in baseless, unscientific, and very often dangerous faith in the supernatural powers and the occult. And in India, this faith has been carefully woven into our mainstream religious practice too. For instance, it wasn't Krishna Sharma just playing the exorcist; a major part of the ritual was also the couple visiting and praying at Annapurna Temple.
Around 200 women are killed every year after being branded as witches. Dehradun-based NGO, Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), said in 2010 that over 2500 women have been killed in the last 15 years after being charged with practising witchcraft. The numbers have surely risen since then. The National Crime Records Bureau reports 2,097 murders 2000 and 2012 caused by witch hunting. Of this, 363 murders happened in Jharkhand. Along with Jharkhand, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Assam, and Bihar continue to report cases of witch hunting. And that's just witch-hunting; there are hundreds of cases of other superstitious practices that are carried out across India.
So intricately woven is religion with superstitious practices that even state governments are wary of touching it. Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh (Bihar's Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act (1999), the Witchcraft Prevention Act, 2001, in Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh's Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act of 2005) have anti-witchcraft laws but activists say that it lacks teeth. Three months of imprisonment and Rs 1,000 as penalty, as the laws provide, are hardly major deterrents, they say.
Maharashtra enacted the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013. Narendra Dabholkar, founder of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), drafted the Maharashtra Act that criminalises witchcraft, human sacrifice and other superstitious practices. In August 2013, he was shot and killed while on a morning walk. His assailants are yet to be brought to book.
And to add to the grimness, other state governments are not even confident of venturing into the arena of tackling superstitious practice. The Karnataka state government for one has developed cold feet on the anti-superstition bill. Apparently, its own leaders weren't supporting the Congress. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah promises to table the Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifices and Other Inhuman Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill, 2016 again; this time perhaps boosted by support from his party members.
The need of the hour, therefore, is a strong anti-superstition law promulgated by the Centre forcing state governments to follow suit. The road to rationality must be paved by the Central government. The question is can the Narendra Modi government tread the thin line between religion and superstition?
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