Last week, the Karnataka legislature passed an anti-superstition bill called the Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill, 2017.

Under its provisions, religious practices that have a negative impact on the dignity and well-being of individuals have been outlawed. These include practices such as made snana, a ritual where devotees from backward castes roll on plantain leaves bearing leftovers of meals eaten by Brahmins, which takes place in the temple of Kukke Subhramanya in the state’s Dakshin Kannada district. It has also outlawed the segregation of menstruating or pregnant women in society, piercings of the mouth or tongue, hook-swinging (a religious ritual when a volunteer is pierced with hooks and is suspended from a height), preventing people from taking medical recourse in the case of snake-bite, parading a person naked, or physically or sexually assaulting a person to drive out ghosts. The bill does not outlaw practices such as sallekhana, or death by voluntary starvation, or pulling out tufts of one’s hair – both of which are practices followed by some members of the Jain community. It also does not outlaw Vaastu Shastra (the Hindu system of architecture), astrology, or palmistry.

The list of dos and don’ts under this law are indicative of the vexed and complicated process by which this bill turned into a law. They also reveal how law and religion intersect in ways that are at once controversial and necessary.

The made snana ritual. (Photo credit: AFP).

The colonial state and social reform

Outlawing superstition has been a key practice of modernity in the religious context. Its roots lie in the colonial period, when the colonial administration, itself informed by what it considered was true and moral religion, legislated and adjudicated the lives of colonial subjects. This kind of a universal moral religion assumed Protestant Christianity as its paradigm. Ritual of any kind is an anathema here.

We know that in its attempt to effect social reform, the colonial state banned practices such as sati or widow immolation, raised the age of consent in commencing sexual relations within marriage, and criminalised hook-swinging in the case of injury or death of its practitioner. But the same colonial state also delegitimised divorce amongst Hindu castes that customarily practiced it, and regulated the relationships between gurus and female disciples in Vallabhachari Vaishnava households on the argument of upholding moral behaviour. All these have been key episodes in the colonial history of India when law and religious beliefs intersected, often in a deeply conflict-ridden manner.

Herein lies the controversial story of religious and social reform, especially when it comes under the garb of law and proposes to improve the lives of people worst afflicted by superstition and custom. Subsequent studies have often showed that the laws themselves have been limited in their effectiveness. These laws cloak a far more significant goalpost – that of a complete overhaul of custom and customary traditions associated with various religions. Oftentimes, it is these very customs that give religions its local dimensions.

The Karnataka anti-superstition bill is one in a long line of such efforts that began in the colonial period and have been taken up with enthusiasm by the post-colonial Indian state. The Indian state, however, has had to negotiate the tricky field of religious freedoms and minority rights while legislating on issues dealing with socio-religious reform.

(Photo credit: Reuters/Amit Dave).

Another vantage point

In this context, it is important to remember that this new Karnataka law is not confined to Hindu practices. Moreover, many of the practices it outlaws primarily address caste and gender based indignities. Hence, the moment we examine this law from such a vantage point, its primary thrust changes. It turns more into a measure of legislating against discrimination (both caste and gender based), and less about finding the core of true and moral religion. Its limitations and its possibilities both arise from this vantage point.

It is doubtful if detractors and supporters of the anti-superstition bill will be able to see it for what it is – an anti-discriminatory measure, and not an anti-religious practices measure.

Hence, Hindutva groups and the state BJP have concluded that this is an anti-Hindu bill (it is not), while the President of the Federation of Indian Rationalists is disappointed at the absence of legislation against spreading miracle stories of divine beings. Arguably, these miracle stories have nothing to do with compromising the dignity and well-being of a person or a community, and hence have been left untouched.

The biggest proponents of the law have been rationalist thinkers and scholars, first in Maharashtra and now in Karnataka. Some, like Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and most recently Gauri Lankesh, have also been targeted and killed, allegedly by Hindutva forces, for their views. Their thoughts, as do the thoughts of rational thinkers in India before them, raised the vexed question of the relationship between belief, ritual and rationality – in short, between religion and science. This is a question that can be raised many times, but can never be satisfactorily answered.

Hence, while it is useful to examine the law as part of a long line of previous legislative reform efforts, it is also necessary to recognise it as an independent law, perhaps marking a new beginning. The anti-superstition bill, now a statutory legislation in Karnataka, clearly seeks to outlaw superstition, and defines superstition as acts that cause mental and physical harm, that sexually exploit, or offend human dignity. By all measures, these are broad categories, and what falls under the purview of these categories will, in all likelihood, remain at the discretion of local government officials.

However, it remains to be seen whether a responsible and judicious law itself does not change into an instrument of discrimination and oppression for those very individuals and communities it was meant to protect.

Varuni Bhatia is associate professor, School of Liberal Studies, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.