Explainer: Your weekly temple visit is not an offence under Karnataka’s anti-superstition bill

What the bill wants to penalise and what it wont
Explainer: Your weekly temple visit is not an offence under Karnataka’s anti-superstition bill
Explainer: Your weekly temple visit is not an offence under Karnataka’s anti-superstition bill
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With the murder of Kannada writer and scholar MM Kalburgi, who was known to be opposed to superstitious practices, a demand for the anti-superstition bill has once against been raised.

Popularly called the anti-superstition bill, the Karnataka Prevention of Superstitious Practices Bill 2013 has been the subject of much debate, discussion, propaganda and misinformation dividing public opinion into either strong support or vehement opposition.

The Congress government in the state was supposed to table the bill during the winter session of the Assembly in 2013, but backtracked in the face of opposition from its own party members, the BJP, religious leaders led by the Pejavar Mutt seer Vishveshwa Thirtha Swami, and Hindutva groups.

A year later, a group of religious leaders under the aegis of the Progressive Pontiffs Forum led by the seer of the Nidumamidi Mutt Channamalla Veerabhadra Swami came out in support of the bill ahead of the winter session and urged the state government to enact it. Several of the leading writers, scholar, and intellectuals of the state have supported the bill.

Here’s an explanation of what the law will do, will not do, and the grey areas that remain:

Two aspects to the law:

One aspect to the anti-superstition bill is that it seeks to penalize superstitious practices when they cause harm.

Secondly, read the title of the bill again. It is called a law to “prevent” superstitious practices. Under the bill, a Karnataka Anti-Superstition Authority will be created under which Vigilance Committee on Superstitious Practices will be constituted at the district level.

These committees will be entrusted with the task of identifying superstitious practices at the district level and making recommendations for the inclusion or non-inclusion of superstitious practices to be banned under the law. They will also create awareness on superstitious practices among people.

The Authority in the meanwhile, will engage in research, provide compensation and rehabilitation to victims of such practices, look at school and college curricula to promote scientific thinking, and undertake any activity to help eradicate superstitious practices.

What are superstitious practices?

The bill distinguishes between faith and superstition and also between harmless superstition and harmful superstitious practices. The defining factor is whether something will cause harm – physical, emotional or sexual.

An person or activity is punishable when the person performs some activity and – promises to provide a benefit or cure by invoking a supernatural power; causes physical or emotional harm; results in sexual or financial exploitation; or offends human dignity of individuals.

“People think that they will not be able to crack a coconut for their pooja, but that is not the case. Only practices that will universally cause harm to individuals will be considered as offences,” said Arvind Malagatti, one of the members of the drafting committee.

What can be punished under the law?

Appended to the draft bill is a Schedule which contains a list of practices that will be prohibited:

Cognizable offences (police need not wait for court permission to investigate):

  • Carrying out or propagating human sacrifice
  • Attempting to cure illness or carry out exorcism using violent means
  • Carrying out aghori, siddubhukti or similar practices; forcing others to indulge in such practices; or using the threat of supposed powers gained from such practices to economically or sexually exploit persons
  • Claiming to be possessed by divine or spiritual entity, and promising remedies or benefits in exchange for consideration; or threatening divine displeasure or spiritual censure for personal gain
  • Invoking black magic or performing maata, whether or not in exchange for consideration, that is intended to harm targeted third persons and which gravely threatens them
  • Rituals that involve self-inflicted injuries. Ex: hanging from a hook inserted into the body (sidi), pulling a chariot by a hook inserted into the body. (This includes self-flagellation during Muharram, says Malagatti)
  • Rituals involving harm inflicted on children in the name of curing them, such as throwing them on thorns or from heights.
  • Forcing any person to carry on practices such as killing of an animal by biting its neck (gaavu), that cause harm to public health.
  • Facilitating made snana or similar practices that violate human dignity

Superstitious practices against women:

  • Forcing isolation, prohibiting re-entry into the village or facilitating segregation of menstruating or pregnant women
  • Throwing coloured water on women from vulnerable sections of society, resulting in their humiliation or offending their human dignity, such as okuli
  • Subjecting women to inhuman and humiliating practices such as parading them naked in the name of worship or otherwise, such as bettale seve (banned by a 1980s law)
  • Exposing women to sexual exploitation invoking supernatural means, with the promise of conferring social or personal benefits including pregnancy.

Discrimination on the basis of caste or gender in the name of superstition:

  • Forcing any person belonging to vulnerable sections of society to carry out humiliating practices such as carrying footwear on his or her head
  • Panktibheda or segregation of people on the basis of caste while serving food

Non-cognizable offences (police need a court's permission to investigate):

  • Making harmful predictions that result in stigmatisation or condemnation of any person on the basis of time or place of birth; performance of humiliating practices by victims in the belief that it will fulfil said predictions; severe financial loss caused to victims
  • Declaring the guilt or innocence of any person by subjecting them to physical or mental harm such as forcing him to hold a flame with bare hands

Opposition to the law

A lot of people think that the law is an “attack” on religious faith, but the readers can judge for themselves.

One line of thinking feels that the term “superstition” requires slightly more rigorous definition. Giving an example, former Backward Classes Chairman and member of the drafting committee C S Dwarkanath says that weddings are not held in the month of Ashada because farmers are busy, and weddings require time for preparation. “Will this also be included as superstition? I had raised questions about this with the committee also. We need wider thinking on this,” he says.

Yet another set of people feel that it is not possible to legislate one’s way out of social prejudices, superstition and ignorance. Asked whether some kinds of practices could not be dealt with differently for a short period of time before enforcing punishment, (for instance convincing Kaadu Gollas to give up segregation of women during menstruation and pregnancy), Malagatti says that this was where the concept of “universal harm” came in. This practice was peculiar to the Kaadu Gollas and is not practiced across the larger society.

However he added: “Things (attitudes and practices) need to be tackled simultaneously. You cannot provide treatment to one while ignoring the other. The lowest rungs of society, the have-nots, who do not have the resources to seek medicine, who have been ignored by the system and by society, who lack education are the ones who fall prey (to such practices). Should there not be a system to give succor to the victims?”

(Read the full text of the draft law in English or in Kannada here.)

(Image was created using Fotor and Piktochart)

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