“I don’t believe in God,” Prabir Ghosh says, then quickly adds, “But I am not an atheist — that has such a negative ring to it. I am a humanist.”
Ghosh sits in his ‘office’, operating out of his small, yellowing apartment in congested Motijhil Colony. The 71-year-old is the president of the Science and Rationalists’ Association of India.
On the wall behind him hangs a poster with a bleeding figure of Christ. “A Christian woman claimed this figure had started bleeding and called it a miracle. People flocked to her home. I sent one of my volunteers, who managed to swab some of the blood with cotton. We sent it to a lab and found out that it was from one of Kolkata’s blood banks — her husband had been buying it! The woman simply disappeared,” Ghosh laughs.
He takes out other “treasures” from his ‘safety box’ — a Sai Baba ‘gold’ chain and a ‘gold ball’ from another godman.
When Ghosh set up his organisation in 1985, he used to work at the State Bank of India. Now he has 700 volunteers, spread across all West Bengal districts. Of his “53 books”, Aulokik Noi, Loukik (Not Supernatural, Natural), was a bestseller, selling a million copies.
BBC’s Channel 4 featured him and his volunteers in a documentary called Guru Busters.
“We are most active in the tribal and Maoist areas of Bengal. We tell people their fate is not decided by planets but by the richer class that oppresses them,” Ghosh says, adding that Bankura and Purulia are “the most superstitious” West Bengal districts.
“In some of these places, they use balls of wheat dough to determine if someone is a ‘witch’. If the dough sinks, the woman is cleared; if it floats, she is held to be a witch. Who they want to declare a witch is predetermined… They would hide thermocol or little rice puffs in the dough for it to float,” Ghosh says.
His volunteers take on ‘godmen’ by challenging them to perform miracles, offering to pay if they lose. “I have defeated 700 ‘godmen’. Another 7,000 simply ran away. Once, I met Ramdev in a TV studio. His book claims he can levitate. I asked him to show me. He got furious and started abusing me. I said, you claim to be a yogi, but yogis never get angry. He stormed off,” laughs Ghosh.
When he is not calling the bluff on ‘godmen’, Ghosh is holding classes on Sundays, teaching students the “real secrets behind false miracles”. “We teach them everything — from hypnotism to guerrilla warfare. Did you know that when we started working 30-odd years ago, the number of atheists in the world was 2 per cent? Now it’s 22 per cent of the world population,” he says.
However, Ghosh still counts the legal win of 1993, when they got a civil court in Kolkata to declare humanism a religion, as his biggest win. The organisation has also got various government departments in the state to declare astrology an “illegal profession”.
However, the association maintains a “good distance” from the political class otherwise, also refusing funding from either private or government bodies. Volunteers contribute money from their own earnings.
Explaining this ‘distance’, Ghosh says, “I have received threats several times. ‘Godmen’ are powerful people backed by the political and ruling class.”