Insights into Editorial: Do we need an anti-superstition law?

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Insights into Editorial: Do we need an anti-superstition law?


 Do we need an anti-superstition law?

Context:

Recently, the Maharashtra State Legislature passed the much publicized Anti- Superstition Bill. Maharashtra became the first state in the country to pass a bill to combat practices like black magic.

The act criminalises practices related to black magic, human sacrifices, use of magic remedies to cure ailments and other such acts which exploit people’s superstitions.

This amended bill was drafted by the Social Welfare Ministry of the Maharashtra Government. A police officer of any rank has the power to investigate cases of black magic. 

Different types of Superstitions practiced

  • Faith healers, inflict physical injury to exorcise spirits or cure ailments.
  • Branding children with heated objects and using spurious surgical methods to change the sex of a foetus.
  • Practising witchcraft.
  • Made-snana, a ritual where devotees from across castes roll over the leftover food of Brahmins in certain temples to cure themselves of skin diseases
  • Godmen abusing disciples by calling it his blessing
  • Practices, like throwing children on thorns, parading women naked, etc., obviously harm others and can’t be allowed in the name of religion.

Brutal exploitation in the name of Religion

Inhuman practices in the name of religion in the country are a cause of worry. In Maharashtra, there were several cases where people murdered or brutally injured others and held them responsible for some deaths in their families, merely on suspicion.

There were several groups which tilted the conversation by projecting it as a law against religion. Opponents to the legislation in Maharashtra had claimed that the law would affect the religious practices of Hindus; that it was anti-Hindu.

But after examining more than 350 FIRs lodged across Maharashtra in the last four years, it is found that these claims were unfounded. Data from more than 350 FIRs lodged across Maharashtra in the last four years show that the accused persons belong to various religions.

The new law addresses exploitation in the name of religion.

Other Challenges

Bigger challenges to religion have come from mutually reinforcing, external sources.

  • Religions in India came under the scrutiny of Modern science, secular statecraft and liberal legal principles. In asking for a ban on Sati in the early 19th century, Raja Ram Mohan Roy argued that it did not have approval from within Hindu religious texts. This was a commonly heard refrain in later decades too that vested social interests and not Hindu dharma were responsible for these practices.
  • Rationalists debunked religion as superstition, and the communists, who felt religion distorted reality. Driven by more modest aims, many rationalists laboured tirelessly to denounce miracles and astrology as cheap tricks.
  • Over recent decades, around 800 women in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha have been killed for practising witchcraft. Laws that aim to prevent this practice exist.

It is argued that a substantive law of such a nature is not required

  • An anti-superstition law may seem necessary, but it cannot take cognisance of all realities. The domain of an anti-superstition law is to curb superstition, associated primarily with religious and occult practices.
  • However, the question of whether we need a separate law to curb such practices has to be debated. This is because the substantive legal framework of our country is sufficiently adequate to address such crimes. For instance, throwing a child on thorns is an offence under Sections 307 and 323 of the IPC. Similarly, parading a woman naked can also be addressed specifically by Section 354B of the IPC.
  • Critics argue that a substantive law of such a nature is not required; it works to the detriment of the larger objective it seeks to work for.
  • Law and order is a State subject, so States are free to enact specific criminal laws. In the same way, States are also free to make amendments to Union laws. Therefore, ideally, Karnataka or any other State is free to amend the IPC, to accommodate specific requirements.

Why do we need a separate law for preventing Black Magic?

Around seven instances of human sacrifice have been reported since the passing of this law in 2013. Two such instances could have been prevented through timely intervention.

  • Before this law, acts involving human sacrifice could not be stopped as they were preceded by some puja and offerings — not banned under any law. Now they are.
  • The cognisance of human sacrifice is in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) only after the murder is committed.
  • The present IPC is not equipped to take care of all crimes committed on account of black magic and other superstitious practices.
  • Thus, legislation has a capacity to act as a deterrent.
  • The Maharashtra legislation has stopped the act of human sacrifice.

There are provisions in the IPC to punish violence, but the peculiar nature of the violence faced by women within the family needed a separate law.

There is a section in the Maharashtra legislation which specifically addresses and checks claims made by ‘godmen’ who say they have supernatural powers. Once something is made illegal in the eye of the law, it will not be possible for anyone to openly support fraudulent godmen.

The best way forward

Secular temptations and anxieties of money and power in the modern world explain better perhaps the rise in need-based rituals for placating deities than inner tendencies within religion. Lacking access to proper health care and poverty will also make victims fall to such methods.

  • If the executive is serious about curbing such practices, active implementation and enforcement of existing laws need to be made more effective. Studies in criminology have already established that certainty of punishment curbs the rate of crime and not the type or the quantum of punishment.
  • The enforcement machinery needs a major overhaul to make criminal justice more accessible.
  • Moral resources for replacing unacceptable practices are explored within tradition.

Conclusion

India needs legislation on superstition, though what should go into it requires debate. Every superstition cannot be removed by the force of law. For that, a mental change is necessary. However, superstitious practices that are utterly dehumanising, brutal and exploitative need to be dealt with by a law that specifically addresses them.