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India: Exposing baba black sheep

1 September 2013

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Sunday Times of India, 25 August 2013

​Exposing baba black sheep

by Padmaparna Ghosh, TNN

Despite the recent murder of one of their own, India’s small but vocal community of rationalists promises to carry on its crusade against superstition

If it’s inspiration that’s the main issue then Narendra Dabholkar — who was shot dead in Pune earlier this week — did not die in vain. Rationalism’s many foot soldiers across the country continue to stand firm in the face of all kinds of harassment , whether assault, litigation or death threats. From villages in Punjab to the forests of Jharkhand, these men and women use logic and science to expose godmen and black magic practitioners for the frauds they might be. But atheism is not a job for the faint-hearted , in a deeply religious country with innumerable gods.

"If not me, they will kill someone else. We are not leaders who will hide behind others. I speak seven languages and I will continue to travel all over the country to spread rationalism," says Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA), an apex body of more than 85 Indian atheist, rationalist and humanist groups.

Nayak, who also founded the Bangalore chapter, started disseminating the message of rationalism in 1980, the same time as Dabholkar, whom he counted as a dear friend and colleague. And Nayak has also faced his share of death threats and assault attempts — even attempts to get him fired from his day job as professor of biochemistry at Manipal University. He later quit in 2006 to devote himself to the rationalist cause full-time .

When Nayak was just beginning to lay the foundations of this network in the early 1980s, Megh Raj Mitter could not peel himself away from the books of Abraham Kovoor, a famous Sri Lankan rationalist who campaigned to expose fraud and explain paranormal phenomena across South Asia. "Behind every big idea, there is a small incident. I loved Kovoor’s books, so I gave one to a friend. After reading it, he said he wanted it in Punjabi as his wife was under some baba’s influence and he was cheating her out of Rs 2,000 every year. I translated it. People kept coming to our house, we got more and more stories of such frauds and we started busting superstitions," says Mitter. And so began Punjab’s Tarksheel (Rationalist) Society. Today, Tarksheel boasts of thousands of volunteers. Besides Kovoor’s book (which was later banned by the Punjab government), Mitter has written and translated 29 other books to help combat superstitions, blind faith and religious/ spiritual frauds.

"We are continually under threat but since we have a lot of volunteers and followers now, nothing serious has happened yet. Last year, I had written against this so-called holy man in Bhagta village in Bhatinda. He was ripping people off by claiming that he was curing ’possessed women’ . When I exposed it, we got several threats, even personal ones, and a few cases were slapped against me (since withdrawn ). Even when Ganesha drank milk, I was pre-emptively gheraoed in my house. But now I am just too old to be scared anymore ," says the 64-year-old Mitter.

Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, can’t even set foot in India. The IRA has a direct membership of more than 1,00,000 people. Last year, Edamaruku was involved in the examination of a so-called miracle of a ’dripping Jesus’ at the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni in Mumbai. After he traced the "miracle" to some leaky pipes he had a series of cases lodged against him for hurting religious sentiments. While he was in Finland for a lecture tour in June last year the clamour for his arrest got louder. So he decided not to return. The church, meanwhile, said it would withdraw the case only if he apologised. "Since then I have been travelling in Europe, US and Canada, campaigning for my cause. I want to come back home," says Edamaruku, who was born to rationalist parents. Back in 1960 his father had filled "nil" in the religion and caste columns in Edamaruku’s school enrolment form, and caused a furore. Edamaruku points out that the threats never come from the people. "It is never the victims who attack us. In a countrywide campaign in 1995, I directly addressed about 1 million people without a single attack. But when I exposed Balkibaba in the middle of a miracle, he attacked me. It is always the exploiters," he says. With its surfeit of self-styled godmen, superstition is a mega-billionrupee-business in India. "Teaching reason is risky. But we have to pursue it," he says.

He recalls a case in Katihar, Bihar, where a ’holy’ man stood on babies, screamed mantras and claimed that this vaccinated the babies. This was done just a few kilometres from the Katihar Medical College. Edamaruku asked the local MP to intervene and then the health minister, but they refused saying that it was a religious matter. "Once it is given a colouring of religion, everyone is afraid to touch it. Even agnostics fall for superstitions. A public understanding of science is severely lacking. We want our kids to have top marks in maths and science but we don’t ask them to lead scientific lives."


The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here in public interest and is for educational and non commercial use