The Bill Dabholkar was originally championing- dubbed the Anti-Superstition Bill by the media- was actually too draconian to pass muster. Dabholkar was a ceaseless campaigner against "blind faith" and the criminal practices of certain self-styled holy persons that blind faith always enables, but can anyone legislate against blind faith?
If the murderers of Narendra Dabholkar thought they are going to win the war against rationalism and superstition by killing him, they are most likely to be proved wrong. Killing a person does not kill his ideas; in fact, the chances are that the senseless killing may well provoke large sections of society to examine Dabholkar's ideas- and more people may embrace them. In death, Dabholkar may well snatch victory that life denied him.
However, there is another side to the story as well. The Bill Dabholkar was originally championing- dubbed the Anti-Superstition Bill by the media- was actually too draconian to pass muster. Dabholkar was a ceaseless campaigner against "blind faith" and the criminal practices of certain self-styled holy persons that blind faith always enables, but can anyone legislate against blind faith?
You can legislate against crime, misrepresentation, fraud and trickery, but can you outlaw blind faith, even if accentuated by superstition, if it harms no one? If you can, then all religion is a fraud-for it is based on unproveable, blind belief systems.
The line separating superstition from faith is thin, but the line differentiating faith-even blind faith-from criminality is a very thick one. It is the latter that law must fight against. Blind faith can only be overcome by actual experience, education and social sensitisation. It cannot be eradicated by law. In any case, not all blind faith is foolish faith.
Blind faith can drive you to be a suicide bomber; but blind faith also creates a Mirabai or a Tukaram or a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa.
If you are induced to sacrifice someone's child to beget your own, you are a criminal guilty of murder. You need a law, even a harsh one beyond the one available in the Indian Penal Code, to deal with this heinous act. But would the same charge apply if I invite a priest home to conduct a religious ceremony for facilitating the birth of an offspring?
It is fraud to promise someone a cure from cancer by selling pieces of chalk as medicine, but is it quite a if the same cancer patient is asked to chant some divine mantras (or chant something with a rudraksha in hand) to help with his cure?
Rationally speaking, we all know that there can be no miracles, no magic possible. But human beings are not rational all the time. They have a right not to be. If that wasn't so, no religion could have survived. The mere fact that so many have for so long suggests that blind faith and irrational beliefs serve some rational human purpose. Moreover, is nationalism or patriotism or sacrificing your life for protecting the flag also not something essentially irrational?
Very often, blind faith works where reason does not. Faith is, in many ways, the same as the placebo effect in medicine-where the mere belief that something will cure sometimes enables the cure. The placebo actually does not do anything, but belief in something makes us more likely to do the right things that will improve our chances of success. We all know that the mind influences the way the body reacts to disease or disability-blind faith sometimes plays the same role in influencing the mind to deal with something that afflicts the body.
Dabholkar's organisation, the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, or the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith, campaigned for rationalism and humanism ceaselessly-and it is certainly a cause worth fighting for in the social sphere. But was everything he was fighting against really worth having a law about?
Consider some of the key aims of his organisation. Among many other suggested bans, he also wanted to ban these activities, many of which are on the borderline of the rational and the irrational:
To perform magical rites in the name of supernatural power. (How do we define magical rites, and isn’t all religious chanting or saying prayer about invoking a supernatural power, a.k.a. God?)
To offer ash, talisman, charms etc. for the purpose of exorcism and to drive out evil spirits or ghosts. (Some of this would outlaw everyone from the Saibaba to Baba Ramdev. For that matter, doesn’t the Catholic Church even now perform exorcisms, or, for that matter, many Hindu sects and godmen? Once upon a time, shock treatments were prescribed for rational reasons for people with mental problems, too. The only thing to outlaw is cruelty and pain in the name of magical treatment.)
To claim possession of supernatural powers and to advertise this claim. (Again, this would outlaw all godmen, sufi saints, or any sect claiming miracle potential in their particular patron saint, even when they do no particular harm. It would bring the Church's efforts to confer sainthood on Mother Teresa or Sister Alphonsa into question).
To defame, disgrace the names of erstwhile Saints/Gods, by claiming to be their reincarnation and thus cheating the gullible and God-fearing simple folks. (Again, all sects claim something unproveable in terms of linkage to previous prophets/saints. How is it a crime to claim reincarnation today, when the same claim made by saints in the past is above board? Why not scrap the original claims of Rama and Krishna to be avatars of Vishnu, or Christ to be the Son of God, or the Prophet as Messenger of God? Saibaba of Puttaparthi would have been clapped in irons for claiming reincarnation from the Shirdi Saibaba).
To sell or deal in so-called magic stones, talisman, bracelets, charms. (This is simply impossible to implement, given that all religions everywhere allow commerce in these products).
To become possessed by supernatural powers and then pretend to give answers to any questions in this mental state? (Would the Prophet not fall in this category?)
To sacrifice innocent animals for the appeasement of gods or spirits (How is the sacrifice of “innocent” animals for religious practice somehow more nasty than sacrificing them for food, nutrition or achieving medical breakthroughs? Would Kali worshippers or Muslims accept this restriction on their practices?)
But few people can quarrel with some of the major aims of Dabholkar’s organisation, including laws to prevent the beating and punishment of mentally ill patients in the name of driving out evil spirits, or preventing anyone from taking genuine medicine in the name of religious prohibitions.
In fact, the latest version of the so-called Anti-Superstition Bill drops much of what Dabholkar wanted, and is, in fact, named the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill. The name says it all – and cannot be all that objectionable.This Bill is far less draconian than the one Dabholkar originally proposed, and it excludes “religious rituals and rites that cause no mental, physical and financial harm to individuals.”
Moreover, more bad laws are made with the backing of religion than without it. Would Savita Halappanavar have died in an Irish hospital without a church-backed law on not doing abortions? Why should polygamy laws be in the statute book at all? The reason is simple: socially accepted ideas sanctioned by religion have to be fought in the social space, and not always by law.
This is not to suggest that Dabholkar was wrong is pursuing his pet cause, but the larger point is to focus on reforming society – which the law can only help marginally. You need laws to deal with cases where blind faith causes harm physically or financially – through deceit, fraud, misrepresentation or criminal intent. But here, in most cases, the existing law is good enough.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group