Forms of unreason

To be more effective, the fight against superstition will need clear advocacy by the political class.

Emboldened by the blanket outrage at the murder of Narendra Dabholkar, the Maharashtra cabinet dusted off a long-pending legislation against the practice of black magic and cleared it for introduction by ordinance. Dabholkar, a tireless activist against superstition and its propagation, was murdered in Pune. While the police are still investigating where the needle of suspicion may point, his death provides a chilling reality check on the shrinking space for reason and its advocacy. That it comes from Maharashtra, once a breeding ground for social reform movements, is certainly ironic. But this moment also captures phenomena that have given fresh salience to superstition and other forms of unreason in our time. It demands, accordingly, a response more broadbased than just passing legislation. The law has, of course, been a necessary handmaiden in India's efforts at social reform but social reform has never moved forward without clear advocacy by the political class. To fight superstition and the insidious practices furthered under the garb of religious/cultural traditions, therefore, politicians especially need to speak out at greater length and in larger numbers. They need to lead reform by making, possibly flamboyantly, examples of themselves.

There are two axes on which superstition is being revived today. One, reactionary groups have mastered the craft of presenting their respective identities as being under threat of assimilation, thereby entrenching themselves. Dabholkar himself came under attack from such local groups. Two, the dominant modes of communication today have given succour to the propagation of superstition. As one instance, survey the unchecked spread of television broadcasts that invoke an array of mumbo-jumbo to advise viewers on routine and life-changing decisions. And in contrast to the high noon of social reform movements, when public figures strained to lead by example, there is already a critical mass of individuals who present the political elite today as being in thrall to practices as varied as numerology and astrology to undertake even purely official duties.

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