Anti-Superstition Laws in India: Need and Challenges

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Context: A controversial anti-superstition law in Karnataka, the Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Act, 2017, has been formally notified by the government.

Relevance:
Prelims: Current events of national and international importance.
Mains: GS I-

  • Salient features of Indian Society, Diversity of India. Role of women and women's organization, population and associated issues, poverty and developmental issues, urbanization, their problems, and their remedies. Effects of globalization on Indian society Social empowerment, communalism, regionalism & secularism.

Superstition in the context of Indian Society:
  • Superstition is a kind of blind belief in supernatural powers that don’t have any scientific explanations behind that. Superstitions in India are a serious problem.
  • Superstitions in India are not a fresh introduction.
  • It has been prevalent for decades. For example:
  • In different parts of the country people still believe that the cawing of a crow on the roof of a house is the sign of the arrival of guests.
What are the causes behind these superstitions?
  • Illiteracy proves to be the prime reason for superstition in India.
  • The illiterate people generally fall in the grip of superstitions. They can’t judge an incident from the scientific point of view.
  • In India, the literacy rate is just 70.44% (as per recent data), which is quite low in comparison to other developed countries.
  • Again in our country, a lot of “godman” are found who make people superstitious in the name of religion.
  • By doing so they not only make people fool but also scatter the seed of superstitions in India for their own benefits.
What are the harmful consequences of these superstitions?
  • In the modern era, widows in India still couldn't get shelter and received harsh treatment. They are not allowed to attend auspicious functions.
  • The phenomenon of “witch-hunting”, which has claimed many innocent lives.
  • These superstitions also lead to caste bias and discrimination, which leads to violation of the Right to equality, freedom, religion, and exploitation.
What are the constitutional measures against superstitions?
  • Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code: 
    • It criminalizes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.
  • Article 51 A (h) of the Constitution of India:
    • It lists “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” as a fundamental duty for every Indian citizen.
  • The article 25 :
    • It guarantees freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion.
  • Article 21:
    • It guarantees protection of life and personal liberty. No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.
Different types of Superstitions practiced:
  • Faith healers, inflict physical injury to exorcise spirits or cure ailments.
  • Branding children with heated objects and using spurious surgical methods to change the sex of a fetus.
  • Practicing witchcraft.
  • Made-snana, a ritual where devotees from across castes roll over the leftover food of Brahmins in certain temples to cure themselves of skin diseases
  • Godmen abusing disciples by calling it his blessing
  • Practices, like throwing children on thorns, parading women naked, etc., obviously harm others and can’t be allowed in the name of religion.

Brutal exploitation in the name of Religion:
  • Inhuman practices in the name of religion in the country are a cause of worry.
  • In Maharashtra, there were several cases where people murdered or brutally injured others and held them responsible for some deaths in their families, merely on suspicion.
  • There were several groups which tilted the conversation by projecting it as a law against religion. Opponents to the legislation in Maharashtra had claimed that the law would affect the religious practices of Hindus; that it was anti-Hindu.
  • But after examining more than 350 FIRs lodged across Maharashtra in the last four years, it is found that these claims were unfounded. Data from more than 350 FIRs lodged across Maharashtra in the last four years show that the accused persons belong to various religions.
Other Challenges:
  • Bigger challenges to religion have come from mutually reinforcing, external sources.
  • Religions in India came under the scrutiny of Modern science, secular statecraft, and liberal legal principles.
  • In asking for a ban on Sati in the early 19th century, Raja Ram Mohan Roy argued that it did not have approval from within Hindu religious texts.
  • This was a commonly heard refrain in later decades too that vested social interests and not Hindu dharma were responsible for these practices.
  • Rationalists debunked religion as superstition, and the communists, who felt religion distorted reality.
  • Driven by more modest aims, many rationalists labored tirelessly to denounce miracles and astrology as cheap tricks.
  • Over recent decades, around 800 women in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha have been killed for practicing witchcraft.
  • Laws that aim to prevent this practice exist.

 

Karnataka Anti-superstition Law:
  • Features:
    • A Bill with sizable consensus across the political spectrum finally evolved in 2017. A total of 16 practices have been banned under the law.
    • The practice of Vaastu, astrology, pradakshina or circumambulation of holy places, yatras, parikramas performed at religious places were kept out of the purview of the law.
    • Made Snana was banned under the law with respect to having Dalits roll over leftover food.
    • The practice has now been modified to be voluntary and not involving leftover food.
    • Practices such as barring menstruating women from entering houses of worship and their homes, coercing people to take part in fire-walks, and beating up people by declaring them evil, are among the irrational practices that have been banned under the 2017 law.
  • Penalties:
    • The law stipulates “imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than one year but which may extend to seven years and with fine which shall not be less than five thousand rupees but which may extend to fifty thousand rupees”, as punishment for violations.
    • The law is implemented by the state police with the appointment of vigilance officers under the law at police stations.

 

It is argued that a substantive law of such nature is not required
  • An anti-superstition law may seem necessary, but it cannot take cognizance of all realities. The domain of an anti-superstition law is to curb superstition, associated primarily with religious and occult practices.
  • However, the question of whether we need a separate law to curb such practices has to be debated.
  • This is because the substantive legal framework of our country is sufficiently adequate to address such crimes. For instance, throwing a child on thorns is an offence under Sections 307 and 323 of the IPC.
  • Similarly, parading a woman naked can also be addressed specifically by Section 354B of the IPC.
  • Critics argue that a substantive law of such a nature is not required; it works to the detriment of the larger objective it seeks to work for.
  • Law and order is a State subject, so States are free to enact specific criminal laws. In the same way, States are also free to make amendments to Union laws.
  • Therefore, ideally, Karnataka or any other State is free to amend the IPC, to accommodate specific requirements.
Why do we need a separate law for preventing Black Magic?
  • Around seven instances of human sacrifice have been reported since the passing of this law in 2013. Two such instances could have been prevented through timely intervention.
  • Before this law, acts involving human sacrifice could not be stopped as they were preceded by some puja and offerings, not banned under any law, Now they are.
  • The cognizance of human sacrifice is in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) only after the murder is committed.
  • The present IPC is not equipped to take care of all crimes committed on account of black magic and other superstitious practices.
  • Thus, legislation has the capacity to act as a deterrent.
  • The Maharashtra legislation has stopped the act of human sacrifice.
  • There are provisions in the IPC to punish violence, but the peculiar nature of the violence faced by women within the family needed a separate law.
  • There is a section in the Maharashtra legislation which specifically addresses and checks claims made by ‘godmen’ who say they have supernatural powers. Once something is made illegal in the eye of the law, it will not be possible for anyone to openly support fraudulent godmen.
The best way forward:
  • Secular temptations and anxieties of money and power in the modern world explain better perhaps the rise in need-based rituals for placating deities than inner tendencies within religion.
  • Lacking access to proper health care and poverty will also make victims fall to such methods.
  • If the executive is serious about curbing such practices, active implementation and enforcement of existing laws need to be made more effective.
  • Studies in criminology have already established that certainty of punishment curbs the rate of crime and not the type or the quantum of punishment.
  • The enforcement machinery needs a major overhaul to make criminal justice more accessible.
  • Moral resources for replacing unacceptable practices are explored within tradition.

What are the other measures to be taken?
  • The literacy rate needs to be improved as much as possible to remove superstitions in India.
  • Government or non-government organization can take initiatives to educate people and teach them to think scientifically.
  • Parents play an important part in removing all the fears and beliefs in superstitions through personal guidance and real-life examples.
  • The teaching community has to shoulder more responsibility, to modernize India so that the desired change may occur through education.
Conclusion:
  • India needs legislation on superstition, though what should go into it requires debate. Every superstition cannot be removed by the force of law.
  • For that, a mental change is necessary. However, superstitious practices that are utterly dehumanizing, brutal and exploitative need to be dealt with by a law that specifically addresses them.



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