The weight of evidence

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on January 24, 2018

Leading the flock   -  th


In the ‘anti-superstition’ bill introduced in Maharashtra in 2013, Narendra Dabholkar et al don’t raise the epistemological question nor get into the business of adjudicating miracles

On the kerb of the Omkareshwar bridge near Shanivar Peth, Pune, August 20, 2013, 7.30am. Bent over slightly, prostrate in all his vulgarity, quiet, like a sleeping beggar, not like someone who had floundered and flailed before his last guttering splutters, ruched red blood spreading under him: the only mentionable alumnus of my alma mater, Government Medical College, Miraj (Sangli district, Maharashtra), shot once in the head, twice in the chest, both obviously his peccant parts. Punished publicly for teaching children the seaminess of miracles. For telling the great unwashed and unlettered lower orders of Maharashtra, in their own language, with much levity and mirth, about Occam’s razor and David Hume and Article 51A (h) of the Indian Constitution. And telling the varkaris of Pandharpur, the devotees of Vithoba, that empirical claims must be substantiated by empirical evidence. But most of all, for the authorship, in 2003, of a proposed law on superstition.

Narendra Dabholkar’s children, Mukta and Hamid, after lighting their father’s pyre in a wordless secular service, proceeded to the waiting TV crews, where they were asked repeatedly to platitudinise about their father’s life and about the contentious bill still sitting in abeyance. Within 28 hours of Dabholkar’s slaying, the state government approved that bill as an ordinance. Introduced on December 11, 2013, the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Bill 2013 was passed by both Houses within a week. It is now, in the state of Maharashtra, a cognisable, non-bailable offence to commit, promote, propagate or practise or cause to promote, propagate or practise human sacrifice and other inhuman, evil and aghori practices and black magic such as:

1) Assault, forced ingestion of urine or stool, forced sexual acts, branding, etc. on the pretext of exorcising ghosts from an allegedly possessed person.

2) Claiming to make miracles and defrauding or terrorising people.

3) Carrying out or encouraging acts that endanger life or cause grievous injury in order to gain supernatural blessing.

4) Carrying out or encouraging inhuman acts or human sacrifice in quest of some bounty or reward.

5) Creating the impression that a person has supernatural powers and compelling people to follow his/her orders.

6) Claiming to invoke ghosts, creating the impression of possession, preventing the person from seeking medical treatment, and compelling him/her to inhuman acts.

For something that was always billed as the anti-superstition bill, the Act has no mention of the word superstition. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Sanatan Sanstha continue their spells of ranting about how the bill was practically rigged to trap the Hindu religion. Dabholkar and Shyam Manav, the chief authors of the bill, have always had a sense of the fantastic forcefulness of opinion ranged against it and they had responded by stating that the bill does not mention God or religion, and that it only targets fraudulent practices. Now, even a cursory examination will tell us that the principal doctrines of most religions would involve an assertion of at least one of the 12 clauses on the Schedule of the Act (six of them mentioned above), particularly the one on miracles. If the miracle can be described as a violation of a law of nature, consider this:

The Old Testament is an agglutination of about 67 major and multiple minor miracles. Ditto for the New T: approximately 37 attributed to Christ. The narration of the Quran by Jibril farishta to Muhammad as a consummate reproduction of what was written in heaven. Muhammad’s mystic travel to the seventh heaven on a steed called Al-Buraq.

A profusion of miracles in each of the 18 Mahapuranas. Miracles are the warp and woof of the lives of Hindu Gods, an absolute banality in Hindu scriptures. As regards saints living in the clear light of history, the following may be cited: Dnyaneshwar and the flying wall, the divine assignments of the infant Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Akkalkot Maharaj, Sai Baba, etc. siddhar is one who has attained siddhi (magical power). There is a taxonomy of miracles performed by siddhars: from Anima (the power of becoming the size of an atom and entering into smallest form of life) to Isithvam (having control over the sun, moon and the elements; includes the power to resurrect the dead).

Dabholkar et al (in the bill) don’t raise the epistemological question or get into the business of adjudicating miracles. That would make it deeply problematic. The only way that one can judge between two empirical claims is by weighing the evidence. The degree to which we believe one claim over another is proportional to the degree by which the evidence for one outweighs the evidence for the other. The weight of evidence is a function of such factors as the reliability, manner, and number of witnesses. The Salem witchcraft trial, for instance, had much stronger evidence favouring it than the resurrection of Christ. What Dabholkar’s law seemingly does in the matter is to render all miracles performed prior to August 26, 2013, (the day the ordinance was signed), exempt from arraignment. The law effectively avers that the age of miracles is firmly in our past. We are now in the age of conjuring. The propagation of Satyanarayan’s pooja is therefore not a criminal offence. Ram Rahim Insan’s (Dera Sacha Sauda) capers are punishable.

It was from Dabholkar that I first learnt of the whole passage (the one that has been completely perverted by its truncated form — - the opium of the masses) from Marx that appears in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

“To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.

“Criticism has torn up the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that man shall wear the unadorned, bleak chain but so that he will shake off the chain and pluck the living flower.”

Dabholkar’s bill wasn’t meant to pluck the living flower. But I shall ask you this: would the amputation of a non-diseased, non-regenerating, functional, protective and erogenous part of the male penis (in a powerless child) as a part of a promise made to Abraham for a future occupation of the whole land of Canaan be punishable under the third clause mentioned above? Should it?

asatwik@gmail. com

(Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer)

Published on February 13, 2015

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