≡ Menu

Call it crime,not superstition | The Indian Express

If the army feels it requires continuation of the AFSPA to discharge its responsibilities, no other agency is qualified to credibly challenge that view. Anti-superstition laws enshrine paternalism,diminish the moral importance of the harm committed and make citizens less responsible. Belief and ritual can,literally,be a matter of life and death. Narendra Dabholkar courageously spent his life combating superstition and irrationality. His violent death is a reminder of the depths to which discourses around culture have fallen in Maharashtra. We do not have a full handle on how society is changing. But the demands of law,morality and commonsense are increasingly immobilised in the face of absurd cultural claims. Dont prejudge guilt or innocence. But just think of the absurd way in which charges against Asaram Bapu have been handled by the state. Many aspects of Dabholkars struggle,saving people from the horrendous consequences of harmful rituals,the promotion of science in public affairs,need to be continued with renewed vigour. But we also need to reflect more deeply on the way in which we have used the intersection of law and superstition to obscure deep moral issues. We may,unwittingly,be sending mixed moral messages. Take the example of anti-witchcraft legislation in states like Jharkhand. Witchcraft has claimed dozens of lives over a decade. But is the moral purpose of the law better served by having separate laws to punish the harm done by witchcraft as witchcraft,or should it be governed as much as possible by existing laws and IPC? These practices often involve inflicting physical harm on an individual,subjecting them to psychological harassment and sometimes actions that lead to death. Most of these harms are already covered by the IPC. Murder should be murder,whether it is done chasing witches or communal ghosts. Forcibly evicting someone from their property or doing anything to their bodies without consent is a crime,no matter what the cause. But the minute we represent law as regulating superstition rather than focusing on the harm in question,we give a misleading moral account of why an act is wrong. Many years ago,Lata Mani had pointed out in a brilliant work that in the debate over sati,neither the modernists nor the orthodox were particularly concerned about the agency and dignity of the women involved. Rather,women became sites upon which larger debates about tradition and modernity were carried out. There is a real risk that a lot of the witchcraft legislation is sending a similar signal. The signal is: we are more concerned about superstition versus science than about the autonomy and dignity of the victims. The signal we want to send is not primarily that these acts are wrong because they emanate from superstition. They are wrong because they cause harm. But the moral importance of the harm disappears when the object of the law becomes regulating superstition rather than the harm. This legislation can sometimes have perverse consequences. Sometimes the multiplication of laws gives police more discretion over which charges to bring. As a brief prepared at Cornell University on Indias witchcraft legislation pointed out,the penalties are less for the same offence if tried under a prevention of witchcraft act than those prescribed for the same offence if tried under the IPC. It is as if,if you have inflicted harm under a superstition,you have committed a lesser crime. This assumption often pervades judging as well. Courts often commute sentences because a crime was committed under the spell of a belief. In a famous case from Bihar,Santul Dhobi,a death sentence was commuted on these grounds. But before we express our disquiet at this form of judging,we need to reflect more deeply on where this assumption comes from. Some legislation,like the recently enacted Maharashtra ordinance,has a strong dose of legal paternalism. Apart from preventing harms that are already crimes,the purpose of the legislation is to protect people from their own beliefs,beliefs in godmen or the power of amulets,etc. Whether law should regulate forms of enchantment if they do not cause independently identified harm to others is an open question. But for the argument here,the relevant point is this. If the law constructs citizens in a paternalistic way,odd legal consequences follow. For example,our absurd anti-conversion legislation is premised on the idea that people cannot judge religious claims on their own,they can be duped. But if we seriously believe this premise,can you really criticise the judge who has sympathy for the perpetrators of crimes committed in the name of belief? He now sees them not as criminals,but victims of a sort; they have not committed a murder,they have carried out a cultural ritual,whether it is honour-killing or witchcraft. Enshrining paternalism in the law diminishes the moral importance of the harm committed,and,in a strange way,makes citizens less responsible. In a brilliant article on the anthropology of witchcraft,Nandini Sundar had pointed out that,in the case of witchcraft,accusations of occult practices are a way of coping with [the uncertainties of human existence. One of her points was that a whole range of background conditions needs to be addressed if one is to come to terms with these practices. Can you blame someone for reposing faith in a traditional healer,given their lack of experience and trust in a medical practitioner? An ojha is more likely to be subject to malpractice than bad doctors. There is some evidence for Ashis Nandys claim that many so-called superstitious practices are not our prehistory; they are sometimes products of an instrumentalist culture. Increase in incidence of witchcraft seems to be related to the desire to get hold of someones property. But,more deeply,the point is that when it comes to dealing with human agents,superstition and science,tradition and modernity do not neatly map onto individuals. It is often a line running through,rather than between,them. How the law does what it does is important. There is larger cultural work to be done over spreading science. But the focus of law should be squarely on bringing into view the moral harm done by certain acts. We have a strange debate,where some hesitate to take action because some individual claims to be a godman. Others want to respond by legally proscribing claims to being a godman. All we need to say is: no matter who you are and what people think,you are not above the law if you have committed a crime. Name murder by its real name,murder. Dont cover it in a complicated metaphysics of belief. Our laws are often ineffective because we acquire a superstitious faith in the power of law when drafting them. We may need new laws in some cases. But we need to be careful how they are drafted. The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,and a contributing editor for The Indian Express
Source : Click Here

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment