In the Wake of a Skeptic’s Death, Indian State Takes Small Steps Toward Rationality

Today’s New York Times features an article on Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, the skeptic who was assassinated earlier this week, presumably because his debunking of supernatural claims angered a few too many people…

The article is a glowing tribute to what he accomplished in his life and how far India still has to go:

If a holy man had electrified the public with his miracles, Dr. Dabholkar, a former physician, would duplicate the miracles and explain, step by step, how they were performed. If a sorcerer had amassed a fortune treating infertility, he would arrange a sting operation to unmask the man as a fraud. His goal was to drive a scientist’s skepticism into the heart of India, a country still teeming with gurus, babas, astrologers, godmen and other mystical entrepreneurs.

The founder of one such [Hindu extremist] group, Sanatan Sanstha, noting that he did not condone the killing, did not bother to feign sorrow over Dr. Dabholkar’s death.

“Instead of dying of old age, or by surgery, which causes a lot of suffering, the death Mr. Dabholkar got today was a blessing from God,” the leader, a former hypnotherapist now known as His Holiness Dr. Jayant Athavale, wrote in an editorial in the organization’s publication, Sanatan Prabhat.

As we learned a couple of days ago, the anti-black-magic bill Dabholkar had been fighting for finally passed — as an ordinance. It’s kind of like a president’s Executive Order — done without the support of Congress. It only has a shelf life of six months, after which time it has to be reissued. It’d become law only if the legislature ratified it. The Times of India notes some of the details of the new ordinance in the state of Maharashtra:

Prohibits practice, promotion and propagation of human sacrifice, other inhuman, evil and Aghori practices and black magic, unauthorized, illegal practices of medicine or healing or curing by quacks, conmen etc.

Such practices will be treated as offence and punishable with imprisonment for a term of six months extending up to seven years along with a fine ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 50,000. The offences to be non-bailable.

Implementation to be monitored by a vigilance officer with power to detect and prevent contravention, collect evidence, conduct search, raid and prosecute.

What constitutes black magic: Giving chilli smoke, beating a person by stick, forcing him to perform sexual acts, display miracles to cheat, create impression that divine spirit has possessed a person, parading a person naked in the name of jaran-maran etc.

The question will be whether the law will actually be implemented. At least one person quoted in the NYT piece explained that the law didn’t apply to him because his superstition was based in science:

… Kumar Shankar was offering palm readings in the same spot where he has worked since 1987. He sat cross-legged and barefoot, in a vest of rough homespun fabric, and was not especially bothered by the challenges of secularists. A reading was 60 rupees, about $1.

“The Constitution of India has given us freedom of expression,” he said. “Many people say God is not there, but many more believe in God. Many people do not believe in spirits. Many people believe in spirits.” To charges that he was exploiting that belief, he said, “If you go to a doctor, will he treat you for free?”

Mr. Shankar had heard about Dr. Dabholkar’s death, and about the sudden progress of the new legislation. He shrugged off the idea that it would have any effect on him. “No, mine is a science,” he said. “This is palmistry! Numerology, palmistry, astrology, these are sciences! The law cannot ban them.”

*Sigh*

Pseudoscience is still a way of life in India, and it’ll continue to be unless more people pick up the fight where Dabholkar left off.

So far, no one has been arrested for his assassination.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Terry Firma

    The only quibble I have is with the headline. A skeptic’s death? To make it crystal clear, that should be “a skeptic’s cold-blooded murder.”

  • Mick

    “The question will be whether the law will actually be implemented.”

    My prediction: During the six months the ordinance remains in force there will be not one conviction.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      And at the end of six months the ordinance will not be reissued, because some other pressing matter will capture everyone’s attention. It will be quietly forgotten, and the legislators will quietly continue to consult their own fortune tellers, fakirs, and gurus.

      You can’t legislate rationality from the top down, leaders forcing it onto the people. You have to educate rationality from the bottom up, so that the people, finally embracing rationality, will elect rational leaders.

      This takes a very long time.

  • viaten

    “Numerology, palmistry, astrology, these are sciences!” And what practices are not science? I wonder if he would dare say. It seems India has a long way to go.

    • Mario Strada

      So do we, sadly.

  • Mitch

    To call his death “a blessing from God.” Not much makes me angry, but that’s getting close.

  • Andries043

    Many African countries also need such laws.

    All countries need laws against fraudulent miracles. Fraudulent miracle workers or people who promote miracles that they know to be fake, commit a form of fraud.

    The worst cult abuses were in part caused by fraudulent miracles: Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple (mass suicide/murder), Solar Temple (mass suicide/murder), Sathya Sai Baba (sexual abuse, financial fraud and murder).

    Fraudulent miracles should not be protected by an exaggerated interpretation of freedom of religion.


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