Kerala to ban ‘non-mainstream’ superstitions

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People who practice alternate therapies and methods could go to jail

The ‘Law Reforms Commission’ set up by the Kerala government two years ago has come up with a draft anti-superstition bill that will target those superstitions that cause ‘bodily harm’ and are not part of an established religion.

The draft was prepared on the request of the Kerala government.

The draft law will target ‘freelance’ practitioners of superstitious practices, while effectively exempting those who carry out such activities in the name of mainstream religions or at the places of worship of such mainstream religions.

The Kerala Law Reforms Commission was set up two years ago under the chairmanship of former Supreme Court Judge K T Thomas.

CONTROVERSY

The exemption given to mainstream religions is likely to create controversy, and likely to open the law to legal challenge.

For example, under the new law, if a person observes a fast for two days at his home on the advice of a guruji, the guruji will be punished with seven years of imprisonment for promoting a practice that is 1) without any scientific basis, and 2) causes bodily injury to the practitioner.

However, if the same person observes the fast at a temple or a church under the guidance of a priest, the priest cannot be punished as acts conducted at a recognized “religious or spiritual institution” are exempted from the provisions of the law.

Similarly, if someone undertakes a ‘detox therapy’ at a naturopathy clinic that involves going hungry, vigorous exercise or any other activity that can be judged to be harmful to the body, the naturopath shall be punished with seven years of imprisonment.

However, if the same takes place at a religious or ‘cultural’ place — including a school that teaches religion or a traditional art such as Kathakali — the person leading the exercise cannot be prosecuted under yet another exemption.

GOOD RELIGION, BAD RELIGION

The law also draws up a list of ‘good’ religions/practices and ‘bad’ religions/practices, with ‘good religions’ enjoying immunity from prosecution, while ‘bad religions’ will be prosecuted.

Going by the examples given in the draft law, most of the tribal, rural and unorganized religions in Kerala will be prosecuted, while powerful and organized religions, such as Christianity, Islam and Vedic Hinduism, will enjoy immunity.

The law makes this point clear by giving examples of practices that are punishable, unless they are carried out as part of a well accepted religion. These practices includes ‘black magic’, ‘walking over fire’, ‘animal sacrifice’, ‘trying to cure illnesses with prayer’, ‘body piercing’, ‘walking around naked’, ‘financial exploitation in the name of supernatural powers’, ‘exorcism’ and so on.

Practices of those who worship non-mainstream gods, such as Chathan (Sasthan), Satan, Marutha, Naga and so on are also likely to be open to scrutiny under the anti-superstition law. However, it is not clear if worship of Theyyams — enormously popular in Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s home district — will be considered a religious activity or as a superstition.

Given that the law emphasizes ‘scientific proof’ of effectiveness, it could also hit practitioners of alternative medicine — such as Ayurvedic physicians, Homoeopathic practitioners and acupuncturists, as well those who try to invent new religions.

It could also impact teachers of Yoga, Karate, Tantra etc, unless the practitioners can ‘scientifically prove’ that their methods work.

EXEMPTIONS TO THE MAINSTREAM

The law carves out exemptions for unscientific and harmful practices of mainstream religions, which include genital mutilation of children, penitential rolling on the ground (practiced in temples), blackmailing of children in the name of satan and hellfire, the financial exploitation of believers, conduct of yagas, yagnas and homas and so on.

The law emphasizes that punitive provisions will not apply to practitioners of mainstream religions — such as Christianity and Islam — even when they try to make others believe in miracles that otherwise attract punishment — such as walking on water and curing diseases via prayer.

However, the same speeches and claims will be punishable when the speaker belongs to no religion or belongs to a religion that is not officially recognized.

The law also gives exemptions to harmful superstitions as long as they are carried out as part of a ‘traditional celebration’ (mela or utsavam or congregation).

Another curious case is of the practitioners of astrology, vastu, Feng Shui etc.. Such people can be prosecuted if their practice is seen as ‘financially exploiting’ those who take advice from them. However, astrologers and Feng Shui experts who do not take any fees from those who consult them will be spared.

FASCIST STATE?

The new law is likely to give further ammunition to critics of the current government who accuse it of adopting a fascist attitude.

The Left Front won just 1 seat out of 20 in the recently concluded general elections in what was seen as a fallout of its attempt to impose ‘gender equality’ at a local Hindu shrine against the wishes of the worshippers.

The government took a team of ‘activists’ into the shrine in contravention of the beliefs and sentiments of the vast majority of those who use the temple.

The act was seen as a encroachment of the state into the religious freedom of individuals. The Supreme Court order, which formed the basis for the action of the Left Front government, was seen as an unwarranted intrusion by the state into the personal beliefs of the citizens, as the court tried to tell believers what was ‘legitimate’ and what was ‘peripheral’ to their belief systems.

The new draft superstition law could also come under attack for trying to discriminate between people on the basis of their religion, as it gives immunity to anyone who flouts the law as long as they are doing it in the name of a mainstream religion, while punishing the others. It could also be seen as unfair and discriminatory towards smaller religions by terming the practices of bigger, mainstream religions as ‘religious’, while prosecuting the practices of smaller religions as ‘superstition’.

Similarly, the law can be seen as non-secular and discriminatory towards non-religious people as non-religious will enjoy none of the exemptions that religious people do.

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