The Law on Superstition in India

No society in this world is a stranger to superstition. Indian society, too, can be considered highly superstitious. The daily life of most people is governed to a large extent by their superstitious beliefs. Be it not wanting to wake up on the ‘wrong side of the bed’ or undertake important work during ‘inauspicious times’, these beliefs are an integral part of people’s lives. While the bulk of these beliefs, can be considered harmless, certain superstitious beliefs are outright dangerous and harmful to the society. Rituals and practices involving a person getting hurt are not uncommon in parts of India. A highly superstitious society is fertile ground for conmen and fraudsters to swindle people off their money.

The Constitution of India lays down its support for the eradication of superstitious beliefs in the fundamental duties that Indian citizens are obliged to follow. Article 51A(h) of the Constitution of India states one of the duties of Indian citizens as “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.[1] The Karnataka High Court in Hulikal Nataraju v State of Karnataka[2] noted that “It is the duty of every citizen to contribute to reform the society for a better way of life”.

Superstition related crime in India

While such crimes may not be common in all parts of India, especially where people are more educated, crimes as a consequence of superstitious beliefs are not uncommon in backward rural areas. Sacrificing children for prosperity, killing alleged ‘witches’ responsible for bringing bad luck to their families, curing ailments in children by physically hurting them, etc are just a few examples of the situation in India regarding this. In 2018, the motive for sixty-three murders in India was witchcraft, while four were for human sacrifice (excluding Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Meghalaya, Sikkim, and Assam).[3] It is very important to note that these figures may not paint the full picture of the situation regarding superstition related crime in India as the report includes statistics on reported cases. A major problem with superstition related crime is that people are fearful of superstitions and in many cases, crimes are not reported.

Anti-superstition legislations in India

At present, only two states in India have enacted blanket anti-superstition laws: Maharashtra and Karnataka. Maharashtra was the first state to do so in India when it enacted the “Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act” in 2013. Karnataka followed suit and enacted its legislation “Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Act” in 2017.

Maharashtra anti-superstition law

The anti-superstition law in Maharashtra criminalises several activities based on superstition which are considered harmful to the society. Assaulting any person on the pretext of exorcising ghosts, accusing any person of practicing black magic, preventing any person from taking medical help in case of dog, snake, or scorpion bite and instead ‘treating’ him with black magic are prohibited by this law.

Deceiving people into believing in miracles, ghosts, and other types of supernatural powers to earn money or terrorise them is also criminalised by the law. Claiming to perform surgery with one’s fingers or claiming to change the sex of the foetus and indulging in sexual intercourse with a person claiming that person to be the wife, husband or paramour of the fraudster, or assuring that person of childbirth are also criminalised.

The main objective of the Act, as indicated in its title, is the prevention of these offences.  Section 5 of the Act makes a provision for the appointment of Vigilance Officers. The main duty of the Vigilance Officer is to detect and prevent violations of the provisions of the Act. He has to report such cases to the nearest police station within the area of jurisdiction and also give necessary help and guidance to the police once a complaint has been filed by victims or any member of their family.

Punishment for violation of the provisions of this law, as provided in Section 3(2) of the Act, is imprisonment for a term not less than six months, which may be extended to seven years and a fine, not less than five thousand rupees but which may extend to fifty thousand rupees.

Karnataka anti-superstition law

The Karnataka law is modelled on the legislation in Maharashtra. Thus, most of its provisions are borrowed from the Maharashtra legislation. In addition to the offences under the Maharashtra law, it prohibits certain other acts that are deeply rooted in superstition. 

Rituals that violate the human dignity, such as the controversial practice of ‘Made Snana’, in which people roll over the leaves with leftover food, forced isolation of women, prohibition of re-entry into  the village or segregation of menstruating or postpartum women; and subjection of women to inhuman and humiliating practices such as parading them naked in the name of worship or otherwise, have been criminalised. 

Rituals involving self-inflicted injuries such as hanging from hooks inserted into the body or pulling of chariots with hooks inserted into the body, the practice of piercing rods from one side of the jaw to the other, Rituals involving harming children on the pretext of curing them of ailments, coercing any person to perform fire-walk during festivals and religious occasions, Forcing any person to carry on evil practices such as the killing of an animal by biting its neck, pelting stones at residential houses in the name of black magic have also been criminalised.

Apart from individual offenders, the Act also takes cognisance of offences by companies under Section 4. The provision, in the Act, for the prevention of offences is the same as that in the Maharashtra law.

Section 3(2) provides that, any person acting in violation of the provisions of the Act, will be punished with imprisonment for a term not less than one year, which may be extended to seven years and with a fine not less than five thousand rupees. If any act considered to be an offence under this law results in the death of the victim, it would be considered an act of murder as defined in Section 300 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) and the offender will be punished under Section 302 of the IPC, 1860. Offences under this law resulting in the injury to the victim will be considered, an attempt to murder under Section 307 of the IPC, 1860 and if the victim commits suicide, the offender will be considered to have abetted the suicide under Section 306 of the IPC. [4]

While these two states are the only ones to have general anti-superstition laws, other states like Bihar[5], Jharkhand[6], Chhattisgarh[7], Odisha[8], Rajasthan[9], and Assam[10] have enacted state-level laws specifically against witch-hunting.

Is there a need for central legislation against superstition?

While it may seem that since there is such prevalence of crimes related to superstition, there is a need for a central level legislation against them, it is important to know that most of these crimes are already covered in the IPC, 1860. Crimes related to superstition can be said to involve broadly three things, deception, physical hurt or death, and violation of human dignity. Chapter XVI of the IPC, 1860 covers offences affecting the human body, while Chapter XVII covers offences affecting property. Mistreatment of women by the husband or his relatives is covered in Chapter XXA and defamation in Chapter XXI of the IPC, 1860. Moreover, it can be amended to include any other offence that may have been left out or to modify the punishment prescribed for any crime, if it is not severe enough.

Conclusion

The efficacy of laws against superstition depends on public participation. Only when the people who it’s meant to protect cooperate with the authorities can the law actually be effective. When people don’t come forward and report the incidence of crimes, the purpose of the law stands defeated. Prevention of such crimes is possible with the eradication of superstitious beliefs.  The problem with this is that superstitious beliefs are deeply rooted in the psyche of the believers and more often than not, closely tied to religion. Most efforts to eradicate superstitious beliefs are met with stiff resistance because, people feel that their religion is being attacked. Thus, while legislation may act as a deterrent to some extent, scientific education is the only way any meaningful progress can be made in terms of eradication of superstitious beliefs.   


[1] Constitution of India, Article 51A(h).

[2] Hulikal Nataraju v. State of Karnataka, 13Sep 2010, Karnataka High Court.

[3] Ministry of Home Affairs, National Crime Records Bureau, Crime in India-2018.

[4] Indian Penal Code, 1860.

[5] The Prevention of Witch (Daain) Practices Act, 1999.

[6] The Prevention of Witch (Daain)Practices Act, 2001.

[7] The Chhattisgarh Tonahi Pratadna Nivaran Act, 2005.

[8] The Odisha Prevention of Witch Hunting Act,2013.

[9] The Rajasthan Prevention of Witch Hunting Act, 2015.

[10] The Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection Act) 2015.

Amogha Konamme from Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur

You can find him here

editor: vatsala sood

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