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.