Home/ Opinion / Saving rationalism from the rationalists

The murder of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar is worthy of unreserved condemnation. Dabholkar, who founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) and campaigned for three decades against practices and ideas that he deemed to be superstitious, was apparently killed because of his activism. An array of prominent individuals rightly censured this heinous act. But some like the film-maker Amol Palekar and activist Sandhya Gokhale lionized him and lamented how we didn’t deserve Dabholkar. This adulation is something we disagree with, and find befuddling.

Since 2003, Dabholkar sought to criminalize, through his draft Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Bill, irrational and superstitious practices. Promulgated as an ordinance already, the Bill will be presented in Maharashtra assembly’s winter session. The Anti-Superstition Bill has been proffered as a tribute to Dabholkar’s work. His daughter has been campaigning that a Bill against superstitions be brought at the national level. Karnataka too is considering passing a similar law.

In the din surrounding these events, common sense seems to have been the casualty. Should the murder of a man be a pretext for the deployment of state power to control citizens’ choices on matters of belief and faith? Isn’t it troubling that a bunch of activists are being allowed to enforce their ideas of what is rational and what isn’t in an ostensibly liberal, democratic republic and a free country?

Let us examine some of the positions taken by MANS. On its official website, it says that the list of practices that need to be outlawed includes those acts that “defame, disgrace the names of erstwhile Saints/Gods, by claiming to be there (sic) reincarnation".

One would be forgiven for thinking this to be a satirical dig or intentional jocularity from a self-described rationalist organization, but this statement is made in all seriousness. Its absurdity doesn’t really merit elaboration, but nevertheless one must persist, for it reveals the intellectual bankruptcy of MANS. Does this group of activists believe that there was once an era of gods and saints, and there cannot be one today? What is the basis for an approach that legitimizes ancient dogma and effectively creates entry barriers for modern-day faith entrepreneurs?

MANS claims that its Bill doesn’t try to distinguish between faith and blind faith—what is deemed by them to be blind faith is included in a “separate schedule", and this schedule can be “updated periodically". This is a strange distinction, for faith, by definition, is blind. This arbitrary differentiation seems to have been introduced because MANS and its supporters don’t have the intellectual capacity or more likely the moral courage to make a consistent case against faith per se, and instead want to anoint themselves arbiters of “rationality" through the instrument of government power.

Matthew Inman, creator of the Web comic The Oatmeal, brought out this hypocrisy memorably, showing how fundamentalist Christians mock scientologists for having strange beliefs. As the saying goes, “A cult is a church down the street from your church."

What does it mean to be rational anyway? At a rigorous and non-colloquial level, rationality has to be but tautological. This is so because to deem a practice as irrational implicitly accepts a standard of rationality, and attributes anything else to a certain form of “false consciousness". But, to paraphrase what Chicago School economists had famously asked, is it really irrational to be a chain-smoker? Who decides the costs and benefits, except the concerned individuals? Are non-religious superstitions more rational?

Journalist Kumar Ketkar eulogized Dabholkar as one who advocated scientific thinking. This assertion is on weak footing—Dabholkar and the organization he founded seem to be clueless about the science of why animals, including human beings, are superstitious. Writing in Nautilus magazine, Carleton University cognitive scientist Jim Davies says that “any of us can become superstitious given the right circumstances" and brings out how “the tendency to resort to ritual in an effort to manage a challenging situation isn’t exclusive to humans." As early as 1948, Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner showed how pigeons could be induced to partake in ritual and superstition.

Davies elaborates on how pattern detection is critical to helping us interpret the world around us, and the neurotransmitter dopamine helps the brain in detecting patterns. An uncertain environment generates an excess of dopamine, and this tends to make humans paranoid and incredulous, leading us to imagine patterns and connections where none exist.

The phenomenon of an uncertain environment triggering ritualism is most visible in sport—an umpteen number of highly successful sportspersons have practised all kinds of superstitions. Steve Waugh always carried a red handkerchief when batting. Sachin Tendulkar reportedly puts on the left pad first.

Given the grave, life-threatening uncertainties many—especially the poor—have to contend with, from the lack of medical facilities to the absence of educational opportunities, gainful employment and even personal security, they are predisposed towards believing in all kinds of supernatural phenomena, especially those that might allay these uncertainties. Dabholkar and his organization’s solution hardly addresses the problem—it only criminalizes what is a natural human tendency. Moreover, for someone widely lionized as a campaigner for “the cultivation of scientific temper" as encouraged by India’s Constitution, Dabholkar and MANS demonstrate a blissful ignorance for the science behind what makes us superstitious.

It is astonishing how few in India’s intellectual establishment find MANS’ positions incongruous and preposterous—it seems to be the case that almost all writers and commentators have conflated the enactment of a law with recompense for the murder of a misguided, if well-intentioned, activist. The only exception has been Centre for Policy Research president Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who eloquently wrote how “anti-superstition laws enshrine paternalism, diminish the moral importance of the harm committed and make citizens less responsible."

Dabholkar’s criticisms weren’t restricted to the activities of unscrupulous charlatans. In an astounding display of self-righteousness, he once argued that rice was being wasted during marriage ceremonies, and campaigned against this too. This is not very different from the criticism of wastage of food at marriages by the mandarins at the anachronistic Union food ministry.

The truth is it is impossible for anyone to draw a line on what is waste and what is legitimate consumption in a society. If a bunch of activists argue that there is a wastage of resources caused by bad television programmes, should those programmes be outlawed? The solution lies in allowing markets to set a financial price on the transaction—those who are willing to pay the price should be allowed to waste and consume.

In another leap of sanctimoniousness, MANS has gone so far as to want to completely outlaw certain sects and practices of the Hindu tradition. The opposition of the Warkari sect to Maharashtra’s anti-superstition Bill has been well-documented—the plight of the Aghoris, who would likely become criminals under the new law, is not even mentioned. This is lamentable for the existence of sects like the Aghoris captures the deepest strains of liberalism in the Hindu faith—their way of life pushes the boundaries on what is considered morally acceptable by society. To be sure, anything that curbs the freedom of or harms another citizen should not be legal, but for that a specific law against superstition or black magic is not required.

Curbing superstition would involve bringing a semblance of predictability to the lives of ordinary Indians, who contend every single day with incredible uncertainty to gain access to facilities and services that should be commonplace. This requires, amongst other things, that governments should govern better.

Spectacles such as these, where activists blackmail governments into turning their pet ideas into law are becoming all the more common, and underline the discredited image of the Indian state’s executive branch. Finding and prosecuting Dabholkar’s murderers would not be sufficient, we are being told—to honour his life and work, not just Maharashtra but all of India must embrace statist paternalism, and India’s society must accept the arbitrary diktats of activists on what is superstition and what is rational. In a telling indictment, this gruesome project has gained the tacit approval of various intellectuals. Anti-superstition laws are unnecessary and harmful, and yet another instance of the deep confusion that persists in India between what the state should be doing and what should be left to society.

Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Gupta are co-founders of the India Enterprise Council.

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Updated: 19 Nov 2013, 04:05 PM IST
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