Nationwide law alone can stop occult practices (IANS Column: Beyond The Headline)

As grisly details came to light regarding the Kerala incident of three people ‘sacrificing’ two women in the name of ‘ritual’ for the purpose of gaining wealth and prosperity, a similar case was reported from Gujarat wherein a man, along with his brother, killed his 14-year-old daughter in the name of black magic remedy because she was believed to be possessed by a ghost. Preliminary investigation revealed that the father was a loner and a recluse.

Added to these is another recent incident of an eight-year-old girl who was immolated in a tantric ritual in West Bengal.

Largely rooted in religious or cultural beliefs, a blanket enforcement of prohibition regarding such fatal practices could arguably amount to infringement of one’s right to freedom of religion by way of beliefs and practices. However, the problem happens only when major financial losses are incurred from such engagements, or worse, when lives are lost, as in the recent cases reported.

Several local and cultural beliefs exist that may not qualify as scientific. The fact about resorting to local health remedies, both physical and mental, instead of approaching a certified medical practitioner is testimony to the common Indian’s – arguably of those away from the glamorus advancements of big cities – inclination towards quick fixes and validation of such methods by the local people.

General mental make-up and health are crucial aspects of witchcraft-like practices to prevail, persist and take disastrous effect. It is widely agreed that in historical times, witchcraft was deliberately portrayed in an intensely negative light for the purpose of eliminating influential women, particularly those who wielded power by way of their knowledge and wisdom, and to effect, their ability to ‘heal’ people. Essentially a product of patriarchy, in the several smaller, lesser-known parts of India, the phenomenon exists – and in all its wickedness.

Legal provisions

In the absence of a nationwide legislation to deter superstitious practices (like black magic and human sacrifice) from escalating to detrimental levels, certain sections of the Indian Penal Code apply to such cases.

Section 302 (punishment for murder) takes cognizance of human sacrifice, but only after the murder is perpetrated. The Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954 is a Central law that regulates advertising by way of prohibiting ads of drugs and remedies that claim to have magical properties, thereby tackling debilitating impact of various superstitious activities prevalent in India.

State-specific legal framework

Only few states have prohibitive provisions in dealing with cases pertaining to witchcraft and black magic.

Bihar was the first state to come up with a specific law to deal with this matter in 1999 with Prevention of Witch Practices Act. The law provides for effective measures to prevent witch practices and identification of a woman as a witch and her oppression. It also seeks to eliminate torture, humiliation and killing of women by the society for any other matter connected with or incidental to the said concern.

Then followed the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013, banning the practice of human sacrifice in the state. Interestingly, a section in this legislation specifically has a provision for ‘godmen’ claiming to have supernatural powers. Within two years of enactment of this law, more than 150 cases were registered under it.

The Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Act came about in 2017.

Jharkhand’s Prevention of Witch (DAAIN) Practices Act, 2001, similar to Bihar’s law, provides for effective measures to prevent witch practices and identification of a woman as a witch and her oppression, humiliation, torture, and killing. This largely happens to be prevalent in tribal areas of the state.

As reported by IANS, witchcraft and superstition are prominent reasons for atrocities against women in Jharkhand, with about 30-40 per cent cases going unreported.

While the recently-reported incidents renew calls for anti-superstition laws in more states and stricter enforcement in those states where they exist, a glaring fact is that wrong-doings in the name of supernatural tend to target the vulnerable sections of the society — women, children, and the poor.

Commenting on the recent incident, Kerala’s Health Minister Veena George had said that the government would take stern action against using children for such heinous activities, adding that “the government has taken serious note of the issue. The entire society must jointly fight against such practices.”

These seemingly isolated incidents are not entirely individual-centric but have some bearing on the prevalent social structure, overt steps directed at cultural beliefs, and local practices may not be the best approach to address the matter. It is necessary to provide for a check, should a person be harmed, whether out of ignorance or malicious intent.

While IPC’s Section 295A (deliberate and malicious intent to outrage feelings of any class by insulting their religion or religious beliefs) holds adding to the sensitivity and complexity of the matter, Article 51A (h) of the Constitution makes it a fundamental duty for Indian citizens to develop a scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.

It is the collective responsibility of both the state and the society to realise this Constitutional ideal to the greatest extent possible. The first step is essentially education and awareness.

20221016-104801

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