Oh yes, we have the right to be irrational

We could ban ritual acts that harm, or criminalise quackery that endangers lives. But as long as it does not harm anyone, we cannot allow the state to snatch from us the right to believe in irrational things

On Thursday, Kartik, five, and Sahil, seven, were hacked to death in the streets of Kanpur. Their brother Golu, 10, was critically injured. Apparently Rajesh Manjhi had caught them playing in the street and attacked each with a machete, helped by his friend Raja Ram, as bystanders and the police looked on. It appears that Manjhi believed that the parents of these kids were witches and had caused the illness and death of his own son.
Every day, in some part of our country, someone is being attacked, and perhaps killed, in the name of black magic and witchcraft. Someone vulnerable, someone weak and defenceless. Hundreds of women are labelled a “witch” and killed brutally every year. Mostly elderly widows, with some property. Many more are brutalised, insulted and made to perform horrible acts that violate their bodies, mind and dignity. Men, too, are assaulted and lynched as witches. Whole families are targeted, attacked, ostracised. And children are killed, either as revenge — like Kartik and Sahil this week — or simply to propitiate the gods as one seeks a better harvest, better health or the birth of a son.
Clearly, we need to stop such barbaric acts that stem from a dangerously irrational belief in black magic. A belief that makes you defy the laws of the land and of humanity. And there is no doubt that blind faith can terrify people, paralyse society and cause enormous misery. So there is reason to welcome the Maharashtra government’s steps to legally curb black magic and superstition.
The anti-black magic and superstition ordinance was promulgated last week, four days after Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in the streets of Pune. For years, this exemplary crusader against irrational practices had been pushing for the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Bill. The bill seeks to ban irrational and potentially harmful practices from black magic to various kinds of superstitions. The Maharashtra government believes the bill will be passed this winter. And the Karnataka government has decided to have a similar law.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about this law. In general I don’t like the idea of bringing in new laws when implementing existing ones should work fine. Like, you should be prosecuted for killing a woman — whether or not you label her as a “witch”. Unfortunately, in a land of ugly customs, deep-seated prejudice and institutionalised atrocities against the weak we may need special laws for that extra push. Think sati. Think Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Because unlike general crime, criminal acts that have social, cultural and religious sanction are far more difficult to fight.
Besides, general laws that cast a wide net are not always good deterrents. While most crimes can be reduced to fit these laws, that takes time and patience. And social pressure may disguise the crime as an acceptable act justified by custom. General law kicks in only after the deed is done. It can, at best, punish the immediate perpetrators of a social crime, not those who instigate, assist or cheer it on. Besides, it cannot prevent the widespread violence that does not always lead to legally recognisable crimes like rape and murder. Special laws can work for specific situations, and can clearly warn social groups before they turn into mindless mobs. If publicised enough and implemented properly, special laws targeting social ills that exploit blind faith can prevent a lot of crime and violence.
As of now only three states have laws against black magic — and these are specifically against witchcraft and witch-hunting — Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. A national law preventing atrocities against people in the name of black magic and witchcraft would be very welcome.
But we need to watch how much power over our lives we give to the state. To protect our religious and cultural rights, Maharashtra’s Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Bill may need more pruning. It’s a thin line between faith and blind faith, and while it is necessary to oppose the latter it would be disastrous if the former is touched.
Rationality has its limits. And however much some of us may wish to oppose logically pointless acts like wearing amulets, gem stones and charms, or acts of violence like animal sacrifice, we must not give the state the right to stop us from doing so. Unless it explicitly harms fellow humans, cultural practices and social rituals must remain in the domain of the personal, it must not be regulated by the state. Besides, culture and religion are confusingly entwined, and for the sake of religious freedom, we need to target only that which harms, not that which is irrational.
For we don’t live by reason alone. We need to believe in a greater, magical reality beyond the world of the rational. Most of us Indians do not have access to the good life that rationality and science offer; most of us do not have access to proper healthcare, clean water, toilets or justice; millions of us don’t have adequate food, jobs, electricity, education, or plain dignity. If we did have access to good healthcare, most of us would not be so dependent on quacks and charms and amulets. If we had access to a better life, we would perhaps not turn so passionately to the supernatural. Superstition and magical rituals need to be encouraged to fade away by improving rational, real-life alternatives. These cannot — and, perhaps, must not — be booted out by law.
So while we do need a law — a pan-Indian law — to curb black magic and witchcraft, we need to tread softly. We could ban ritual acts that harm, we could criminalise quackery that endangers lives. But as long as it does not harm anyone, we cannot allow the state to snatch from us the right to believe in irrational things.
One man’s science is another’s rubbish — think astrology, numerology, palmistry, aura-reading, reiki and so on. The more the state fails to give us real choices in the real world, the more helpless we feel, the more we escape into age-old rituals and fantasy worlds. The state must stop us when we use such beliefs to cause misery. Otherwise, we have a right to be irrational. And we must protect our right to believe in rubbish.

The writer is editor of The Little Magazine

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