http://swarajyamag.com/culture/siddaramaiah-bringing-back-memories-of-colonialism/ If the Karnataka government’s so called anti-superstition is passed, many Hindu practices in the rural areas of the state can be labelled as criminal acts. When first introduced in 2013 as a pet project of Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, the ‘Prevention of Superstitious Practices Bill’ was reported as aiming to ban ‘astrological predictions, black magic and witchcraft’ and make them punishable. Following heated discussions and criticisms from the Hindu organizations, traditional as well as political, the project was shelved. But now, the Chief Minister sees the murder of rationalist MM Kalburgi and its aftermath as an emotional window to pass the bill. Though portrayed as a legislative attempt to inculcate ‘scientific temper’, the way the bill characterizes ‘black magic’ etc. is in a way a grim reminder of Malleus Maleficarum, the notorious 16th century manual on the persecution of witches. The Bill The bill proposes the formation of district level inquisition squads. These squads, named the “Vigilance Committees on Superstitious Practices” would have the following members: the chief inquisitor or the chair person, either district magistrate or a person nominated by him, then three bureaucrats who are the residents of the district and then, most importantly, five members of the civil society ‘who shall be academicians, social workers or legal experts who have special knowledge, experience or expertise in relation to the superstitious practices and evil effects thereof’. The committee enjoys ‘all the powers of a civil court’ including among others that of ‘summoning and enforcing the attendance of any person and examining him on oath’ and ‘requiring the discovery and production of any document’ etc. The definitions of the so-called superstitions in the bill are both vague in definition, allowing any Hindu village worship to be included in it, while also targeting specific Hindu folk traditions. For example one of the punishable acts is ‘invoking black magic or performing maata, whether or not in exchange for consideration, that is intended to harm targeted third persons and which gravely threatens them‘. Any ritual that is conducted can be deemed by the district committee inquisitors to be ‘black magic’, intending to harm ‘targeted third persons’. And if a specific religious or cultural activity is deemed ‘superstitious’, then irrespective of whether it is done with the consent of the so-called ‘victim’, the perpetrator can be fined anything from Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000 and can be imprisoned from a minimum duration of one year to five years. A colonial-missionary legacy The bill is more rooted in colonial prejudices than in the scientific temperament it proclaims to foster. For example, it makes among others ‘hanging from a hook inserted into the body [sidi] or pulling a chariot by a hook inserted into the body’ a cognizable offence. Hook-Swinging as the practice was called by the colonialists has been a target from the nineteenth century itself. Renowned historian Nicholas Dirks has elaborated how and why the colonial authorities and missionaries viewed Hindu village rituals as ‘barbaric’ and the extraordinary lengths to which they went in curbing and ultimately exterminating them. Dirks explains: “As investigations in both the 1850s and the 1890s soon revealed,… there was no clear legal mechanism to suppress the ritual on the neutral ground of physical [as opposed to moral or religious] danger. Not only did the victims voluntarily submit to the ordeal [indeed they often seemly extremely anxious to do so], they seemed to escape the hook swinging with no grievous bodily harm. As one British official noted early on in the debate, “The fact is that the objection to the hook swinging festival is of a moral, not a physical nature, and sec. 144 C.C.P can only be made applicable to it by distorting it from its original intention.”” When Frank Allen M.D., a medical man associated with Madurain American mission, attended the hook swinging festival on request from authorities and examined it he discovered to his ‘surprise‘ that though ‘no ordinary man could pass through such an ordeal without serious danger to his life’, ‘the ill effects on the man were so small.’ But that did not deter the colonialists. Dirks continues: “Many colonial observers insisted that the swingers were either drugged or drunk; they mistook the signs of possession for intoxication and sought evidence that the obvious pain such an experience would afford was obliterated by unnatural, even immoral, means.” They perceived these festivals as being catalyzed by the ‘more generalized tyranny of custom, the central enemy of both civilization and Christianity in the subcontinent.‘ Dirks details how some upper-caste Indians tried to distance themselves from the village Hindu rituals like hook-swinging and fire walking, calling them as ‘Pre-Aryan savagery’ or a degraded form of Hatha Yoga. There were others who considered these rituals as part of the larger Hindu tradition. For the missionaries there were evangelical interests in banning these village rituals. Madras Missionary Conference advocated outright abolition of the ritual. To them, these rituals had ‘horrifying resonance with the central event of Christianity, the crucifixion of Christ’. In 1894 a petition was presented by Hindus to the government not to ban the hook-swinging ceremony with one thousand signatures. The signatories included the Paraiyars, Aiyers, Pallars, Mudaliars, Kallars, Maravars, Vellalars etc. Dirks says that the petitioners were ‘clearly writing with full knowledge of the dominant missionary and colonial discourse’. The petitioners related the hook-swinging ceremony to altered state of consciousness (Avesam, Caamiyaattam). The petition foresees some core elements of Mircea Eliade. And in a comparison that would make Edward Said smile, the petitioners pointed out that the hook-swinging was much less dangerous than the ‘balloon ascents, parachute descents, circus feats, horse racing etc.’ If to the missionaries hook-swinging was invoking‘the sacrilege of repeating Christ’s final sacrifice’, for the petitioners the act was ‘performed to promote the prosperity of the community at large’ The ‘Anti-superstition’ bill, then has to be seen as the continuing the legacy of this colonial missionary discourse and politics. Incidentally it so happens that the very people who conduct these rituals have been responsive to a holistic study of these phenomena and their underlying psycho-somatic processes. Arthur C Clarke, thevisionary science writer, who conceived the idea of geostationary communication satellites, points out how when rationalists like Dr.Carlos Fonseka tried‘debunking’ (Clarke himself qualifies debunking within single inverted commas) hook-swinging, the only local criticism they received was that they did not look into the process of natural opiates releasing processes in the body. Clarke himself comments on the hook-swinging phenomenon and related studies as “a matter of no small importance for it may lead to results of immeasurable value to the human race – the Conquest of Pain.” Thus the characterization of hook-swinging as ‘punishable superstition’ by the bill in itself proves how colonially prejudiced and unscientific it is. Other Dimensions Then there are other criticisms as well. Kirtana Kumar’s award winning documentary film “Guhya” (1999) shows the rituals usually condemned by the State as ‘superstition’ as emanating from a strong feminine spiritual substratum that can be discerned throughout tribal and rural India. The documentary suggests subtly that if integrated with socio-political discourse, it can have strong implications for gender based egalitarianism. It also brings out the inhuman way in which the State interferes and distorts the village Hindu rituals. Despite the Aryan/non-Aryan binary, surfacing at times, the documentary questions the outdated colonial notions of ‘superstitions’ and ‘rationality’ with disturbing visuals. In her commentary on the documentary, veteran journalist and novelist C.K. Meena points out how our own academic discourse is still stagnant in the colonial age. She wonders how a leading Indian academic’s ‘20th Century sociological treatise can so remarkably resemble books written by missionaries in the early 19th Century’.  With such institutionalized bias rooted in colonial prejudices, how can the State label India’s rural customs and rituals, which do not subscribe to the dominant urban value system, as superstitions? Time and again it has been found that the Shamanic rituals which were brutally suppressed by colonial regimes and missionaries were later found to be of immense value for the human welfare. However there is one more interesting aspect to the bill. The main brain behind the bill is Dr.S.Japhet. He is the Co-ordinator of the drafting committee and director of Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP). In 2011, two years before he drafted the bill, he had written a lengthy article on the plight of Dalit Christians in which he has acknowledged the fact that the Christians from non-Dalit communities do discriminate against Christians who convert from Dalit communities.  So, based on this, if one thought that Dr.Japhet would have listed evangelism and conversion based on the promise of an egalitarianism as one of the superstitions; well… then one is being simply … superstitious. And finally, the notorious Malleus Maleficarum the manual used to persecute torture and burn the witches, was employed in the 16th century Christendom by the then secular courts.