Proposed anti-Black Magic Bill will fail to cure Kerala of superstitious beliefs. Here's why

Image: Onmanorama

After the ghastly voodoo killings at Elanthoor in Pathanamthitta, moves are on to bring Kerala's anti-superstition bill back from the dead. Considering the immediate need to end witchcraft, the Bill drafted by the Law Reforms Commission in 2019 (Kerala Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices, Sorcery and Black Magic Bill) is likely to be promulgated as an Ordinance.

The Bill is modelled on Maharashtra’s Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013. The Bill seeks to prohibit all forms of rituals that claim to summon dark and violent forces, including the use of violence to exorcise ghosts.

The Bill criminalises attempts to deny medical treatment to a suffering person in the name of religion or faith. Anyone claiming any kind of supernatural power will also invite the wrath of this law. It also prohibits isolating menstruating women.

Perhaps the most important aspect in the proposed Bill is the authority given to the police to enter and search any place they have reason to believe that an offence under this Act has been committed. Under existing laws, the police can act only after something dangerous has happened.

Law to 'save' dark arts

Yet, it is widely believed that the Act would be woefully inadequate to root out superstitions, not just because sorcery and black magic are part of Kerala's culture but also because of the innumerable exceptions provided in the proposed Bill; these exceptions in legal parlance are called “savings”.

It allows all forms of worship in religious and spiritual places. Even the elaborate rituals conducted at home will be “saved” from the law. “Most black magic rituals done at the sorcerer's or the client's house, if they do not involve murder, can easily be passed of as a traditional ritual, and can claim exemption from the law,” said Dr Manoj Komath, one of Kerala's preeminent rationlists and a scientist at the Sree Chithira Thirunal Institute of Medical Sciences.

He said many quack healers in Kerala have created a fake myth that dates back centuries to justify their weird rituals. “They can always fall back on this false tradition if at all law enforcers try to intervene,” he said.

There are other activities, too, that have been “saved”. The proposed Bill will not go against claims of religious miracles and their propagation. It will also leave astrologers untouched. In Kerala, it is astrologers who direct people to sorcerers and black magicians.

The importance of astrology in our lives
'Prashnam veppu' is a kind of cosmic probe in which astrologers move shells over a square board drawn with geometric patterns. File photo

Cosmic probe, Kerala style

“It is only in Kerala that astrologers indulge in 'prashnam veppu'. Nowhere else in the country do we have this practice,” Dr Komath said.

'Prashnam veppu' is a kind of cosmic probe in which astrologers move shells over a square board drawn with geometric patterns. It is by looking at the stars through the small off-white shells arranged on the board that astrologers claim to detect what is troubling the individual who has come seeking help. After the problem has been detected, mostly some djinn or a poltergeist, they write down a prescription for the neighbourhood sorcerer.

“In innumerable instances, the prescription would be for violent exorcism,” Dr Komath said.

The proposed Bill has also kept the list of “savings” incomplete, giving enough room for the government to politically balance itself in case some community unexpectedly feels hurt. The Bill says that the government can exempt any traditional religious rites and acts, and for this, the government only has to notify these in the official gazette.

Representational image

Land of coconuts and sorcery

Apart from the inherent weakness in the proposed Bill, it also cannot be denied that sorcery is ingrained in Kerala's culture. In fact, sorcery is linked to the very man who, according to myth, has created Kerala: Parasurama. He is said to have picked six brahmin families to perform sorcery. The Malaya tribes in Kerala say they are the original sorcerers. Many tales in Kottarathil Sankunni's Aithihyamala, Kerala's Arabian Nights, have sorcery and black magic as their backdrop.

Our fables are full of people capable of invoking the supernatural. Even our folk practices like 'theyyam', 'theeyattu' and 'padyani' are linked to sorcery. There is virtually no Malayalm film with a rural backdrop that does not feature an oracle. So the fascination for the supernatural is woven into our social psyche.

Despite the rational movement in the '50s led by the legendary rationalist A T Kovoor and the growth of the Left in Kerala, the possibilities inherent in the unknown have always fascinated Kerala. The very anxieties that made them hold on to their religious faith had pushed some to explore the supernatural in weird and dangerous ways.

For ethereal nights, walk with the Theyyams of Kannur
Theyyam performance in Kannur. File Photo: Onmanorama

Hopelessly faithful

Chathan seva, a kind of devil worship that involves animal/bird sacrifice, still thrives even though the Kerala Animals and Bird Sacrifices Prohibition Act of 1968 has prohibited the killing of animals and birds to please a deity. Similar is the potency of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Act. Quacks continue to market their spurious remedies for diabetes, piles and sexual dysfunction like they are the law.

Former additional director general of police A Hemachandran, even while working on the first-ever draft of an anti-superstition bill in Kerala during 2013 and 2014, knew fully well that Kerala was a charlatan's paradise.

“There was a case many years ago in Aranmula (Pathanamthitta) of a pujari who had eloped with a married woman. This pujari had by then evolved into a local 'god man'. After he decamped with his lover, it was found that this man had used his fake powers to swindled gold and money from many rich and poor women in the area,” Hemachandran said.

But here is the twist in the tale. “Later, when I was in Idukki as part of an investigation, we came across a small temple in the hills. A garlanded photograph was the deity. To my surprise, I realised that it was the same pujari who had stolen the gold and eloped withz his lover. He was controlling these rural folk from abroad,” he said.

Law of deterrence

Even while conceding that Kerala is hopelessly drowned in faith, the former ADGP said that the Bill could act as a deterrent. “At the moment the police can act only after something bad has happened. If the law comes into force, such witchcraft practitioners cannot openly ply their trade like now. The police are also empowered to enter anywhere if there is a reasonable suspicion,” Hemachandran said, and added: “If the legal ban on smoking in public has had an effect, there is no reason why this Act should not keep sorcerers, tricksters and black magicians in check.”

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