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Karnataka dithers over law against superstition

Despite expressing its intent to pass a law to prevent superstitious practices at the start of its term in 2013, the Congress government in Karnataka remains undecided on tabling a bill that would regulate superstitious practices that affect human dignity on account of the fear of a backlash from religious groups and lack of political consensus on the practices to be curbed.

Two drafts of a law called the Karnataka Prevention of Superstitious Practices — one by the National Law School of India and the second by the state social welfare department — have been given to the government over the last three years but neither has been tabled in the legislature on account of fear of opposition to regulation of some of the practices classified as superstitious.

A third version of the law is now being drafted by the social welfare department at the instance of Law Minister T B Jayachandra. This one keeps out controversial practices like Made Snana from the Dakshina Kannada region of Karnataka, where Dalits roll over the remains of food consumed by people from the upper castes.

According to government sources, Made Snana is not being considered for inclusion in the new draft since the government is already challenging the practice in a case in the Supreme Court. The practice was stayed by the Supreme Court in December 2014 on a plea by the state government after the practice had been allowed in a modified form by the Karnataka High Court in 2012. The case is due to be taken up again in July.

A group of progressive intellectuals had sought a ban on Made Snana in 2012 but the high court had provided a halfway solution through a modified Made Snana, with Dalits rolling over food offered to deities rather than leftovers of upper-caste persons. A section of Dalits and tribal communities are among those opposed to the ban.

Although an anti-superstition bill was not part of the election manifesto of the Congress in 2013, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah identified an anti-superstition law for Karnataka as one of his key interests after taking charge of the state. Soon after the Congress came to power in May 2013, the government asked a panel of experts including literary stalwarts, social justice champions and lawyers to look at irrational practices that need to be eradicated to ensure equality and justice.

An expert panel from the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy from the National Law School of India University presented the first draft bill on November 5, 2013, outlawing 13 superstitious practices.

The government was expected to study the model law and draft its own Karnataka Prevention of Superstitious Practices Bill. The model bill held human dignity as its central tenet and sought eradication of irrational practices across communities. Inflicting self-wounds and conversion through bribery were both deemed illegal.

However, within days of the draft bill entering the public domain, it attracted opposition from parties such as the BJP and the JDS, and religious leaders. The BJP called it anti-Hindu and a Lingayat seer called it an attack on the community, the largest in the state. Even leaders in the Congress such as Janardhan Poojary questioned the need for the new law when it had not been among the election promises. The Congress government did not table a draft bill in 2014 as expected.

Some of the proposals under the bill that raised the hackles of religious leaders and parties were banning the carrying of swamijis in palanquins, worshipping of the feet of religious leaders and Made Snana. The first draft proposed banning practices like the Ajalu system (making people eat human excreta, nails, hair etc, as is done in the case of Koragas, a Dalit community in Udupi and Mangalore districts) and the practice of barring some people, including menstruating women, from entering houses of worship or living areas. Vaastu, astrology for gain, horoscope, palmistry, prediction (both predicting and soliciting), seeking and answering questions through divination, sacrifice of living beings were also declared illegal under the model bill.

In 2015, following the killing of rationalist and Kannada writer M M Kalburgi, a fresh demand arose from rationalists and progressive thinkers for the Siddaramaiah government to pass an anti-superstition bill as a mark of respect to Kalburgi.

The social welfare department was tasked with preparing a second draft but this did not reach the legislature either, with the law department rejecting it.

“There are a lot of people who are in favour of a new anti-superstition law but in the absence of political consensus it would be foolhardy to introduce a bill and lose political capital,” a government source said.

About the third attempt at a bill, law minister Jayachandra said he is yet to receive a draft that can be tabled.

Courtesy: Indian Express

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