It’s only a coincidence that the assassination of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar was followed within a fortnight by the arrest of godman Asaram Bapu on charges of sexual assault on a 16-year-old schoolgirl.
Both were ugly black-marks on Indian society the first because it highlighted fanatical intolerance towards an intellectual who campaigned against the exploitation of people through black magic, sorcery, and sleights-of-hand by quacks who claim supernatural powers; and the second because it spoke to the persistence of the power that self-proclaimed holy men have over gullible people, which can be abused to grotesque ends.
Bapu reportedly persuaded the victim’s relatives that she was possessed by evil forces, which he would exorcise by performing certain rituals; under that pretence, he molested and sexually assaulted the girl for more than an hour.
This is only one of many recent incidents of sexual abuse by self-styled godmen. What makes it particularly obnoxious is the defiant posture adopted by hundreds of Bapu’s loyal followers against attempts to arrest him.
The ferocity isn’t unrelated to the immense power of Bapu’s Rs5,000-crore empire and the devotees’ dogmatic belief that the “spiritual” guru could do no wrong.
Bapu’s criminal misconduct closely fits some of the offences defined under the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill, which the government has just passed as an ordinance after a delay of 18 years.
The delay is partly explained by the Hindu Right’s resistance, and partly by aversion on the part of many Maharashtra Congress leaders, including former Chief Ministers Vilasrao Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan, themselves Sathya Sai Baba devotees.
The Hindu Right’s opposition to the Bill is predictable, and was voiced in dire threats to Dabholkar, including the last one, which brazenly claimed Nathuram Godse’s legacy: “Remember Gandhi. Remember what we did to him”.
However, some liberal commentators have also expressed reservations about the Bill on the grounds that it enshrines paternalism and seeks to regulate or outlaw superstition, contrasting it to science and rationality.
This criticism is misplaced. Neither the Bill, nor Dabholkar the rationalist, sought to outlaw superstition. Dabholkar didn’t campaign against faith as such, but only the consequences of practices based on blind faith and superstition-driven rituals insofar as these cause bodily or psychological harm.
The Bill/ordinance too punishes specific practices: human sacrifice, assault, torture, sexual abuse, etc, committed in the course of exorcism, performance of miracles, magical “cures” and “blessings” through beatings, and prevention of medical treatment. All this should be unexceptionable.
However, the time has come to ask if Indian society shouldn’t aim for something higher vigorous promotion of Enlightenment values, the scientific temper and critical inquiry not just in classrooms, not only to earn degrees, but in daily life, while making decisions about individual freedoms, marriage, the family and religion. This cannot be done by law, but mainly through a social reform movement.
This is an urgent task. Liberalisation and globalisation have disrupted old faith systems and given rise to a politicised religiosity centred on temples, pilgrimages, god-men and godwomen, with new, more ostentatious rituals amidst an explosive growth of superstition among the middle class.
As Meera Nanda’s The God Market argues, this religiosity is cultivated by “the state-temple-corporate complex”, which is corrupting secular public institutions. This religiosity is easily harnessed to political causes and to intolerance towards the religious minorities. This is nowhere more evident than in Ayodhya.
The author is a writer, columnist, and professor at the Council for Social Development, Delhi