In the aftermath of the alleged human sacrifice of two women in Kerala, the ruling CPI (M) in the state has stressed the need for a new legislation to curb such superstitious practices and urged strict implementation of the existing laws in this regard.
The "witchcraft killing" that took place in Elanthoor of Pathanamthitta district has recast a focus on the severity of superstitious beliefs existing in the state and the necessity for a strong fight against the menace, the state secretariat of the Left party said in a statement on Wednesday.
Does India’s current legislative framework talk about human sacrifice?
While presently there exists no nationwide legislation to deal with superstitious practices, black magic, or human sacrifice in particular, certain sections of the Indian Penal Code enlist penalties applicable for such incidents.
Section 302 (punishment for murder) takes cognisance of human sacrifice, but only after the murder is committed. Likewise, Section 295A (Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) works to discourage such practices.
Furthermore, Article 51A (h) of the Indian Constitution makes it a fundamental duty for Indian citizens to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.
Other provisions under the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act of 1954 also aim to tackle the debilitating impact of various superstitious activities prevalent in India.
What do the state-specific laws say?
The state of Bihar emerged the pioneer in enacting a law to deal with superstitious practices in 1999. The Prevention of Witch Practices Act was amongst the first in India to address witchcraft and inhumane rituals.
The state of Maharashtra followed in 2013 to enact the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, which banned the practice of human sacrifice in the state. A section in the legislation specifically deals with claims made by ‘godmen’ who say they have supernatural powers. Additionally, the law also makes it possible to curtail activities of so-called godmen before they become too powerful to effectively address the menace of exploitation in the name of religion.
Likewise, the state of Karnataka too effected a controversial anti-superstition law in 2017 known as the Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Act, which comprehensively counters “inhumane” practices linked to religious rituals including performing any inhumane act, evil practices and black magic in search of treasure, bounty, tantric acts including physical and sexual assault, creating impression of ‘possession’ and exorcism or assaulting people under the garb of exorcism, making claims of healing power, coercing people to perform fire-walking, and so on. The Karnataka law also particularly lists out penalties for spreading misinformation and creating panic in the garb of ghosts or black magic.
Does the state of Kerala have any similar legal provisions?
Against the backdrop of the nerve-wracking incident, Senior Congress leader and Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly V D Satheesan had called on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to introduce a stringent legislation to curb the menace of superstitious beliefs and rituals in the state.
In 2014, a working draft of such a bill titled ‘The Kerala Exploitation by Superstition (Prevention) Act’ was prepared by the then Additional Director General of Police (Intelligence) A Hemachandran. However, the draft remained in cold storage and Kerala failed to enact a comprehensive law against black magic.
As per The Hindu, the Kerala Law Reforms Commission formed another draft bill titled ‘Kerala Prevention of Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices, Sorcery and Black Magic Bill’ in 2019, which called for imprisonment of up to seven years for convicts and up to Rs 50,000 fine along with the punishments for offenses under the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
However, both these bills failed to see the light of the day and were not introduced, discussed, or passed in the state legislative assembly.
Are there any legal precedents in this regard?
In 2019, a district court in Chandigarh sentenced a man to life imprisonment till his natural death for brutally slitting the throat of a four-year-old girl in the name of human sacrifice. The court also imposed a fine of Rs 25,000 on the accused and punished him under Section 302 of the IPC, Times of India reported.
The judgment reads: “The ghastly crime… does not in any manner make the accused (Kamlesh) entitled to any sort of leniency. He can be punished with death, or imprisonment for all of his life, which is the rule, while capital sentence is an exception to be resorted to for special reasons.”
How deep-rooted are the crimes related to superstitious activities?
The CPI (M) in its statement on Wednesday quoted figures from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) to highlight that over 73 murders in connection with superstitious beliefs and practices have been recorded in the country in 2021 alone, with the actual estimates believed to be much higher.
Moreover, within just two years of the legislation coming into effect, more than 150 cases were registered under the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act until 2015, TOI reported.
Furthermore, such practices tend to notoriously target the vulnerable sections of society in a lopsided manner, including women, children, and the poor. This has been seconded by activist and eminent scholar Vidya Bal, who said in a comment to TOI, that it is usually the “women and the poor who suffer the most at the hands of those who use religion and rituals. It has been a long struggle to imbibe rationality in the minds of people.”
Has there been any opposition to state interventions?
The Maharashtra and Karnataka governments’ efforts to implement the laws related to black magic, superstitious activities, and human sacrifice met with stern opposition from religious leaders and certain communities in the state. In fact, then opposition party in the states, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) even accused the governments of being “anti-Hindu” by restricting practices regarded as essential to the religion. Such legislations have repeatedly been lambasted as a threat to freedom of religion by critics.
In fact, the state’s role in curtailing such barbaric practices has historically seen resistance from certain elements in the communities practicing such rituals. For instance, between 1837 and 1856, the Kandh tribes retaliated against the British efforts to put an end to the Kandh’s practice of human sacrifice, known as mariah. Members of the tribe in areas of Ghumsar, Kalahandi, and Patna fought a bloody battle against the colonial masters using tangis (a sort of battle axe-bows and arrows) and staged a strong resistance to any such intervention.
Why is there a need for a country-wide Anti-superstition And Black Magic Act?
Allowing the unhindered continuance of such practices violates an individual’s fundamental right to equality and right to life under Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution respectively. In the absence of measures to tackle superstitions, unscientific and irrational practices such as faith healing, quackery, and misinformation regarding medical procedures can also balloon up, which can have severe detrimental effects on public order and health of citizens.
However, it is pertinent to remember that bringing a legislation to deal with this social issue shall only mean half the battle won, wherein meaningful reform will need to increase awareness among the masses through information campaigns, and by roping in community/religious leaders to debunk the myths surrounding such practices.
(With inputs from PTI)