The government of one of India‘s most populous areas, the state of Maharashtra, has passed a bill against so-called superstitious traditions today, despite concerns by religious groups that the new law will be used to persecute those following particular practices of faith.
Led by the Chief Minister, the Maharashtrian state assembly in capital city Mumbai passed the Anti-Superstitions Bill in the wake of the recent killing of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, the most vocal supporter of the “black magic ordinance”.
The Anti-Superstitions Bill, which still needs to be voted on by Mumbai lawmakers before becoming an official addition to the state’s lawbooks, is one of the more unique laws encountered in modern legal history. If passed by the legislature governing body, it will be given signed-and-stamped assent by Sushilkumar Shinde, the Chief Minister, an Indian version of the state governor.
The bill aims to prohibit the practising of superstitious activities and the widespread use of black magic. Rationalists claim thousands of people in India are hoodwinked, left in deep debts or even murdered due to the powerful grip of black magic practitioners and false gurus, many who have become infamously wealthy, while preying on people’s faith, particularly among the poor and uneducated. Supporters of the law also say that eradicating such practices would lead to a more rational and scientifically inclined populace which is necessary as India moves towards becoming a new global superpower.
Critics of the bill have lambasted it as an assault on religious freedom. Hindu politicians have expressed concerns that the ordinance will be used by anti-Hindu opponents to entrap the faith’s religious leaders; accusing them of being charlatans. There have been numerous protests by Hindu religious parties, along with organisations such as the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Warkari sect, who fear that the legislation is an attempt to criminalise harmless religious practises in an joint atheist and secularist conspiracy damaging the credibility of the world’s third-largest faith. The Shiv Sena, a Marathi ethnic/Hindutva party, which enjoys firm support in India’s financial capital, condemned the Bill saying that it would adversely affect Hindu culture, customs and traditions. Dabholkar was accused of being anti-religion, but in an interview with the Agence France-Presse news agency he said: “In the whole of the bill, there’s not a single word about God or religion. Nothing like that. The Indian constitution allows freedom of worship and nobody can take that away, this is about fraudulent and exploitative practices.“
Narendra Dabholar, the Indian rationalist and social activist, who was gunned down last week in Pune. His bill prohibiting ‘superstitious’ activities, may soon become state law in the Indian state of Maharashtra.
The Bill has been passing through India’s notoriously slow political debate system for the past fifteen years, but is being rushed in following the aftermath of Dabholkar’s killing.
Narendra Dabholkar, a leading Mumbai-based rationalist thinker and the head of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti,’ — the Maharashtra Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith – was gunned down by two unidentified men on a motorcycle while on his daily walk on Tuesday morning. He was shot dead near the Omkareshwar Mandir (temple) in the neighbouring city of Pune by the two assailants, who allegedly fired at point-blank range. Two bullets penetrated his head and chest and he later died at a nearby hospital. He had been previously assaulted and threatened in the course of his social activism career since he began his work in 1983.
Wednesday saw citywide protests by various political parties angered by what they saw as an attack on free speech.
Mumbai was largely immobilised, as businesses shut up shop. Even vegetable markets were affected, while many of the city’s schools and colleges were also closed for the day for safety reasons. Public transport, especially the three-wheeled vehicles known as “riksha” or autorickshaws, were also prevented from collecting fares.
Up until his death, Dabholkar and his organisation had been heavily involved with legislators on the preparation of the anti-black magic laws. Despite this, several members of the Committee have claimed the state government is using their leader’s death to curry favour with angered voters. One member, Deepak Girme said: “It had to be his murder that brought the government back to its senses,”
“We are not happy because we have lost our leader. If the government had taken a step when he was alive, we would have been happy,” said Madhav Bagve, another member. He then added that Maharashtrian state politicos were only trying to save their reputations and careers.
“The government did this to save its face,” he commented.
Narendra Achyut Dabholkar was a social activist, author and rationalist whose career spanned over thirty years. Born in Mumbai in 1945, he had trained as a doctor before becoming involved in social activism in the 1980s, before turning his attention to the widespread practise of black magic, known in Hindi as “kala jadu”. He launched verbal attacks on self-styled “godmen” who claimed they had divine powers that could cure sickness and whose reputations had won them followers numbering in the thousands. His opposition to superstition, as he considered it, and his distaste against faith-based manipulation saw him co-operate with state lawmakers in the formulation of the Anti-Superstitions Bill.
The anti-superstition ruling is intended to protect the public from unscrupulous individuals or organisations who intend to which use misinformation and misguidance to cheat and harm them. This also applies to anyone who uses people’s superstitions, beliefs or faith to fleece them of money or possessions by promising quick-fix solutions or miracle cures. The law, if passed, will prohibit the performing of religious or quasi-religious rites for ‘magical’ purposes; the use of votive offerings for exorcisms; claiming to receive powers from God or ghosts; victimise or brutalise people for being possessed by evil spirits. The legislation could potentially prevent people from selling religious items, such as precious stones, charms and amulets . It could also theoretically outlaw the trade in herbal and medical remedies if claims are made that these objects are capable of curing illnesses without bona fide scientific proof.
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