Why atheist Siddaramaiah and other CMs find it tough to pass anti-superstition laws

The overwhelming consensus in Karnataka is that the state’s Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has a remarkable knack for inventing troubles for himself.

Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah. PTI

Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah. PTI

The anti-superstition Bill that the chief minister, an atheist, has been struggling to pass for three years is one such. His difficulty arises from the fact that, in his cabinet, there are only two who support his venture: he himself and his law minister. First, he was forced to drop the word ‘superstition’ from the Bill. And now, he is under pressure to drop the Bill itself, and at least for the time being, he has shelved it.

Making laws against specific superstitious practices has been easy, but a wholesale ban of superstitions is not. The Centre made a law banning Sati in 1987. Later, states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Assam enacted laws primarily aimed at witchcraft and witch-hunting, which are more rampant in India than you think. Last year, the Kerala government made a brave announcement about banishing “evil rituals”, but that was the last anybody heard anything about it.

Maharashtra first proposed an omnibus Bill against superstitious practices in 2003, but it was only after numerous amendments and ten years later that a watered-down version of it became law.

Siddaramaiah’s original Bill — like the one in Maharashtra, it’s going through many changes — proposed to ban, among other things:

• Human sacrifice
• Animal sacrifice
• ‘Made snana’ (a ritual that requires Dalits to roll over food left over by upper-caste men)
• Fire-walking
• Black magic
• Witchcraft, witch-hunting
• ‘Bettale seve’ (nude worship)
• Exorcism
• Rituals to find hidden treasures
• Creating fear by claiming to have supernatural powers
• Threatening to invoke ghosts
• Extorting money in the name of god
• Astrology and numerology for gain

There is no opposition to banning human sacrifice, witchcraft and black magic. And following an uproar, astrology, numerology and vaastu were quickly dropped from the banned list. But critics question the wisdom of prohibiting other practices, which they say are part of the culture and annual festivities for many communities. Siddaramaiah has no answers.

This is not to suggest that Siddaramaiah should give up. This is to point out that it is not easy. Here is why it is not.

First, take the latest instance.

On 21 July, Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Bhupendra Singh shocked an unsuspecting state assembly when he dropped a pearl of wisdom, stating that “ghosts” were driving farmers to commit suicide. Taken aback by the uproar that it kicked off, the BJP minister later claimed that it was what the relatives of the dead farmers had said.

The Madhya Pradesh Congress leaders laughed at Singh. But if Congressmen imagine that their party is made up of people who are driven by nothing but rational thinking, their collective address is fools’ paradise.

Let’s go back to 1951, when Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister, threatened to ban astrology. Angered by an astrologer’s prediction that an India-Pakistan war would break out soon, Nehru thundered at an AICC meeting: “People rely more on astrology now than they did 20 or 30 years ago. We are a decadent people waiting on the stars.”

“I would like to pass a law against astrology and other forms of soothsaying,” Nehru said, but did nothing of that sort. He knew that most of his ministers swore by astrology. And at least one, Home Minister C Rajagopalachari, was an amateur palmist himself.

Despite her “socialist” and “progressive” rants, Indira Gandhi was not only religious but also superstitious. Indira’s personal physician KP Mathur said in his book The Unseen Indira Gandhi that the rosary of rudraksha beads she wore for good luck had been given to her by “spiritual guru” Anandmayi Ma. Indira’s association with “tantric” and fraudster Dhirendra Bhrahmachari has been well chronicled by many writers. So was PV Narasimha Rao’s fascination for “godman” Chandraswami.

Superstition cuts across parties. Many top UP politicians including Chief Minister Akhiliesh Yadav are foolish enough to believe that Noida is a hell on earth and keep away from it. They believe that Veer Bahadur Singh, Narayan Dutt Tiwari, Mulayam Singh, Kalyan Singh and Mayawati lost power after visiting Noida.

In 2001, AIADMK leader Jayalalitha became Jayalalithaa, after she convinced herself that the extra ‘a’ would bring her good fortune. When he was Chief Minister and later the Prime Minister, Janata Dal (S) leader HD Deve Gowda made no secret of the fact that all his important decisions were guided by astrologers.

Some Left leaders I know are secretly superstitious. They remind me of some pro-prohibition Congress politicians in Kerala who uncork bottles only in the middle of night.

“Why on earth do otherwise intelligent, educated people put themselves to such thrall to superstition?” asks Congress MP Shashi Tharoor quite innocently in his 2014 book India Shashtra: Reflections on the nation in our time. Tharoor was bold to ask that question, but not bold enough to give the answer which he knows.

The answer is there for all of us to see. Politicians, whether they are rationalists or not (and most of them are blind believers in ridiculous things), are terrified of banning superstitions. Many superstitious practices and even gory rituals are faithfully observed by several Hindu castes. For politicians, their votes are too precious to monkey around with.

That’s the lesson Siddaramaiah is learning the hard way.

The Anti-Superstition Law was not part of the 2013 election manifesto of the Congress in Karnataka. But after coming to power, Siddaramaiah made a proud announcement to introduce it. He even made it a point to visit Chamarajanagar, a place jinxed like Noida and associated with bad luck.

Recommendations of an expert committee led to the first draft of the Bill which, when circulated, raised a hue and cry from political and religious leaders.

After some twists and turns and redrafting, what once was “Evil, Inhuman and Superstitious Practices Prevention and Eradication Bill” has now become “Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill.” The new title is similar to that of Maharashtra’s law.

Gone is the word ‘superstitious’ from the title of the new draft. Also gone are astrology, numerology and vaastu from the banned list. But there is still no unanimity over which other practices to be permitted and which to be banned. A contentious issue is the inclusion of made snana, prevalent in the coastal districts, in the list.

The question remains over whether a mere law can banish superstition. Another question Siddaramaiah’s critics within his own Congress ask is whether the Chief Minister, besieged by a wide range of scams and facing flak over the suicides of police officers, should tear his hair over a Bill such as this when elections are two years away.

For now, Siddaramaiah has referred the Bill to a Cabinet sub-committee headed by Revenue Minister Kagodu Thimmappa. The fact that Thimmappa has been a critic of the Bill is a clear hint that Siddaramaiah has pigeon-holed it.

(Author tweets @sprasadindia.)

Published Date: Jul 28, 2016 04:55 pm | Updated Date: Jul 28, 2016 04:55 pm

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