By Prof. Narendra Nayak
Mangaluru, Dec 12, 2015: On the occasion of a common procession, a public meeting and a demand for a law to prevent witch craft and inhuman practices a debate should go on about this very relevant topic. It was on the 16th of November that more than hundred organizations, progressive minded swamis of some maths, authors, thinkers and thousands of common people marched from Nallappa Park to Freedom Park (in Bengaluru) ignoring the drizzle, the slushy roads and possible threats to attend a public meeting attended by around six thousand people who sat for hours listening to speeches about the raging topic- the need to put an end to life and limb threatening, physical and mental health affecting, human dignity lowering practices of the exploiters of human misery and gullibility- the superstition mongers of the society.
Coming to the necessity of a law to curb such, we have to revive the memories of Dr.Narendra Dhabolkar who had to pay with his life for his perseverance and dogged determination to bring about such a law in Maharashtra. He had been trying to do that since a decade, preparing various drafts, amending them and so on. Several years ago such a law was passed by the lower house of the Maharashtra legislature- that is the assembly but was held up in the council. So, he was trying to lobby to get it passed and was assassinated by shooting when he had gone for his morning walk on the 20th of August,2013. The perpetrators are still at large and the motivators are unknown to date.
The Maharashtra govt. promulgated an ordinance to make the draft into law, which was later regulated by passing it in the assembly. That was the first time that a specific anti superstition law was passed in India. But, the point remains as to whether it was really one such- the answer is a firm no. When my reaction to the enactment of this legislation was sought, my reaction was that something is better than nothing and with the sort of opposition to such progressive legislation, the passing of such a law by itself was a major achievement.
There were many objections to that legislation like it was directed against a specific religion- read Hinduism and so on. Such objections were also heard when such a bill was proposed for Karnataka, but more about that later. When Narendra Dhabolkar was murdered, there were meetings protesting it all over the country. In a protest held at Banashankari a day after that, we had proposed that such a law should be made for Karnataka too. This was supported by a number of individuals and organizations. The widespread demand for it was taken up by two prominent law schools the National Institute at Bengaluru, the one at Dharwar and after consultations with progressive thinkers and activists the combine draft was placed before the chief minister for discussions. As soon as it was announced that this law would be taken up, there was a furore from the Hindutva gang. It was said that putting a vermillion mark on the forehead would become an offence, growing a tulasi plant would be crime, people would be punished for doing pujas etc. With the Lok Sabha election around the corner, the ruling party decided to put the plans in cold storage and with the good show of the BJP in the polls, the bill was quietly shelved.
When M.M.Kalburgi known for his rational analysis of the Veerashaiva literature and a rationalist himself was killed in cold blood in August 2015 a renewed demand for a law to curb superstitions came up. This was linked to demands for a quick, time bound investigations into his murder and also demands for protection to rationalists under threat. Though a few of these demands were complied with, the major demands have not been fulfilled. The only redeeming feature was that rationalists under threat, mainly Prof. K.S.Bhagavan was provided with security. Investigations into the Kalburgi murder have not reached any satisfactory conclusions while the anti witch craft bill is yet to be put up. So, in order to pressurize the govt. into bringing it about, a systematic campaign was started by a Swami of Nidumamidi math. He is a progressive minded pontiff and is a declared atheist, a very strange one for the head of a religious institution. But, it is his contention that he is a true follower of Basavanna a 12th century rebel against the caste system and priest dominated Hindu society. He gave the right of worship to all and declared that work is worship. He also laid emphasis on education, feeding the poor and a life of piety. Some of his followers though they head religious institutions have followed his teachings. Many of them joined this campaign very actively.
As a part of the campaign we had district level activities on the 30th October in which processions were taken and memorandum submitted to the Deputy Commissioners of each district. This was followed by the above mentioned state level protest at Bengaluru. To be fair to the state govt. they sent two ministers for the meeting who took the memorandum to the Chief Minister and promised early action on the demands. That brings us to what the demands were.
The preliminary drafts of the bill submitted in 2013 were very comprehensive ones which can be called over-ambitious! It was a wish that once a bill would be introduced let all the crass superstitions be declared as criminal offences! This included things like astrology, palmistry, vastu etc! This united all the so called ‘experts’ in these quack pseudo sciences who exerted pressure on their believers to scuttle the bill. As it can be easily seen, these quacks have a following starting from ministers to police constables! So, this time we are less ambitious and have listed out the most harmful of these superstitions and have asked for a machinery on the lines of the Human Rights Commission to identify and eradicate these evils. We have also said that all important religious heads be also consulted and a draft bill put up for public debate. As for fears of the so called majority community being targeted, the Maharashtra experience of two years has shown that this is not the case. The cases have been filed against the malpractices and life threatening superstitions across the spectrum of religions, the cases against the so called minorities forming a much larger percentage of the number of cases filed than their composition among the general population would suggest!
But, it is clear that irrational beliefs cannot be legislated away, because the right of belief is a fundamental right in the constitution of the country. But, only caveat is that the right of belief and practice should not cross the limits of public decency and safety. Keeping this in mind, we do hope that the Karnataka Government will seriously start the process of drafting such a bill.