If we go by what the Indian Constitution says, India ought to be a rationalist state. Indian citizens did not just get the constitutional right, but Article 51A(h) imposes on every citizen a duty “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.” To my knowledge that is unique in the world. But most Indians, I would wager, don’t even know about their duty. Far from this dream —embedded in the spirit of rationalism, freedom and dignity —coming true, going by recent incidents alone, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is turning out to be a nightmare.
My friend and colleague Narendra Dabholkar, born around the same time as this dream, paid for it with his life recently. The news of his brutal murder reached me far away in Finland, where I am staying in self-imposed exile for more than one year now, only to protect myself against a similar fate. Does this mean that rationalists in India fighting a losing battle?
Despite the recent reverses, I don’t consider losing an option. I am not just saying it. There are good reasons for optimism. Looking back on the last four decades that I spent with education campaigns and exposing the so-called "miracles", I see a dramatic shift in favour of reason and science that has actually accelerated in recent years.
To my mind, the massive media explosion, particularly the TV network —reaching out to people in all nooks and corners of the country —has been a major factor that is responsible for this development. When people get to see the world sitting at home, and be able to compare respective cultural traits and at least consider the possibility of what they never had dared to dream of, they find it easier to grow out of the dungeons of tradition and limitations of their lives. TV channels, for reasons of their ratings, love to focus on controversies involving superstitions. And this in turn provides an opportunity for rationalism and science to communicate directly and frequently with millions of people all over the country.
And this is so even when some channels present the champions of the supernatural round the clock and bombard the viewers with massive high-tech promotion of "miracles". This might have created the wrong impression that superstition is suddenly on the rise. But to my mind, this desperate vigour is the beginning of their last stand. Rationalist educators, supported by outspoken scientists, have used every opportunity effectively to deflate giant balloons with just a few convincing pin pricks. In my experience, people are always receptive to the voice of reason.
I have personally attended more than thousand TV programs in recent years and explained innumerable "miracles" and confronted "miracle agents" of all colours and shades—astrologers, godmen, tantrics, priests of all major religions, pastlife regression therapists, faith healers and a host of bizarre psychopaths. I specially remember my encounter with one Pandit Surinder Sharma in 2008 who was cornered into demonstrating his powers, as he boasted that he could kill someone with just by chanting some gobbledegook. When I "survived" with a smile all attempts of the celebrated tantric "guru" to kill me with mantra-tantra gibberish during a live TV program, it was clearly a big blow for science. Even today, people from all walks of life contact me to tell me that this TV program was a turning point in their lives. I had not planned this event, it came as a wonderful chance, and I feel deep satisfaction that I was able to use it to expose a "tantric guru."
Such incidents are not religion-specific. There was another, recent, turning point in my life: That was a TV program in March 2012, where I exposed the Catholic “miracle” of a water-dripping Jesus statue as a plumber’s problem. My revelation stopped some hundreds of devotees from consuming the not-so-holy drainage water that the priest was offering them in a special service. But the witch-hunt began in the program itself. Church officials present in the studio shouted and threatened me. The Bishop of Mumbai— participating via telephone— demanded an apology for my “blasphemic” act. After the program, when I came out, hired teamsters were waiting to attack me outside the TV studio. I had to wait hours in the studio before I could be rescued through a back gate. Those who could not defend their position in the TV debate later pressed legal charges against me and even got a non-bailable arrest warrant sworn out. But by then, I was already in Europe— not to escape legal procedures, but to save my life, as credible threats were mounting by then. Word reached me that insider forums even discussed how I could be forever silenced, if they could only manage to get me behind bars even for a day.
Despite all their bluster, the enemies of reason have no acceptable argument on their side. Which is why they resort to deception, threats, violence, torture and —as we saw in the case of my friend, Narendra Dabholkar—even murder. This does not mean that they are on the ascendant. It only means that they are getting desperate because the society, coming of age, is cutting the ground from under their feet. Finding no other way of dealing with it, they are resorting to the only thing they know: intimidation.
And there is no lack of official patronage. The nexus between the hierarchy of authority and the champions of irrationality is still intact. One hand washes the other. It’s about vote banks, power, positions and money. But profiteers and accomplices in the ranks of politicians have started to carefully observe the public mood. They are aware that the scales could suddenly turn. But the lure of vote-banks is such that they consider it wise to desist from taking any action and remain silent. My petitions to the Indian government and the government of Maharashtra, requesting their intervention to get the ridiculous blasphemy cases against me quashed, have never been answered. A British petition with nearly 13,000 signatories, among them rationalist celebrities like Richard Dawkins and James Randi, had the same fate.
The Maharashtra state felt finally compelled to introduce the anti-superstition-bill that Narendra Dabholkar demanded till his death and relentlessly promoted it for 18 long years, while politicians did their level best to postpone and dilute it beyond recognition. It may now end up being as useless as the old ‘Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act’ of 1954 or the other anti-superstition laws existing in Jharkhand and Odisha. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out in a recent article, while there is a crying need for continuing Dabholkar's struggle — saving people from the horrendous consequences of harmful rituals, the promotion of science in public affairs — with renewed vigour, we also need to "reflect more deeply on the way in which we have used the intersection of law and superstition to obscure deep moral issues." Mehta concludes his article with these words:
How the law does what it does is important. There is larger cultural work to be done over spreading science. But the focus of law should be squarely on bringing into view the moral harm done by certain acts. We have a strange debate, where some hesitate to take action because some individual claims to be a godman. Others want to respond by legally proscribing claims to being a godman. All we need to say is: no matter who you are and what people think, you are not above the law if you have committed a crime. Name murder by its real name, murder. Don't cover it in a complicated metaphysics of belief. Our laws are often ineffective because we acquire a superstitious faith in the power of law when drafting them. We may need new laws in some cases. But we need to be careful how they are drafted.
We are in the midst of a great freedom struggle—India’s second one— and we cannot afford to lose it. What we need now is a vigorous public push that restores respect and power for the dream of India.
Sanal Edamaruku is President, Rationalist International; President, Indian Rationalist Association