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Why Jesus wept in Mumbai: The church versus the rationalist

This is about more than a dripping tap.

Sanal Edamaruku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association is in the hot seat after he tried to debunk the mysterious dripping statue at a Vile Parle church in Mumbai as being more about holey plumbing than holy water.

Hundreds of people had flocked to the church in March because of reports that drops of water were “miraculously” trickling from a statue in the church.

Edamaruku, who makes it his business to go on crusades against miracles and godmen, went to the church and tried to show that if Jesus was weeping, it was only because of clogged drainage pipes in this case. "This was sewage water seeping through a wall due to faulty plumbing," he told The Guardian. "It posed a health risk to people who were fooled into believing it was a miracle."

Edamaruku has been accused of blasphemy and is in exile in Finland while an online campaign by the British Rationalist Association calling for the withdrawal of the FIRs filed against him in Mumbai has drawn more than 11,000 signatures. He has become a cause celebre for freedom of speech and the New Humanist and the Index on Censorship just held an event in London to highlight his case. He was recently on a five-day speaking tour of Ireland where he said Islamic states were using Ireland’s introduction of a blasphemy law two years ago “as justification” to go after religious dissidents in their own countries.

Representational Image. Reuters

The only problem is, contrary to press reports, Edamaruku is not being targeted because he exposed a “miracle.” In fact, the Catholic church in India has gone out of its way to say it never claimed the dripping statue in the Vila Parle church was a miracle in the first place.

In a debate on TV9, Bishop Agnelo Gracias from Mumbai said clearly “We will never say it is a miracle. The church will investigate and investigate very carefully.”  He said it was possible this particular incident had “natural causes”  and agreed that Edamaruku has a “right to doubt.” The Catholic church has also said it is not behind the FIRs against the rationalist. It is the Catholic Secular Forum and other like-minded groups that have filed the FIRs.

What the church is angry about are comments that Edamuruku made in connection with the whole affair, not the debunking of the dripping image per se. Joseph Dias, the general secretary of the Catholic Secular Forum says the Church is upset because Edamuruku told the media that “Christian clergy under the pretext of religion, regularly manufacture miracles, on the basis of which they collect money. The clergy uses monies thus collected to build newer and bigger churches. This is one such tamasha of many that are existing.”  Dias alleges that Edamaruku has also accused the Pope of being “anti-science” and propagating “black magic” and scoffed at Christians for worshipping the Cross on which Christ died saying “does anyone worship the gun with which Gandhi was shot?”

In his TV9 debate, Edamaruku welcomed any case against him because he wanted to prove his assertions in court. But now that the FIRs have been filed, he is living in Europe asking for “mounting international pressure” on the Indian government. “I felt really upset because under the blasphemy law you cannot get bail until the court case begins. I would be in jail now if I had been at my apartment in Delhi," he told The Guardian.

Sanal Edamaruku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Even though the media has turned this into a case of a rationalist forced to flee his country for debunking a miracle, in an interview with the New Scientist, Edamaruku made his larger motive clear saying, “The promotion of superstition and belief in paranormal phenomena dulls people's minds and establishes dangerous misconceptions about reality in our society. Such efforts have to be countered.” So he is in his own way as much of a missionary seeking converts for his particular “ism” as the Church is for its own belief.

But none of Edamaruku’s larger allegations should be news to the church. Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, has made a career out of taking on the church. In a recent blog on the Washington Post he called the Pope a “leering old villain in a frock” who is in charge of a “profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution.” Compared to that, Edamaruku’s insistence on referring to the Pope as Mr Pope seems almost civil.

The difference between Richard Dawkins and Sanal Edamaruku is that the latter lives in India. And in India we have article 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code which makes “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage of insult religious feelings” an offence punishable by up to 3 years in jail. This law which is meant to protect all religions  has actually become a weapon instead of a shield. So an Edamaruku finds himself its victim as did M F Husain as well as the two girls who dared to question the bandh in Mumbai after Bal Thackeray’s death. The state does not have to get into the picture at all. Concerned citizens like the Catholic Secular Forum can take umbrage on behalf of the entire community and try to squash anyone who upsets them.

At the end of this storm in a teacup, Edamaruku and the Indian Rationalist Association will have gotten a PR boost as will the Catholic Secular Forum. And this particular controversy will blow over. But Article 295(A) will hang over our heads, a potent weapon in the hands of anyone who chooses to use or abuse it. “If you want to build a truly liberal society you have to protect the right of the speaker and not just  of the one who feels offended,” says Salil Tripathi, the author of Offence: The Hindu Case. We are clearly a long way from that. And that should worry us much more than bad plumbing in a church in Vile Parle.

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