In the Wake of a Skeptic’s Death, Indian State Takes Small Steps Toward Rationality August 25, 2013

In the Wake of a Skeptic’s Death, Indian State Takes Small Steps Toward Rationality

Today’s New York Times features an article on Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, the skeptic who was assassinated earlier this week, presumably because his debunking of supernatural claims angered a few too many people…

The article is a glowing tribute to what he accomplished in his life and how far India still has to go:

If a holy man had electrified the public with his miracles, Dr. Dabholkar, a former physician, would duplicate the miracles and explain, step by step, how they were performed. If a sorcerer had amassed a fortune treating infertility, he would arrange a sting operation to unmask the man as a fraud. His goal was to drive a scientist’s skepticism into the heart of India, a country still teeming with gurus, babas, astrologers, godmen and other mystical entrepreneurs.

The founder of one such [Hindu extremist] group, Sanatan Sanstha, noting that he did not condone the killing, did not bother to feign sorrow over Dr. Dabholkar’s death.

“Instead of dying of old age, or by surgery, which causes a lot of suffering, the death Mr. Dabholkar got today was a blessing from God,” the leader, a former hypnotherapist now known as His Holiness Dr. Jayant Athavale, wrote in an editorial in the organization’s publication, Sanatan Prabhat.

As we learned a couple of days ago, the anti-black-magic bill Dabholkar had been fighting for finally passed — as an ordinance. It’s kind of like a president’s Executive Order — done without the support of Congress. It only has a shelf life of six months, after which time it has to be reissued. It’d become law only if the legislature ratified it. The Times of India notes some of the details of the new ordinance in the state of Maharashtra:

Prohibits practice, promotion and propagation of human sacrifice, other inhuman, evil and Aghori practices and black magic, unauthorized, illegal practices of medicine or healing or curing by quacks, conmen etc.

Such practices will be treated as offence and punishable with imprisonment for a term of six months extending up to seven years along with a fine ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 50,000. The offences to be non-bailable.

Implementation to be monitored by a vigilance officer with power to detect and prevent contravention, collect evidence, conduct search, raid and prosecute.

What constitutes black magic: Giving chilli smoke, beating a person by stick, forcing him to perform sexual acts, display miracles to cheat, create impression that divine spirit has possessed a person, parading a person naked in the name of jaran-maran etc.

The question will be whether the law will actually be implemented. At least one person quoted in the NYT piece explained that the law didn’t apply to him because his superstition was based in science:

… Kumar Shankar was offering palm readings in the same spot where he has worked since 1987. He sat cross-legged and barefoot, in a vest of rough homespun fabric, and was not especially bothered by the challenges of secularists. A reading was 60 rupees, about $1.

“The Constitution of India has given us freedom of expression,” he said. “Many people say God is not there, but many more believe in God. Many people do not believe in spirits. Many people believe in spirits.” To charges that he was exploiting that belief, he said, “If you go to a doctor, will he treat you for free?”

Mr. Shankar had heard about Dr. Dabholkar’s death, and about the sudden progress of the new legislation. He shrugged off the idea that it would have any effect on him. “No, mine is a science,” he said. “This is palmistry! Numerology, palmistry, astrology, these are sciences! The law cannot ban them.”


Pseudoscience is still a way of life in India, and it’ll continue to be unless more people pick up the fight where Dabholkar left off.

So far, no one has been arrested for his assassination.

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