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The risk of reason

Rationalist groups in India fight not just superstitions, ‘godmen’, ‘ghosts’, ‘spirits’ or social injustice. As profiles of several across India show, threats are a constant presence.

Written by Gopal B Kateshiya , Divya Goyal , Johnson T A , Esha Roy , Shaju Philip |
Updated: September 21, 2015 2:41:54 pm

Article 51 A (h) of the Consitution says that it is the duty of all citizens “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. It is this point that is often stressed upon by Indian rationalist thinkers.

Mahatma Phule (1827-1890), Periyar Ramasamy (1879-1973) and Gora (1902-1975) are considered the founding fathers of the Indian rationalist movement. The current generation of Indian rationalists, however, draws its influence from Abraham Kovoor, who lived most of his life in Sri Lanka; Basava Premananda, a former Sai Baba devotee who later took to the rationalist path; and Joseph Edamaruku, a journalist from Kerala.

Edamaraku’s son Sanal followed his father’s footsteps. Now president of the Indian Rationalist Association, Sanal lives in Finland, after facing threats when he showed that “water dripping out of the toe of a Christ statue” was actually the result of bad plumbing. Sanal had earlier become famous after challenging a fakir, who claimed he could kill anybody by chanting mantras, to decimate him on live TV. The fakir kept trying, for several hours.

Indian rationalists have also had a tradition of combining social reform, such as fighting dowry, with their demonstrations.

READ: Faces behind Chhattisgarh, Assam’s fight against witch-hunting

It took the killing of Narendra Dabholkar in 2013 for the introduction of an anti-superstition law in Maharashtra. A similar demand is being made in Karnataka in the light of the killing of researcher and rationalist M M Kalburgi in Dharwad in August.

A member of radical Hindu organisation Sanatan Sanstha has now been held for the murder of CPI leader and another rationalist, Govind Pansare, in February this year. Police are investigating if his murder was linked to the killings of Dabholkar and Kalburgi, which are still unsolved.

Around 2.75 million people listed themselves as ‘atheists’ in the 2011 Census. It is a figure that gives Narendra Nayak, one of India’s foremost rationalists now, heart. “This does not include thousands who are rational thinkers but do not put themselves down as rationalists because of the compulsion to observe rituals,” says Nayak.

‘You start questioning things — the most blatant, harmful things, that are evil’

Nayak has held over 2,000 shows, lectures to bust myths. (Source: Express photo by Johnson T A) Nayak has held over 2,000 shows, lectures to bust myths. (Source: Express photo by Johnson T A)

Last week, Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA), was at Adyanadaka village in Mangalore, near the town of Vittala, talking to students of a government junior college about the “spirit of inquiry”. It was at this village some 33 years ago that the man who is now one of India’s foremost rationalist thinkers had performed one of his first ghost-busting tasks.

“People were saying a grocer’s store in the village was haunted. A local who knew me asked for help. When we arrived, we found there were two ‘ghosts’ — a teenage girl and her father. They lived behind the store and would throw stones inside to scare the grocer away so that they could occupy it,” Nayak told the students.

As he related this story and others over the next couple of hours, the 65-year-old performed some ‘magic tricks’ of own. He produced holy ash out of thin air and distributed it, saying it would help students do well in exams, and then showed how he had achieved this. He brought forth rings, gold chains and money, and also explained to students how they could do fire-eating.

(Read more)

‘Acid was thrown on me, I hid under a car’

Jayant Pandya, rationalism, scientific thinking, superstition, Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha, BJVJ, Bajrang Dal, unscientific practices, big story, indian express, india news, nation news Worst attacks have come over animal sacrifice campaign: Jayant Pandya. (Source: Express photo)

On May 20, every one of the 2,800 people in Khicha, Sanand, left their homes to camp at the village border. They spent the next 12 hours in the sun, for a “bhuva (religious head of a community)” had warned the previous day that the community deity, Goddess Shakti, was angry as “they had not kept their promise of offerings”.

That is when the Gujarat chapter of the Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha (BJVJ), an NGO that works to promote rationalism and scientific thinking, entered the picture.

“We did a survey of houses and found at least 15 cases of diarrhoea, sunstroke etc due to the heat exposure that day,” says BJVJ Gujarat chairman Jayant Pandya. He later got the village sarpanch and the bhuva, Valji Vaghela, to issue a public apology.

(Read more)…


‘In the end, all turn out to be man-made acts’

rationalism, scientific thinking, superstition, unscientific practices, Channan Singh Wander, Tarksheel Society, Abraham Kovoor, rationalist, godmen, paranormal activities, big story, indian express, india news, nation news Punjab, Punjab news A session on mental health at Tarksheel’s Ludhiana centre. (Source: Express photo by Gurmeet Singh)

A Poster in the corner details the kind of “rahasyamayi ghantnaavan (mysterious incidents)” that are treated at this ‘mental health awareness centre’ on Kotakapura Road in Ludhiana — everything from “dandal daurey paina tey behosh hona (getting fits and strokes, and fainting) to upari asar aana (possessed by spirits).”

Tarksheel Society, founded 29 years ago, gets surprised by little. “In the end, all of these turn out to be man-made acts,” smiles Channan Singh Wander, 55.

On this Sunday, there are three-four people waiting to see him. A small TV in the waiting room is showing a video of a Tarksheel activist listing facts to show that astrological predictions have no scientific basis — “People with different kundlis die with hundreds of others in an accident,” the activist points out.

(Read more)…

‘We are in crosshairs from all sides’

superstition, rationalism, scientific thinking, superstition, liberal Islam, Shamsuddin Tamboli, Muslim Satyashodkak Mandal, Pune MSM, MSM pune, Professor Shamsuddin Tamboli, unscientific practices, big story, indian express, india news, nation news Professor Shamsuddin Tamboli’s MSM criticised fatwa against a film on the Prophet. ((Source: Express photo by Tanmay Thombre)

Muslim Satyashodhak Mandal, Pune

It’s not easy being a rationalist in Pune these days. It’s even more difficult, perhaps, to be one striving for a more ‘liberal’ Islam at a time the community sees itself under a threat.

Professor Shamsuddin Tamboli, the president of Pune’s Muslim Satyashodkak Mandal (MSM), is used to the criticism and threats. He was under one such firestorm recently for his criticism of the ‘fatwa’ issued against Iranian director Majid Majidi, composer A R Rahman and others involved in the making of a film on Prophet Mohammad. In a press release on September 14, the MSM called the fatwa a “Talibani” act.

Tamboli, who calls himself a follower of both the late MSM founder Hamid Dalwai and Narendra Dabholkar, says the threats don’t matter. “Dalwai dared take out a rally of divorced Muslim women to the Vidhan Sabha long back in 1966 and demanded uniform civil code,” he says.

(Read more)…

‘For 5 months, my wife and I lived under police protection’

Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham, Kozhikode

A small crowd is gathered around four men on the roadside. One of them, K K Salim, gestures to a boy to come forward. He places a wet cloth on the head of the boy and then holds a rag soaked in kerosene above it. As he ignites the rag, another person places a pan over the flames to make an omelette. This, Salim says, busts the “magic” behind how a fire can be lit on a person’s head without harming him.

As the crowd claps, E J Jabbar, district president of the Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham (KYS)’s Malappuram branch, says, “Some tricksters and priests light a fire on their heads to claim they have supernatural powers. There is nothing uncanny about it. A wet cloth protects from burns.”

While their active numbers in Kerala are now estimated to be around 4,000, the state has a long history of rationalist thinking.

(Read more)…

‘I exposed 700 godmen, 7,000 fled’

superstition, rationalism, scientific thinking, superstition, Prabir Ghosh, atheist, big story, West bengal, kolkata, indian express, india news, nation news Pabir Ghosh’s Science and Rationalists’ Association of India has 700 volunteers, spread across West Bengal.

Science and Rationlists’ Association of India, Kolkata

“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.

(Read More)…

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