Against superstition

Outlawing superstitious beliefs in Kerala: A rational move

Print edition : August 16, 2019

Outside a house in Neyyattinkara on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram where a mother and daughter committed suicide reportedly because of harassment based on superstitious beliefs of close relatives. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Justice (retd) K.T. Thomas. Photo: C. Ratheesh Kumar

The Kerala State Law Reforms Commission has submitted to the government a draft Bill that seeks to curb harmful, fraudulent and exploitative practices associated with superstitious beliefs, but will a law based on it become a reality?

A LONG-PENDING demand of rationalist groups and other progressive organisations in Kerala for a law to curb harmful, fraudulent and exploitative practices associated with superstitious beliefs, including sorcery and black magic, has finally received some official attention.

In the wake of several recent incidents of torture and even murder under the pretext of superstitious practices, the Kerala State Law Reforms Commission, headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice (retired) K.T. Thomas, has submitted a draft law to eradicate such practices and create awareness about the danger irrational beliefs pose to individuals and society.

Yet there is still scepticism that the draft Bill will become law any time soon, given the political repercussions the ruling Left Democratic Front government faced over the issue of the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple. But members of the commission told Frontline that the State government too had suggested the drafting of such a Bill. It will have to undergo the scrutiny of the Home and Law Departments before the government decides to present it in the State Assembly.

If the Kerala Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices, Sorcery and Black Magic Bill, 2019, eventually receives the approval of the Assembly, Kerala may be the third State, after Maharashtra and Karnataka, to pass such a law.

“We have prepared this draft carefully, keeping in mind the several incidents that have happened in the State. We found that the problem is widespread and quite alarming and only some instances have caught the attention of the media. We have also taken into consideration the provisions of similar legislation passed by Maharashtra and Karnataka,” K. Sasidharan Nair, Vice Chairman of the Law Reforms Commission, told Frontline.

Kerala, known for overcoming one of the harshest religious and caste systems in India and embracing progressive political ideas early on, has, especially since the late 1990s, fallen under the grip of faith healers, astrologers, black magicians, occult practitioners, and so on, who indulge in fraudulent and evil practices, exploiting people’s ignorance and their irrational beliefs (“Going backward”, Frontline, October 4, 2013).

“It is not just the poor and the uneducated who fall prey to such practices. The problem thrives among people of all faiths, castes and communities, among rich and poor alike, as even a casual look at the wide variety of ‘institutions’ that thrive on people’s superstitious beliefs and the advertisements in the media and public places offering magical remedies to life’s problems would reveal,” said K.N. Anil Kumar, president of the Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham (KYS), a rationalist organisation.

Indeed, consider the following disturbing reports of incidents in the State in recent years, in which people who surrendered to such beliefs or fraudsters and evil practitioners who targeted the gullible caused irreparable harm to innocent people and their families:

A well-educated young man kills his parents and sister as part of his attempt to gain “supernatural powers” through rituals associated with satan worship.

A family of three living in self-imposed isolation in a wealthy neighbourhood and known to have conducted regular midnight rituals inside their home are found dead. The police received a suicide note, among other things, with the statement that their property should after their death be given to an astrologer whom they used to consult regularly.

A woman and her daughter immolate themselves apparently as a result of cruelty, harassment and exploitation by her husband and mother-in-law, firm believers in superstitious rituals and black magic. The husband was reportedly abusive and regularly quarrelled with the woman, who opposed the mother-in-law’s belief that they need not repay the mounting debt they owed to a bank because some supernatural force would assist them in repaying their housing loan, by helping them win a lottery. Lottery tickets and the eviction notice from the bank used to be regularly kept for divine grace when rituals were conducted in the house. There were reports of other forms of harassment as well, and finally, the woman and her daughter chose to end their lives.

A housewife is starved to death as a result of her family’s belief in black magic rituals.

A 16-year-old girl falls victim to black magic because her family believed she was possessed by her mother’s ghost and needed exorcism.

The draft law seeks to prohibit the promotion, propagation and practice of all inhuman evil practices, black magic or sorcery, and punish such acts if a person is “harmed or injured physically or mentally, extorted, threatened or exploited financially or sexually or his or her dignity is offended” by the commission of an offence defined under its provisions. The offenders are to be punished, irrespective of whether the act is committed “with or without the consent of the victim”.

Banned activities

Activities that are sought to be banned by the proposed law under its definition of “inhuman evil practices and black magic” include (as described in the schedule):

“(1) Performing any inhuman evil act, black magic or sorcery, parading naked or putting a ban on a person’s daily activities or using such alleged powers to extort, threaten or intimidate people or assault any person in search of precious things, bounty or hidden treasure or instigating, advising or encouraging the commitment of such inhuman acts.

“(2) Instilling an impression by declaring that a power inapprehensible by senses has influenced one’s body or that a person is possessed of such power, and thereby create fear in the mind of another or to threaten another of evil consequences for not following the advice of such a person.

“(3) Under the pretext of expelling a ghost, assaulting any person or tying the person with rope or chain, beating by stick or whip causing pain to the person, hanging a person to roof, fixing him with rope or plucking his hair or causing pain by way of touching heated object to organs or body of a person, or inflicting pain by any other means; forcing a person to perform sexual act, practice inhuman acts, putting urine or human excreta forcibly in the mouth of a person or practice any similar acts.

“(4) To create panic in the minds of public in general on the pretext of invoking ghosts or threaten to invoke ghosts creating an impression that there is some supernatural power inapprehensible by senses, and preventing a person from taking medical treatment, or threatening a person with death or causing physical pain or causing financial loss by practising or tending to practise black magic, sorcery or inhuman evil act.

“(5) (a) To create an impression that one has special supernatural powers or that he is the incarnation and thereby indulging in sexual activity with another person; (b) to indulge in sexual act with a woman who is unable to conceive, assuring her of motherhood through supernatural power.

“(6) Involving in evil practices against women by forcing isolation, prohibiting re-entry into the village or facilitating segregation of menstruating postpartum women; and subjecting women to inhuman and humiliating practices such as parading them naked in the name of worship or otherwise.

“(7) Forcing any person to carry on evil practices such as causing hurt or killing of an animal or bird.

“(8) The practice of piercing rod or arrow from one side of cheek to other side.

“(9) Pelting of stones on residential houses or polluting food or water making it unfit for human consumption, under the purported influence of ‘kuttichathan’.

“(10) Prohibiting and preventing a person from taking medical treatment for any illness and instead giving him treatment like mantra-tantra or chanting prayers or such other things.”

Any such act, its abetment or attempts to commit such offences are to invite punishment of one to seven years and a fine of Rs.5,000 to Rs.50,000. But if the victim dies or is grievously hurt, the offence will invite the relevent provisions of the Indian Penal Code, namely, Section 300 (relating to murder) and Section 320 (relating to causing grievous hurt).

The draft law defines “sorcery” as “supernatural magic performed by using the power of evil spirits, separate from religion and science”, and “magic remedy” as including “a talisman, mantra, or any other charm of any kind claimed to possess miraculous powers for or in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of any disease or for affecting or influencing in any manner the structure or any organic function of human beings or animals”.

According to the KYS, which had been campaigning for such a law from 2015, in the past five years alone nearly 20 murders as a result of black magic practices have been reported in Kerala. “But it is not just these extreme instances that should draw attention. People are increasingly falling victim to fraudsters who promise them the world, more wealth, victory over enemies and in examinations, relief from diseases and what not, and divest them of their wealth and happiness,” Anil Kumar said.

Exclusions

The draft Bill states that the provisions of the law will not, however, apply to the performance of religious rituals at home, places of worship or other religious places that do not cause physical harm to any person; advice with regard to vastu shastra or from astrologers unless such advice results in cheating, defrauding or exploiting any person; and traditional religious rites and acts that the State government may notify in the official gazette. It also excludes from its purview forms of worship at religious or spiritual places; religious celebrations, festivals, prayers, processions and any other related act; the practice or propagation of teaching of ancient saints, traditional learnings and arts; and statements about the miracles of deceased saints or distribution of literature about the miracles of religious preachers.

Anil Kumar pointed out that the draft proposal did not include in its purview superstitious practices happening within established places of worship. “The law needs to define the word ‘superstition’ quite clearly and ban activities related to it, irrespective of where they happen. We need sharper definitions of what the law means by ‘superstition’, ‘black magic’ or ‘sorcery’, etc.”

“The purpose of any new law should be clearly stated in its title itself, making it obvious that it is meant to prevent ‘exploitation’ based on superstitious beliefs and practices. ‘Superstition’ is something that is not well defined. ‘Exploitation’, on the other hand, is clearly defined and is easy to target,” said the editor of Sastragathi, the science magazine of the Kerala Sashtra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP), a people’s science movement.

Along with the KYS, the KSSP too has been regularly campaigning for a law in Kerala against superstitious practices. In 2014, the KSSP submitted to the State government a draft Bill “to prevent and eradicate superstitious and evil practices”. This was soon after the Government of Maharashtra passed the Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013, following the murder of the long-time rationalist campaigner Narendra Dabholkar, founder of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti. In November 2017, the Karnataka government, under pressure from several civil society groups and after the murder of the rationalist campaigner M.M. Kalburgi, passed a similar law: the Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Act, 2017. The passing of these laws had met with strong opposition, with virulent detractors calling the legislation “anti-Hindu” and “anti-religious” even though the cases registered under these Acts later proved that the victims belonged to several religious denominations and castes.

In 2014, following the death of a woman in Karunagappally, in Kollam district, during a black magic ritual, the then Congress-led United Democratic Front government announced that it would examine the proposal to introduce similar legislation in Kerala too. But nothing came of it despite the many campaigns that followed demanding a stringent law against the spreading social evil.

N.K. Jayakumar, Member of the Law Reforms Commission, who is also Adviser (Law) to the Chief Minister of Kerala, said that though the basic format of the proposed law had been borrowed from similar legislation in Maharashtra and Karnataka the commission had fine-tuned it to reflect the milieu in Kerala. “We submitted the draft to the government without inviting public opinion on it as we felt it is a sensitive issue that could cause extreme emotions among people. The government can throw it open for a public debate at a later stage, before or once it is formally presented in the Assembly,” he said.

The draft Bill also envisages the publication by the police of the name, place of residence and other details of persons convicted under its provisions in the media and includes a clause urging the government to undertake programmes to create awareness against the ill effects of superstitious and occult practices, black magic or sorcery and give proper counselling and medical relief to the victims. Jayakumar told Frontline that the commission believed that a law alone was not enough to prevent such practices. But as the experience in the two other States has shown, it will certainly have symbolic value and create an impression that it is “wrong” and “illegal” to indulge in such practices.

“Legislative intervention would be effective in curbing such practices only to some extent. The key is to create awareness. Over 400 cases have reportedly been registered under the law in Maharashtra so far, and in nearly 60 of them people have been convicted. In that sense, a well-defined law is effective. However, as of now, in the context of the draft law proposed by the commission and the nature of its provisions, we can only say ‘something is better than nothing’ in the long battle against superstition in Kerala, a society that otherwise has all the trappings of modernity,” Anil Kumar said.

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