Three recent developments should jolt all thinking Indians into introspecting on the colossal harm that blind faith is inflicting on this society. First, the media carried pictures of Indian Space Research Organisation chairman K Radhakrishnan sitting before a replica of the Mars orbiter that ISRO launched, and offering special prayers at the Tirupati temple. Seeking the blessings of deities and godmen is a long-established practice at ISRO.
The message this sent about Indian space scientists’ confidence in their own vocation, and their notion of what it means to do science in the 21st century or cultivate a minimally rational culture, so deeply embarrassed eminent scientist CNR Rao that he publicly deplored the practice. Rao, who chairs the Prime Minister’s scientific advisory council, was recently given the Bharat Ratna.
Second, the Archaeological Survey of India was bullied into excavating a site in Uttar Pradesh where, claimed a godman, a huge treasure of gold lies buried. God had revealed this to him in a dream. The ASI disgraced itself by digging for the non-existent treasure. But archaeology isn’t about finding gold or whatever lies underground, but about period-wise layer-by-layer discovery and identification of long-buried objects like pottery, shards and other artefacts to reconstruct civilisational history. The ASI mocked its science, and undermined people’s faith in the integrity of public institutions.
Third, there was the revolting sight of bare-backed Dalits rolling themselves in food left over after a feast for Brahmins—a ritual called Made Snana in Karnataka, which is meant to “purify” the low castes. Nothing could be more degrading or insulting than the reduction of the Dalit to a sub-human status, and its public celebration.
These are relatively mild examples of superstition’s ugly manifestations in our society. Violent or pernicious expressions of abuse of blind faith are even more widespread: passing off sleights-of-hand as miracles, inflicting bodily harm upon people to exorcise “ghosts”, preventing rational medical treatment for curable diseases, sexually abusing gullible women by promising to reveal secret mantras to them, falsely branding people as satanical agents, and animal and human sacrifice to fight “evil spirits”. Such practices are growing as social institutions break down, existential uncertainties mount, and insecure and disoriented individuals seek succour in irrationality only to be exploited and abused.
Pune-based rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, who campaigned against such abusive practices, was recently killed by forces of fanatical intolerance, irrationality and social reaction. For 18 years, he fought for a law to punish such practices. Faced with obscurantist opposition led by Hindutva forces, Maharashtra’s political leadership lacked the courage to enact it. This past August, after Dabholkar’s assassination, the state passed the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Ordinance.
Now a Bill is before the state legislature to convert it into an Act. This must be wholeheartedly supported and passed forthwith. The contrived argument drummed up against it, that it will outlaw traditional Bhakti practices and punish people for undertaking pilgrimages or for holding superstitious beliefs, are specious and must be rejected. The Bill doesn’t outlaw superstition, it only punishes its exploitation in the form of patently harmful practices. True, legal means alone won’t abolish superstition, for which a social reform movement is needed. But the law will nevertheless create a climate conducive to building such a movement. India sorely needs it.
Bidwai is a writer, columnist, and a professor at the Council for Social Development, Delhi