In the popular imagination, India is the land of mystics - of ropemen, babas and sadhus. And if babas and sadhus are not in ready supply, there are any number of fakes and frauds who are happy to fill in. Every once in a while, one come across bizarre, often horrifying headlines - 'Child sacrificed to help woman conceive'; 'Woman branded as witch'; 'Man sacrificed to find treasure'. Far more frequently, there are reports of gullible people being deceived by men and women claiming to possess magical powers.
Oddly enough, there has not been a law promulgated specifically to prosecute those making false spiritual claims and duping people of their money. This is the lacuna that the Maharashtra government hopes to fill with its Maharashtra Eradication of Black Magic and Evil and Aghori Practices Bill, which was introduced in the 2005 winter session of the State Assembly. The Bill is likely to be passed in the 2006 winter session, and has been delayed so far only because of extraneous emergencies in the state.
When passed, this law will make it punishable to practice, promote or propagate black magic and other acts of superstition. The Bill seeks to bring under its ambit 'sinister practices' that intend to exploit people or harm them physically, mentally or financially.
"We have been working against quackery and black magic in the state for the past 22 years, but the main hurdle we kept coming up against was that there was no law against such practices. This law will go a long way in helping us educate people and fighting the superstitious practices that are used to dupe the masses. Even law enforcing agencies were unable to help us, because the law of the land was not with them," says Shyam Manav, Andha Shraddha Samiti, a pan-India organization that opposes blind faith and superstitions. Manav has also played an important role in drafting the law.
Needless to say, the Bill and its sweeping implications found many detractors. None of the political parties - except for the rightwing Shiv Sena have openly opposed the Bill. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti has emerged as its strongest critic. They said that the lack of specificity in the original Bill could lead to a clamping down on all religious activities. The draft Bill was subsequently watered down and specific instances of the practices criminalized by the law were detailed.
However, even the proposed law leaves many questions unanswered. How does the law deal with self-proclaimed godmen and godwomen? Have faith healing practices - like pranic healing and reiki - been brought under the ambit of the law? And most important of all: does the law impinge on the constitutional rights of an individual? Does it restrict a person's religious freedom? Does it restrict individuals from performing religious rituals? The questions are many, and the law - in spite of its efforts to cite specific instances - remains far from precise in its scope and application. For instance, neither 'black magic' nor 'witchcraft' are defined in the law, even though both are criminalized.
However, specific instances are given: 'preventing a person from taking medical treatment in case of a dog, snake or scorpion bite and instead giving him treatment like mantra-jantra, ganda-dora or such other things' is criminalized. Similarly, 'claiming to perform surgery with fingers or claiming to change the sex of a fetus in the womb of a woman' is also punishable. While these instances are helpful, critics say that the law needs even greater specificity.
"We believe that the Black Magic Bill was not really required in the first place. It is anti-constitutional and anti-religion. In any case, we feel that it will not help in abetting such crimes. Only education can stop people from blindly following somebody," says Ramesh Shinde of the Mumbai-based Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, which claims to work for the betterment of the Hindu faith.
However, Anand Grover, co-founder of Mumbai- and New Delhi-based Lawyers' Collective, asserts that the Bill in its present form does not impinge on any constitutional rights of an individual. "In fact, considering the extent of quackery prevalent in society, it won't be wrong to say that there is a need for such a law. My only contention is that it is not drafted properly. It is very generic. Drafting a law is an art and there are a number of loopholes in this one, which might make it difficult to implement."
The Bill makes the practice of black magic a cognizable, non-bailable offence. A person convicted of an offence under the proposed law can be imprisoned for a period between six months and seven years, and can be fined upwards of Rs 5,000. Further, only a high-level police official - the vigilance officer - will be equipped to handle these cases.
The detractors of the Bill point out that India has laws - the Indian Penal Code and the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954 - that could be used to tackle such crimes. "What is the need for another law? In any case, a law alone will not stop these crimes. There is a law against dowry; has it stopped the practice? Law cannot stop people from blindly believing in something. Only education and awareness generation will bring about a change," Shinde says.
Grover disagrees. He explains that the existing laws are unable to punish the practices identified in the proposed Bill, and that there is a need to deal with such practices. Manav says that the Bill became necessary when the State found it difficult to prosecute charlatans for religious fraud. "We could prosecute them under various provisions of the Indian Penal code for cheating, fraud, theft etc, but there is nothing saying that making false claims is a punishable offence," he points out.
At present, the Bill restricts itself to narrow, specific instances in order to minimize abuse or misuse. Manav says that while miraculous acts will not be punishable, turning them into money-spinners will be. He also asserts that religious practices do not come under the ambit of the law, unless they are performed with the intention of harming somebody.
Perhaps the next time someone claims to have magical powers, you can not only challenge him or her, but even put them behind bars for duping people!