If Maharashtra anti-superstition ordinance were in force Krishna, Jesus and Mohammad would have been jailed

Rohit Dhankar

Dr. Dabholkar was murdered for helping people think better, rationally and developing their reason to deal with fraudulent superstition. He was actually working for the fundamental duties according to the constitution of India: “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”, Section 51A(h). The state which is very sensitive on protection of those who violate the constitution (religious bigots, regional hate mongers like Raj Thackeray, and innumerable other) could not protect a citizen who was working for the constitutional duties and within constitutional rights.

But when Dr. Dabholkar was murdered and people paid attention to his work and sacrifice; the state quickly wanted to redeem itself. So they passed an ordinance with a mouth full of a name, hold your breath: “Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Ordinance, 2013”. Its too big, I will simply call it “Maharashtra Anti-Superstition Ordinance” (MASO).

This ordinance has many progressive stipulations and should be welcomed for them. Much fraud happens in the name of religious beliefs, magic, tantra, and super natural powers. Politicians and film starts are the most visible people who promote superstitions regarding powers of five-star babas. They spread five-start superstitions. The common public does not have wherewithals to indulge in five-star superstition with five star babas, so they have their own cheep versions with cheep babas. These babas usually are criminals and the public does need protection from them. So the ordnance is perhaps to do some good.

But, the ordinance also has problems. It is very badly drafted, and has provisions that seem to be problematic in a democracy. Let’s have a look at some of these problems.

Item 11 (a) in the schedule of banned practices takes the cake to my mind. The full text of 11(a) reads: To create an impression that special supernatural powers are present in himself, incarnation of another person or holy spirit or that the devotee was his wife, husband or paramour in the past birth, thereby indulging into sexual activity with such person.” It can be divided into two parts, one I have italicized and other is made bold. The acts in the bold part, of course, should be punishable. The problem is caused by the italicized part.

Now Krishna claimed to be the God in Gita, and also showed supernatural power to Arjuna. Jesus declared himself to be god’s son and turned water into wine. Under this ordinance both would have been sent to jail minimum for 6 months. A good rationalist could have taken Mohammad to court for claiming that the Koranic verses were given to him by Gabriel, a super natural being.

I have no love lost for the three gentlemen mentioned in the paragraph above. But in a democracy with freedom of expression I would definitely support them to express what they believed. Punishing them for openly declaring what they thought to be true is throttling freedom of expression; if one allows it in this matter today, it will be done in other matters tomorrow. So a democratic citizen should come to the support of Krishna, Jesus and Mohammad in this matter, and work for changing the law. If someone today believes that he is a prophet or an avatar, it should not be nabbed b y law.

However, a critical democratic citizen should also contest the propagation of false beliefs. But that, in such cases, can not be done on the pain of punishment. Therefore, they should be allowed to express their views, and then should be challenged publicly and exposed for being deluded or deliberately mischievous. The MASO does no service either to democracy or to reason by this provision. Actually, it positively harms both. It harms democracy by curtailing freedom of expression and reason by propping it up through the crutches of law. Reason that can not stand on its own feet is lame and useless. Laws don’t change people’s beliefs, only behavior; that too if rigorously implemented.

Banned item 5 in the schedule states (part only): “To create an impression by declaring that a power inapprehensible by senses has influenced one’s body.” I wonder if I can sue a doctor who tells me that I am suffering from schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is not apprehensible by senses and can affect the body as well.

Superstitions can be relatively benign and their practitioners may not charge anything. Let me give an example. “Moch-aan” is a term used for stiffness in body parts in some rural areas of north India. And it is supposed to be cured if a person who is born feet-first presses the stiff part of the body seven times with the big toe of his left foot. Now this is plainly silly. But is it punishable? This may be interpreted as possession of special supernatural power which is punishable as per item 11(b) of the schedule. Of course such silly superstitions should be eradicated, but not by law. The state should make laws only for those superstitions which cause harm and/or involve crime. This law plays with people’s beliefs in too wide an area. Things which should be fought through rational dialogue and do not involve harm or crime should be fought rationally only.

The law is also very vague. In section two (on definitions) I states: ““human sacrifice and other inhuman, evil and aghori practices and black magic” means the commission of any act, mentioned or described in the Schedule appended to this Ordinance, by any person, by himself or caused to be committed through or by instigating any other person.” It promises to give definition of “inhuman, evil and aghori practices and black magic” in the schedule. But the schedule itself keeps on repeating the same terms without ever defining them. I think meditating in shamshan is an aghori practice. Why should it be punished?

As per the definition of “propagation” in section 2(d) I believe Sudhir Kakkar can be punished for one of his books (if I remember correctly “Shamans, Mystics, And Doctors”) as it gives detailed description of aghori practices. What the definition of “propagation” in the ordnance says is: ““propagate” means issuance or publication of advertisement, literature, article or book relating to or about human sacrifice and other inhuman, evil and aghori practices and black magic and includes any form of direct or indirect help, abatement, participation or cooperation with regard to human sacrifice and other inhuman, evil and aghori practices and black magic”.

It seems the Maharashtra government wanted to show its concern for superstitions and its rationalist credentials in the atmosphere created in wake of Dr. Dabholkar. They did not have enough time to think through the ordinance and promulgated a vague ordinance. This vagueness is good neither for rational attitude nor for democracy. Let’s remember that vague parts of laws become un-implementable and that harms the cause for which the law was created.


2 Responses to If Maharashtra anti-superstition ordinance were in force Krishna, Jesus and Mohammad would have been jailed

  1. Samir Samnani says:

    most of the people are follower not creator of their own ideas and belief systems. Democracy, rationality sumtimes these words looks superficial or come from other planet sorry to say this. People in india can’t questions wrong practice of bapus, mullahs we know that and experience also. Recent evidence of aasharam bapu we witnessed. U can’t challenge everything in court or public domain unless and until opposition belive in constitution. We know powerful forces make mockery of it. Sir my question is why there are few rationalists? Why reason can’t rule the world? Why we need dogmas to sustain? Why we fear to die accept wrong practice, systems but not stand against them? Education may be one reason don’t know others….. I ask many questions may be not relevant. But a man Mr. Dabholkar who fight for cause and sacrifice his life then also JUSTICE IS DUE IN THIS GREAT DEMOCRATIC SET UP. WHY. I think we don’t have lawyers


  2. Anonymous says:

    The issue of personal beliefs, personal practices and public practices coming in conflict is a very complex one, and I congratulate Rohit for provoking thinking on these. I am myself not very clear how and where lines can be drawn between the personal and the public, but am taking the liberty to post thoughts of another thinker I found very convincing. He said something like : “Why should it matter to anyone else if someone decides to construct the door of his house towards the east instead of west because s/he believes in vaastu or some such principle? It affects nobody else. But if the same person does not give treatment to his daughter for her tuberculosis and takes her for some mantra treatment because of his personal belief system, it is an issue of public concern since it impinges on her democratic rights of life and well-being.” Extending this argument, I am free to believe I have special powers to read or influence other minds/lives or my biases about other people, but if I ACT on my beliefs against other people (e.g. against a one-eyed person, or a widow, or a dark-skinned person, or a person I consider as inferior for some other reason), I am harming their democratic rights and I must be checked by the democratic system, by democratic processes in some way.

    The same thinker went on to say : “It is perfectly fine if I believe in souls and ghosts personally, but would my testimony hold in a court of law that person X was murdered by a soul/ghost? If not, the belief is meaningless in a public, democratic space.”

    This raises another, even more ticklish issue. What if I see a person harming herself (in my view) because of his/her own belief system, which I think goes against her own democratic rights or well-being? Should I /others intervene? Try convincing otherwise? What if I see some disempowered person actually believing that s/he is inferior/wrong?

    What about the reverse case? A person believing s/he is superior and harming himself/herself by being arrogant, destroying others’ concern, affection or relations? Should I/others intervene? Where is the limit of my (so called well-intentioned) actions and others’ personal/public freedoms?

    I will be happy to hear more thoughts on this.



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