Black Magic

Promoting Superstition

Subhash Gatade

Bhupendra Singh Chudasama, Education minister of Gujarat and his colleague Atmaram Parmar, who handles the Social Justice Ministry, were in the news sometime back, albeit for wrong reasons. A video went viral which showed them participating in a felicitation ceremony of exorcists in Botad. They were also seen watching how a couple of the exorcists were beating themselves with metal chains to live music near the stage.

Perhaps it did not matter to them that the Constitution frowns upon such activities and Article 51A(h) of the Indian constitution clearly says that it shall be a fundamental duty of all citizens "to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform". Neighbouring state Maharashtra has even enacted a law (The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013) to rein in all such activities and it criminalises practices related to black magic, human sacrifices, use of magic remedies to cure ailments and other such acts which exploit people's superstitions. And it was a culmination of a prolonged movement led by activists under Dr Dabholkar—who even faced martyrdom for his activities.

It is possible the ministerial duo could foresee that their participation could easily be glossed over/justified if they invoke question of faith, which they promptly did. Mr Chudasama was reported as saying that "[i]t was a gathering of worshipers of divine power, not those who spread superstition." Parmar also defended himself by saying that "The people who are protesting don't know about Hindu culture. These are holy men of divine power."

Anyway, it was noteworthy that their participation did not go unnoticed and there were protests as dalits and other oppressed sections felt that it was promotion of harmful superstitions. People found it disturbing that despite the fact that rural Gujarat is in grip of such exorcists who engage in all kinds of acts of superstitions, the ministers did not have any qualms in felicitating them. Rationalists have been working hard to expose the wrong doings of such exorcists—who are thousands in numbers—and who at times are also found helping /facilitating robbing of women's properties by their relatives by declaring them as witches.

Close on the heels of this incident has come another piece of news which emanated from Uttar Pradesh. It concerned pruning of guler (Ficuscarica is an Asian species of flowering plants in the mulberry family, known as the common fig or just the fig) trees lying on the Kanwariya route as they are considered 'inauspicious' by them. For the uninitated it may be told that the Kanwad Yatra commences in the Hindu calendar month of Shravan (second week of July) coinciding with the monsoon, during which devotees of Shiva (called as Kanwariya) walk miles to collect Ganga water, in Varanasi and other places. It was said that while reviewing preparations for the Kanwar Yatra, a meeting which was chaired by the CM himself, this announcement was made.

People who are in the know of things say that the claim that the tree is 'inauspicious' has been spread as a canard by a section of astrologers who say that if the pilgrims pass under it or perform religious acts under it, the 'punya' which one earns through such yatras get reduced. And it has led to bypassing of the tree by the Kanwariyas.

Question arises while it is for the devotee to decide what s/he should do about things s/he considered 'inauspicious' why the government which claims to abide by a secular constitution should spend its resources to cater to their sentiments of a particular community and thus put an official stamp on their weird world view and committ acts which seem to contravene constitution itself. In fact, of late this catering of sentiments of dominant community has gone to the ridiculous extent that the Yogi government has even ordered setting up of "Navgraha Vatika", 'Tanchavati' or 'Harishankari' in every tehsil of all 75 districts of the state during a plantation drive which will start from July 1. It is an attempt to plant specific kinds of trees which find mention in religious books of Hinduism including Vedas and Ramayana.

Pruning of particular trees—an act which has been questioned equally by rationalists and environmentalists—or participation in felicitation ceremony of exorcists rather pales in significance when education minister of a state (Rajasthan) makes a bizarre claim that cows exhale oxygen and thus puts his stamp on the 'sacredness' of the bovine in an ambience when cow related violence has seen quantum jump.

As a data analysis website has recently emphasised : As many of 97% of these attacks were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government came to power in May 2014, and about half the cow-related violence—32 of 63 cases—were from states governed by the Bharatiya Janala Party (BJP) when the attacks were reported, revealed our analysis of violence recorded until June 25, 2017. Of the 28 Indians, who died over the seven-year period, 24 were Muslim, or 86%. As many as 124 people were also injured in these attacks. More than half (52%) of these attacks were based on rumours, our analysis found.

People who are still enamoured about the Modi magic may say that why single out only BJP ruled states, promotion of superstition has been an integral part of other ruling class parties as well. In fact, nobody can claim that —barring left parties—other parties and their governments do not engage in promoting/practising superstition. We have before us examples of governments who organised prayers at different religious places when the states ruled by them were facing a drought like situation (Congress) or there are examples like the newly created Telangana or for that matter even Andhra Pradesh—where leaders are found to spending crores of Rupees—to remove 'Vastudosh' from their houses or Yagyamo 'propitiate gods' so that the states riled by them usher into prosperity. We can quote similar examples from our distant as well as not so distant past.

But it cannot be denied that promotion of superstition has gathered tremendous momentum since the ascendance of the Hindutva Right at the centre. And it has definite connection with the exclusivist worldview of RSS. Remember the manner in which Modi—who started his social-political life as a RSS Pracharak in his young age—as Prime Minister had linked 'medical science to mythology', citing "plastic surgery" and ''genetic science" to explain his creation of Lord Ganesh and Kama respectively while inaugurating a Reliance Foundation hospital in October 2014.

Speaking at a function in Mumbai, he had said, "We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time. We all read about Kama in Mahabharat. If we think a little more, we realise that Mahabharat says Karna was not bom from his mother's womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother's womb."

According to the text of the speech posted on the PMO website, he further said, "We worship Lord Ganesh. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant's head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery."

It is no mere coincidence that ascent of the Hindutva Right has also severly impacted the level of discussion in the Indian Science Congress—where there are instances where pseudo science is being peddled as science—or funding of Scientific Institutions has been further curtailed to promote particular agenda. Cowpathy or cow science seems to be the new entrant to this club.

New Delhi: Cow science, or "cowpathy", as it has been termed by Hindutva ideologues, is in for a new national level makeover. Last month, what was generally regarded as pseudoscience—or at best 'fringe science'—was elevated to the status of a major agenda for national level scientific research cutting across many scientific departments and national laboratories.

On April 25, the Science for Equity, Empowerment and Development (SEED) division of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) issued an office memorandum (OM) to constitute a National Steering Committee (NSC) for 'Scientific Validation and Research on Panchgavya (SVARO1')'. The tenure of this 19-member committee will be three years.

It remains to be seen how things would progress ahead ?

Prime Minister Modi keeps talking about emergence of New India under his leadership. With victory in UP elections this voice has become more assertive.

A cursory glance at the unfolding, scenario makes it clear that it is definitely a "New India". An India which has rediscovered old prejudices, exclusions and discriminations and is surging ahead on the path of unreason decked with superstition.

Vol. 50, No.5, Aug 6 - 12, 2017