If you've been following the news about the criminal underbelly of Kerala, it might seem to you as if, in recent years, the state that sees itself as the citadel of literacy and progressive thinking in the country is drowning in irrationality and superstition. Human sacrifice, satan worship, prosperity-bestowing antiques and naked pujas have all made news in the state and national media. If details of these crimes, most of which is public knowledge by now, haven't filled you with a sense of shame, disgust and fear, I doubt anything would.
Is Kerala really that superstitious?
Why is it that a state that prides itself in its high literacy rates, exceptional human development index, world-class healthcare systems, enviable gender ratio - and many other parameters that are favorable to human survival and excellence and would put some European nations to shame - is seeing its people preying and falling prey to things quite primal?
A common narrative is that as contradicting as it might seem, given the media attention recent ritual killings in Kerala have received, Kerala isn't quite a superstitious state. This narrative argues that ritual killings and crimes based on superstition happen a lot more in other states, but are underreported or undercovered. Kerala's high levels of literacy and its consequent aversion toward superstition, among both the general public and the media, is what triggers the kind of response and coverage incidents like these get. Data in the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), prima facie, tend to support this narrative. As per this data, Kerala had reported zero murders arising from witchcraft in 2021. Chattisgarh reported 20, Madhya Pradesh 18 and Telangana 11. 1
However, this narrative still requires further examination as the data needs to be interpreted in the context of the existence, or non-existence, of legislation against superstitious practices within specific states in the country. One thing is clear: there isn't a central law in the country that criminalizes witchcraft or similar superstitious practices. However, a recent news article refers to The Prevention of Witch-hunting Bill, 2016, which was introduced to the Lok Sabha by Raghav Lakhanpal, then MP from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).2 The bill however didn't get far enough in the parliament for it to become a law.
In the absence of a central law against potentially dangerous superstitious practices, states have introduced laws for this purpose. Bihar, according to the same article, is the first state to introduce a law against superstitious practices - The Prevention Of Witch Practices Act, 1999.
Jharkhand came up with a similar law in 2001, Chattisgarh in 2005, Odisha in 2013, Rajasthan in 2015 and Assam in 2018. Kerala doesn't have one such law yet, A draft legislation on this matter, "The Kerala Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices, Sorcery and Black Magic Bill," is still only in the works.3
Hence, in reality, the data from the National Crime Records Bureau, neither supports nor refutes the narrative that Kerala isn't as superstitious as other states but only looks so as a result of diligent journalistic reporting. No murders as a result of witchcraft or similar superstitious activity have been reported because there might not have been legislation to report it against. Is there more superstition and more ritual killings in Kerala compared with other states? Only clear legislation and accurate reporting will tell.
Drawing the line between beliefs and superstitions
While the mainstream media and public are unanimous about the abolition of superstition and superstitious practices, especially ones with criminal consequences, the lines that divide superstition from belief are often blurred and drawn very subjectively. Often the very same TV channels and newspapers that condemn superstition earn revenue from advertisements that promote yantras and beads and good luck charms – not to mention the daily, weekly and yearly astrological predictions. The staunchest critics of superstition amongst us might ourselves be performing aartis, rushing across the street before the cat crosses, and subjecting our vehicles to poojas. For any of our efforts toward abolishing superstition to be effective, it is of paramount importance that we first give superstition a clear definition. What is belief and what is superstition? What is the line that decides that my belief is now superstition and needs to be weeded out? Is it superstition when practiced by the other person and belief when it’s practiced by me? These are all questions that will have to be contemplated seriously - by lawmakers if legislation against superstition is to be formed and by society to build clarity and consensus on what we see as superstition. For lawmakers, the job becomes less tedious as they have the option to learn from - both the mistakes and successes of - the states that have legislations against superstition in place.
Superstition spares almost no one, says history
It isn't just the ordinary folks that are or are seen as superstitious. Some of the greatest human beings to have walked on earth have been superstitious. That includes even Mahatma Gandhi, who has been accused of being superstitious by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Michael Coates.
Tagore's criticism of Gandhi came following Gandhi's comments about the 1934 earthquake that hit Bihar and Nepal. In a statement he issued to the press, Gandhi described the earthquake as “a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed against those whom we describe as Harijans.” A fierce debate between Tagore, the man who gave Gandhi the sobriquet "Mahatma," and the Mahatma himself ensued.4
Coates's criticism, on the other hand, was a result of Gandhi wearing the Vaishnava necklace of tulsi beads.5
"Come, let me break the necklace," said Coates, claiming the wearing of the necklace to be a superstition.
"No, you will not. It is a sacred gift from my mother," Gandhi replied. "I cannot, without sufficient reason, give up a necklace that she put round my neck out of love and in the conviction that it would be conducive to my welfare."
Gandhi later wrote about his conversation with Coates: "Mr. Coates could not appreciate my argument, as he had no regard for my religion. He was looking forward to delivering me from the abyss of ignorance."
There are also stories that the time of India's independence (the midnight between August 14 and 15) was negotiated and finalized between Louis Mountbatten and Indian astrologers. Mountbatten wanted the date to be 15 August, which was the day Japan surrendered Burma in World War II when Mountbatten himself was the Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia. But the Indian astrologers found 15 August to be very inauspicious. A compromise was finally arrived at, and the midnight of 14 August was agreed upon.6
Superstition hasn’t spared anyone. The educated and the illiterate, the rich and the poor, the famous and the notorious - everyone is a victim or perpetrator of superstition of varying degrees. Any endeavor taken to weed out superstition should talk to people of all classes and sects.
Beliefs, for some people, are a mechanism to cope with the uncertainties in life, ways to stay hopeful when things are going against them. But when beliefs and superstitions take a strong avatar and engulf someone's rational thinking completely, it delivers results that are unfavorable for the individual, those around the individual and, as we have seen recently, to society at large.
Any attempts to criminalize superstitious practices should begin with defining superstition at a broad level and then elaborating on the details of what kinds of superstition are harmful to the well-being and progress of society and should be condemned. As mentioned earlier in this article, Kerala can learn from states that have such legislation in place, in this regard.
It is important to note that, especially in a secular society like ours, any legislation made to curb superstition doesn't criminalize innocuous religious beliefs and practices. Citizens have the right to believe in and practice their religion without fear.
Learning from the past
Very often, solutions to today's problems can be found by turning back around and looking at the past. India, and Kerala, have had a legendary line of social reformers as much as we have a rich history of superstitious practices. But we have come this far. We have shed many habits that were not good for our own well-being and progress. Looking back to understand how we did that will help us understand how we can weed out superstitions that cause harm.
In that context, I'd like to draw your attention to the now-abolished practice of Sati Pratha.
The humans that moved mountains
Unquestionably one of the most brutal practices that ever existed in human history, the Sati Pratha belief required a widow to immolate herself at her husband's funeral pyre. The choice a woman had in this matter was little. It is also said that women who didn't volunteer for Sati Pratha were forced or even drugged to do so.
The abolition of Sati, therefore, can be considered a turning point in the reform and social awakening of India. The man who sparked the fire that made the abolition of Sati happen is none other than Raja Ram Mohan Roy who, in 1811, witnessed his sister-in-law having to submit herself to Sati upon her brother’s passing. Three years later, he started his campaign against Sati, becoming the first person in the country to protest against this practice. Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s protests weren’t limited to Sati; he spent a significant energy of his life campaigning against child marriage, polygamy and the caste system, and in favor of inheritance rights for women. Finally, in 1829, Roy’s efforts came to fruition as the then Governor-General Lord William Bentick banned Sati by enacting the Bengal Sati Regulation, also known as Regulation XVII - the first social reform legislation enacted by the British in India. Campaigning against the ban also was a person from a faith other than Hinduism - in which Sati was practiced - and from a country other than India. He was the English Christain missionary William Carrey - a reformer in his own right who had an undeniable role to play in the activism against superstitious practices in India in his time.7
It wasn't only the rajahs. the English evangelists or the elites that crusaded against social evils. One of the most, if not the most, prominent activists we've all read about, Dr BR Ambedkar, was neither a rajah nor born an elite. Born in a humble family, Ambedkar beat all odds and became an evangelist of the highest standard - an evangelist for the cause of equality. As an active public figure in the country, he campaigned against many evils. In the end, he didn't create a law as Raja Ram Mohan Roy did; he created the whole constitution.
Uniting for change
Individual activists and leaders have campaigned against superstitions and other evils and, eventually, managed to get legislation passed. But India also has a history of society coming together, their conscience moved by an event or practice, to make change happen. The Indian Independence Movement is probably the biggest example of this phenomenon - an entire country coming together to free the country from the biggest colonizer of the time.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 is a more recent example. Also known as the Nirbhaya Act, the legislation amendment was fuelled by the protests that broke out after the Nirbhaya event on 16 December 2012, the details of which are now public knowledge. The victim died thirteen days later after she was raped. The event received national and international attention, with even the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women urging the Government of India to take appropriate, sustainable action to ensure better safety of women. Public protests broke out all over the country, with protestors in Delhi even ending up clashing with the police. Social media erupted with posts about rape culture in the country, the importance of teaching boys how to treat women at an early age, the relevance of sex education, and the punishments courts should grant to perpetrators of rape.
All of the outcries prompted the government to appoint a judicial committee to make appropriate amendments to criminal laws to ensure stricter punishments for sexual assault. The committee was headed by JS Varma, former judge of Supreme Court. In less than a month's time, the committee received over 80,000 suggestions and petitions from women's groups, legal practitioners, NGOs and the general public. Taking the petitions and suggestions into consideration, the committee submitted a report to the government, citing the root causes behind crimes against women and proposing causes of action.
The report recommended the need to review the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, revise the punishment for rape and clarify the powers of the Delhi police among other things. The act that was eventually passed based on recommendations from the report expressly called out certain acts of offence and incorporated those into the Indian Penal Code. According to former Minister of Law and Justice, Ashwani Kumar, 90% of the recommendations made by the Verma Committee made their way into the ordinance that was subsequently replaced by a bill, which was later passed. Despite criticisms about the law, what can't be denied is that the law made the definitions of sexual crimes clearer and the punishments more relevant. Changes in the law have now made the character of a sexual assault victim irrelevant. It has also introduced into our systems the presumption that, if the victim states in court that there was no consent, there wasn't one.8 This stands out as an example of a society coming together to get the government to pass legislation for the society’s own good.
We can make a few inferences, based on what we know from history and the analyses that have been presented in this article.
Firstly, we will have accurate information about superstition and crimes triggered by superstition only if we have appropriate laws against which such crimes can be recorded. Legislation can also curb superstition, by empowering law enforcement agencies to proactively take action against crimes recorded in legislation.
Secondly, superstition transects class, education, financial or political status. Any initiative driven to minimize superstition should cut across all classes and sects of society. That superstition is exclusive to certain groups is a misheld belief.
Thirdly, sometimes, individuals and communities can bring about change. When people come together, or are brought together, to fight against a social evil, change happens. As we have seen in through the examples in this article, legislation can come as a result of the influence of an activist or of public outcry. Remember, when change has already come about, legislation is only a side-effect, an insurance to protect our future generations.
Finally, any of the above is possible only if it starts clarity in our own minds about what's superstition and what's not, between what's reasonable belief and what's unreasonable fallacy. This can only happen as a result of clear rational thinking; as a result of mothers teaching their children the rational, scientific way of looking at life and beliefs; as a result of us practicing what we preach. For the people of a literate, highly educated state such as Kerala, this shouldn't be too much to ask.
Chapter 2A "Murder (States/UTs)" is Table 2A.2 "Motives of Murder -2021", https://ncrb.gov.in/sites/default/files/CII-2021/CII-2021-Tables.html
Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) p. 123-124 ( Excerpts from https://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/mahatma-gandhi-and-two-attitudes-of-religion.html)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Carey_(missionary)#cite_note-sharma-6, https://airccse.com/ijhas/papers/1216ijhas08.pdf, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ram_Mohan_Roy, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bengal_Sati_Regulation,_1829