Saturday, October 5, 2013

Clearing the air about the Anti-Superstition Ordinance - Part 2

Continued from here. Comments, both positive and negative are welcome as long as you stay civil. I promise to publish contrary views to my own.

2. Why we need a special law to address superstitions

Time and again, detractors of the Late Dr Dabholkar have argued that exploitative practices by fake godmen are already covered by existing laws. Simply put, no they're not.

According to Milind Joshi, a former ANS* activist at present, there are only two laws that a fake godman can be booked under: Section 420 and the Drugs & Magic Remedies Act. The latter is largely ineffective as awareness of the law and its provisions means even the police don't know when and whom to arrest for selling dubious cures for real diseases. Many of these medicines are passed off as traditional medicine and it is a known fact that a lot of people trust anything with 'Ayurveda' or something similar on its label better than a 'chemical' drug that has undergone decades of supervised trials.

Therein lies another problem - victims of dubious medicine rarely realize that they are victims. They believe in the power of alternative medicine, and more often than not, if they don't get the same benefits as a distant relative of their colleague allegedly got, they consider it their own bad luck and move on. The only occasions when that changes is when it is too late. I recently heard of this child with Type 1 Diabetes whose parents stopped the insulin and opted for some version of mumbo-jumbo medicine. The child reportedly went into Diabetic Coma and suffered brain death.

Type 1 Diabetics depend on external insulin for survival, and the fear of pricking is one of the biggest hurdles most patients need to overcome before they are on a path to better health. Sadly, this very fear of pricking and life-long dependence on injections makes kids and their parents vulnerable to manipulation by medicine men and faith healers. At present in such cases, any arrests are mostly possible after the fact. What the Ordinance aims to do is to curb any fake medicinal practices before they can claim the next victim.

As for the famous Section 420, it should suffice to cite an incident that Joshi recalls.

During his ANS days in the early 90s, Joshi was part of a campaign to expose a certain godman with a strong following in rural areas of Pune district. To this end, they carried out something of a sting operation, visiting the fake godman to seek respite from fabricated problems, and recording their meetings on audio tape. When they felt they had enough proof to show that this Baba-ji was taking money under the pretext of magically fixing their problems, they lodged a complaint and had him arrested.

Within hours, the local MLA turned up to bail out the arrested man. Later, when the matter came up in court, it turned out that the prosecution did not have a case since a case under Section 420 can only be made by an actual victim who has been cheated of money or possessions. Since the complainants in this case had deliberately set the poor man up, they did not qualify as victims, and the fake Baba walked free. The ANS guys on the other hand, were rapped across the knuckles with an advice to stick to propaganda without trying to involve the Law of the Land.

To sum up, under the present laws:
  • legal action against exploitative superstitious practices can only be taken after the fact
  • proof is hard to come by since real victims - the people who put their faith in someone only to be duped of their money and sometimes worse - hardly ever record their interactions
  • witnesses to such interactions are mostly either people working for the fake godman/medicine man, or their followers/devotees/believers who can barely be counted on to speak up against someone they probably still trust
Anti-superstition activists tried legal resorts and failed. That is how the need for special laws to address blind beliefs was felt and a Bill was proposed.

3. The Ordinance is NOT against religion

Let me direct your attention once again to the actual draft of the Ordinance passed on August 26 2013, in case you missed it in the previous post.  Here's the link for the draft in English, and here's the document in Marathi.

Briefly, these are the practices that are addressed by the Ordinance:
  • Human sacrifice
  • Tying someone up and beating them, torturing them with shitty drinks, chilli smoke etc, and physically hurting them - all under the pretext of expelling ghosts
  • Passing off magic tricks as miracles         
  • Aghori practices that may cause physical injury or death to anyone
  • Mumbo-jumbo rituals to find hidden treasures or water resources (to reiterate, performing a simple pooja and feeding a few cows to make it rain is not a crime - not unless the rituals involve, say, beating someone with sticks and stones)
  • Spreading fear/intimidating/blackmailing someone by pretending to be possessed or claiming to have supernatural powers
  • Accusing someone of practicing black magic and causing harm to such person using such pretext
  • Parading someone naked, imposing a social boycott using above pretext
  • Threatening people to invoke ghost & suchlike
  • Getting in the way of medical treatment by offering jaadu-tona solutions to fatal emergencies**
  • Claiming to perform surgery by fingers or claiming to change sex of foetus in the womb
  • Sexual exploitation under the guise of divinity, promise of progeny or as a form of exorcism
Now if you honestly claim that any of these practices is an essential part of your faith, I have nothing to say to you. Of course, anti-ordinance voices have suggested that the resultant laws will ban all forms of religious practices, including a simple pooja. They have, in fact, organised street plays showing a dystopian future wherein a couple offering Satyanarayan Pooja at home get arrested under the new laws.

Now that's the kind of propaganda that would turn my parents against the Ordinance. That's also a big fat lie. No Ordinance had been passed, nor any Bill proposed, that raises objections to a harmless worship or religious festivities. It might be worth mentioning here that ANS activists like Joshi have actually used Ganesh Puja mandaps as a platform to raise awareness and campaign against superstitions, with full co-operation of, and often invitation from the respective organizing committees. In fact, in the wake of Dr Dabholkar's murder, many local Ganesh mandals contacted the office of his magazine Sadhana for info for creating anti-superstition tableaux.

More on ANS and Sadhana's association with religious groups and organizations, later.

I have been browsing through articles on websites of the groups opposed to the Bill hoping to find some arguments to support their stand. What I found mostly were generic accusations of how the Bill and the present Ordinance is a direct assault on Faith in general and certain Faiths in particular, besides a bunch of very interesting lies.

In the next part of this series, I'll address a couple of those arguments. I'd very much appreciate responses and some good anti-Ordinance voices before I do so, to make the debate more meaningful.

* Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, of which late Dr Dabholkar was founder-president.

** If anything, the law on this point could be made stronger to include chronic diseases.


  1. Now, I don't want to get into the debate about the Ordinance, but in a country where traditional medicine or as u said, anything with 'Ayurveda' label is trusted more, where exactly would you draw the line between real and Superstition?

    I saw a documentary on NatGeo Taboo about one of the Hyderabad Fish Medicine for Asthma ( Though not all are cured, some people did claim that it had helped cure there problem. The US 'experts' could not take a stand on the validity of the medicine because they could not perform there scientific experiments. Some experts however claimed that it was probably merely the 'positive vibe' of the mass administration that helped the patients.

    Now, whatever it was, it was not your clinically tested drug "that has undergone decades of supervised trials". It was a weird fish and some 'secret medicine'. So, even if it helped 3-4 of the 1000s of people there, what does this fall under? Superstition, Black Magic or Ayurveda?

  2. To simply answer your question, it falls under Traditional Medicine, which means it is not to be completely dismissed, and many traditional approaches, herbs, medicinal ingredients etc. are indeed under clinical trials. Many of ancient Indian remedies have also been patented, and our very own Dr Mashelker of Pune was at the forefront of the fight to protect ancient Indian wisdom from patent infringements. But that's a different story.

    What also needs to be understood, is that while there is nothing wrong in swallowing fish in a hope to cure asthma (regardless of whether it is effective), it might be problematic if you were being told to throw away your inhaler and your prescription meds, and have complete faith in this system. Ask yourself if your '3-4 out of 1000s' argument would hold in that case.

    If you look at the Ordinance too, it doesn't say you shouldn't buy or sell traditional medicine - the provisions are against denying medical care to someone with a fatal emergency. Also note that logically, this would only apply in cases where such medical care is available.

    Our family has for over 3 decades trusted this Vaidya, who is usually our first resort and reliable source of pills and powders for everything from car sickness to jaundice. Yet when my father went to him for advice on Diabetes, Mr Vaidya told him without mincing words that while he would give us some of his wonder pills and powders, under no circumstances should my father stop taking the medicine prescribed by his consulting physician. This kind of honesty and integrity, sadly, is not as commonplace as you and I would like to believe.

    1. Agreed. I simply wanted to make one point. What is superstition to me can be religion to you.

      According to you, this is traditional medicine. According to the the NatGeo Experts this came under Taboo. (Just another one of the weird practices followed by a backward nation of 100 Gods and 1000 superstitions.)

      So who decides?

  3. Glad you made the point - because that exactly is the point I've been trying to address. The Bill is NOT against religion and faith, and NatGeo's opinion has nothing to do with this. No laws are being framed to ban a Satyanarayan Pooja at your home - that happens to be one of the charges made by the extreme right wingers.

    But when you or I or a bunch of people anywhere ties up a woman, beats her with sticks and jhaadus, parades her naked and all this is done in the name of faith and religion, that's a problem and the State needs to intervene. It's a crime, a human right violation, and THIS is NOT open to debate.

    As for your fish guzzlers, they can stick to their practice as long as nobody dies because they swallowed fish instead of reaching for an inhaler during an asthma attack.

    So who decides whether fish guzzling is a thing? You have all the time on earth to figure that out as far as your zeal for fish guzzling doesn't cost people their life. Not asking for too much, is this?

    Nobody is passing judgment yet on matters of faith. The right to religion is guaranteed in our constitution, and no Bill, Ordinance or Act can overstep it. Almost all laws in all countries respect your right to your own set of religious beliefs.

    Only when you start imposing your faith on others, overstepping other people's Right to Live, or their right to a dignified existence, meting out summary justice - all under the guise of faith - that's when you need to be stopped.

    1. I am all for stopping Human Cruelties. But if the right wingers are exaggerating, aren't we over-simplifying?

  4. Again - and I don't care how long I have to hold on to this argument - no. Everything I've said over the last two articles and my comments above is based on actual contents of the Ordinance. If you look at the contents (and I assume you have read each and every word of it before posting a comment), every clause is directed at preventing inhuman practices, cruelty and human rights violation. If you think any clause can actually come in the way of Faith, kindly point it out and I will be the first to sign a petition to modify it. As of now, I fail to see that.