Black Magic: An Old World, in a New World

Superstition is central to the Indian imagination and any concerted opposition to it pales in comparison to the sway it holds over the populace
Abeer Kapoor Delhi

In early June the murderers of Narendra Dabholkar, the well-known rationalist who was shot in cold blood in August 2013, were finally caught. They had evaded capture for three years before the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which had taken up the case in 2014, arrested the mastermind, Virendra Tawade, a member of the Sanatan Sanstha and the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS). Other members of the same right-wing outfits, namely, Rudra Gauda, Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar, were detained as well; however, several are still on the run.

Dabholkar was a central voice in the fight against superstition in Maharashtra. As president of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS, the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith), he had for decades challenged the belief systems promoted by quacks, faith healers, babas and the like. The organisation questioned and disproved the ‘miracles’ performed by several mediums through roadshows and workshops in villages and towns. A doctor by profession, Dabholkar strove to instil a scientific and rationalist outlook in the people he encountered, urging them to be suspicious of these practitioners. The organisation continuously faced the wrath of godmen, their followers, and fundamentalist Hindu groups.

Shortly after his death, an uproar forced the state government to pass the Maharashtra Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Act, a Bill he had drafted. The Bill was enacted in a diluted form, but symbolised a victory for the work done by Dabholkar nonetheless. MANS has had to and continues to face massive opposition, as exemplified in the case of the Anti-Superstition Bill, which was stalled for 16 years. Many fundamentalist Hindu groups claimed that the Act was an attack on the very core of the religion. Online websites devoted to slandering the legislation were set up and called it unjust and unfair, a coup against the traditions of the faith.

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There seems to be no stopping superstition in India. The hold it has over the destitute population of the country is overwhelming. Black magic, tantra, and the yolk who perform it are intimately woven into the Indian cultural landscape. Andhvishwas or blind faith is rampant in the small towns and villages of the country, leading followers into believing, performing and giving whatever the practitioners deem fit. This has been true for several thousand years; in fact, many allege the tantric tradition to be older than formal Hinduism.

The British have left us detailed notes on the “Life of a Fakir” from the late 19th century and, if the archives are combed, perhaps an earlier account will be found of Indian superstitions and omens. A case from the 1970s shows the intensity of the belief. Ten women were killed in a human sacrifice ritual by a family in Manwar, a village in Maharashtra, between November 14, 1972, and January 4, 1974. The reason behind these murders was the infertility of the bride who, shortly after marriage, suffered from premature menopause. Convinced that sacrificing virgin blood would solve her problem, the entire family then proceeded to find and kill 10 women, cutting their vaginas open to induce bleeding.

 

Shortly after his death, an uproar forced the state government to pass the Maharashtra Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Act, a Bill he had drafted. The Bill was enacted in a diluted form, but symbolised a victory for the work done by Dabholkar nonetheless.MANS has had to and continues to face massive opposition, as exemplified in the case of the Anti-Superstition Bill, which was stalled for 16 years.


Unlike the 1970s, when travelling from one ‘specialist’ to the other was standard practice, a quick search on Google would not only present several alternatives in your ‘geographical region’ with phone numbers and consultation fees, but also project a wider availability of options in every nook and crany of the country. As the world becomes smaller and more connected, you’re just one click away from all your marriage, job, love and lady problems.

Call centres for astrological services abound in towns and cities like Lucknow. A study that appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) shows how these services have become profit-making institutions. They rope in established TV babas and negotiate tie-ups with their channels. They start these business ventures using computers on loan or the ones that are given out by the state government as hand-outs to young students. They begin receiving telephone calls once their number flashes on the TV channel. To cut their phone bills, a deal is struck for cheaper calls with telecom companies on the promise of bulk. To further their quality, new age ‘scientific’ astrological software such as Parashers Light (touted as the best astrological app out there) are deployed. In a matter of months, these religious entrepreneurs are minting money.

What motivates people to move towards these alternatives? Vulnerability, uncertainty, distress, a growing sense of listlessness. In 2002, in the face of the largest MSME collapse in Karnataka, N. Narsimhan from Bengaluru wrote a letter to the EPW. He requested entrepreneurs, who were not only losing money but also facing foreclosure, not to fall into the traps set up by tantriks, babas and priests who offered quick relief from the crippling economic situation. If they could provide solutions, he said, wouldn’t they be better placed themselves?

This blind belief is characteristic of politicians as well. An eminent astrologer in Delhi said, “Only one percent of the political class is what we call educated. More often than not, these leaders hail from the villages and small towns; their belief systems and what is inside them – their fears and apprehensions – do not change.” Chandraswami, the  astrologer who wielded extraordinary influence in the capital, is even said to have convinced the ‘Iron Lady’, Margaret Thatcher, to wear a red dress to get re-elected.

 



There is no single tradition of superstition, tantra or black magic, very much like there is no homogeneity in Hinduism. With regional differences come differences in practice. In a search for uniformity, one will find syncretic practices, which reflect and hark back to an older form of interaction between the multiple religions in the country.

In Odisha, for example, the dominant form of superstition is witch hunting. Bijay K. Sharma, Director General of the Crime Branch of the Odisha police, pointed to the persistence of this social evil in the garb of culture and tradition in the state. He said this practice is seen in primitive societies and that the Odisha Prevention of Witch Hunting Act, 2013, was a pioneering effort in a state steeped in superstition. The problem, he maintains, is that raising awareness about the issue is still a challenge.

The Act has not reduced the incidents of witch hunting. In a seminar on “Women’s Rights Violations Due to Witch Branding”, held in Bhubaneswar in late May this year, it was estimated that nearly 355 women had been killed since 2011. This is the highest figure ever recorded and represents the confidence that the implementation of the Act has given to people to register such cases. However, it still falls short of the number of actual incidents.

 

Call centres for astrological services abound in towns and cities like Lucknow. A study that appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) shows how these services have become profit-making institutions. They rope in established TV babas and negotiate tie-ups with their channels. They start these business ventures using computers on loan or the ones that are given out by the state government as hand-outs to young students


Lipika Darai’s recent documentary, Some Stories Around Witches, brings to light the devastating effects that branding a girl a witch can have, through three case studies from Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar in Odisha. In Mayurbhanj alone, upwards of 47 men and women were killed for being witches. Paraded naked, such victims are held responsible for the misfortunes of the entire village and humiliated until they are killed. In most cases, the ‘witches’ of India are illiterate.

This problem is prevalent in Jharkhand as well, which sees the highest incidence of witch hunting. The population is overwhelmingly under-educated, third from the bottom in India. Jharkhand has registered nearly 414 witch hunt deaths between 2000 and 2012.

Avinash Patil is the state executive president of MANS. In a telephonic conversation, he says that the dominant cases involve men and women who fill their coffers by misleading people; they thrive on the woes of others. Patil continues by saying that they promise miracles and cures to people who don’t know better. However, he points out that it is a tradition that cuts across regions and religions; Muslims go to Bengali babas while Hindus go to fakirs.

Traditions and superstitions create their social orders. According to Patil, the main purpose is to instil fear in people. In many cases these traditional practices are a counterweight to the law, seeking to impose traditional practices of inclusion and exclusion and social control. There are several examples from the work of MANS that stand testament to Patil’s assertion.

On June 1 this year, Krishna Chandgeude, who heads the Panchayat Wing of MANS, exposed a tradition practised in the Chhara community that forces women who were declared to be ‘not virgins’ by a Jat Panchayat to lead solitary lives, unfit for remarriage. On the first night of their marriage, the woman and man are stripped naked and searched. The woman’s bangles and clothes are taken off and thoroughly searched for any means to induce bleeding. Once both have been strip-searched they are sent to a room, where they are asked to consummate their union on a white, one-metre-long cloth. The members of the panchayat wait outside. If there is no bleeding, the wedding is annulled by them. Chandgeude faced many problems in bringing this to light, as any case that involves a panchayat has to be vetted by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In 2014, they registered nearly 104 such cases and compiled a list of practitioners, ranging from local Bengali babas and fakirs to healers and black magic specialists. The list is all-inclusive, illustrative of the depth of the problem.

 

According to historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, working in the history department of the University of Chicago, “Superstitions speak of some perennial and primitive condition of the human being, our deep sense of vulnerability in this world and our hope that miracles can happen at any time, that we might in small ways even help in bringing them about. Superstition seems to be a human universal”


In Sattara, Prashant Potdar has exposed 12 black magic specialists in the past two years. He, like Patil, contends that such practices are designed to prey on the fears of people. Potdar has registered FIRs and clicked photos of these men and women.

Despite the efforts of people like Potdar and Chandgeude, there is a lot yet to be done. Poverty and ignorance are the prime motivators in pushing people towards these escape routes. According to historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, working in the history department of the University of Chicago, “Superstitions speak of some perennial and primitive condition of the human being, our deep sense of vulnerability in this world and our hope that miracles can happen at any time, that we might in small ways even help in bringing them about. Superstition seems to be a human universal.”

Economic circumstances have made citizens more susceptible to the force of such practitioners; distress is their favourite mistress. But many do understand that less money in the economy means hard times for them. Hema Begum, a black magic specialist, says that more than 75 percent of those who come to her are looking for blessings in their search for jobs. She promises to look into their problems, offers them some totems and rituals to perform, bags the small consultation fee and moves on to the next customer.

It seems these customers believe only divine intervention can save them. Crucially, this old world seems to be tugging at the new one, and taking it right back.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2016