Five years ago, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a noted Pakistani professor of physics and human rights activist, wrote Jinns Invade Campuses, a newspaper piece critical of scientists and so-called spiritualists spreading superstition on school and college campuses. He scoffed at the denigration of scientific inquiry in the educational institutes of Pakistan, including its elite colleges.
Last month, government-run Gajara Raja Medical College in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, gave such colleges a run for their money. It refused an RTI request on the specious ground that the ghost of a clerk haunts the room in which the documents are, unlocking which frightens them. The GRMC is under the scanner for alleged violations of admissions rules, and a group of RTI activists is trying to access its records for close to three years. Earlier, the medical college had denied them information under the RTI Act, claiming that a CBI probe was on and the documents were not in its possition. It then claimed that the clerk responsible for these documents was under CBI arrest, and therefore the documents were inaccessible.
The excuses cooked up by the college authorities are unique, but GRMC cannot be singled out for its bizarre ‘phobia’ of ghosts. After all, in 2017, no less than the elected representatives of Madhya Pradesh had discussed on the floor of the Assembly the “possibility” that nine of its sitting members had died over four years due to “Vastu dosh” in the Assembly building.
The leader who raised this issue had asked the government to organise a ritual ceremony to rid the building of its evil influence. Most of the MLAs in question had passed away of old age, terminal illness or in motor accidents. In one instance, alcoholism was allegedly to blame for the death. Govind Singh, a Congress legislator and rationalist, had asked how a building could have anything to do with life or death, but nobody cared to answer him.
(The Madhya Pradesh Assembly building, which opened in 1996, was designed by the celebrated architect Charles Correa.) Another member reminded the House that a year earlier, on 21 July 2016, in a written reply to a spate of suicides in the Sehore district, the government had said that a few took their lives under the spell of a ghost.
In neighbouring Rajasthan as well, things are no better. The members claimed in February 2018 and then again in October 2020 that the legislative Assembly is haunted as all its 200 members are never present at the same time in the building—someone was always missing, either because they died or are in prison. In 2018, a few lawmakers requested the Speaker to complete the proceedings before noon, for that is when “ghosts start loitering”. Another member called a tantrik to the Assembly while others, predictably, called for a “purification ritual”.
Or who can forget the two leaders from a third BJP-ruled state, Gujarat--Education Minister Bhupendra Singh Chudasama and his Cabinet colleague Atmaram Parmar. Their bizarre act was to participate in a ceremony to felicitate exorcists in Botad town. They watched a couple of exorcists beat themselves with metal chains to live music near the stage. There were protests against this event after a video recording of it went viral, as the Dalits and other marginalised sections felt the leaders were promoting superstitions that harmed them. People found it disturbing that the ministers were rewarding exorcists who exploit people in rural Gujarat.
In Maharashtra, since 2013, a law bans and criminalises “human sacrifice and other inhuman, evil and aghori practices and mlack magic”, including magical remedies. The law marked the culmination of a prolonged movement led by activists such as Dr Narendra Dabholkar, who was murdered for his anti-superstition and pro-science work.
Maybe none of our MLAs and ministers knows that the Constitution frowns upon superstitious activities and beliefs. It is discouraging that ghosts are said to loiter in record rooms, that Assemblies are seen as haunted places by people privileged enough to be sent there, and that Cabinet ministers join hands with exorcists in a country that was the first to incorporate a special provision (Article 51A(h)) in its Constitution, which makes it a fundamental duty to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.
The great hiatus between the Constitution and what elected representatives do is shocking. Even Members of Parliament are no better. Less than a decade back, while Parliament was debating a draft bill to prohibit black magic, it came to light that for a long time the residence occupied by Member of Parliament Phoolan Devi, who was assassinated, had turned desolate as nobody else wanted to live there.
Lamenting the state of affairs in his country, Hoodbhoy in his celebrated article talked of Pakistan’s universities turning into “sheep farms” instead of “beacons of enlightenment”. Can Indians claim that the schools, colleges and universities in the country can be saved from such a fate when superstition has gathered tremendous momentum ever since the Hindutva Right has ascended to power?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined the RSS at a young age. As the PM, he linked medical science to mythology while he inaugurated a private hospital in October 2014. Surely, the ascent of the Hindutva Right has impacted the proceedings at the Indian Science Congress as well, where instances of pseudoscience being peddled as science came to light. The funding of scientific institutions is passe—India is now promoting cowpathy.
A glance at the unfolding scenario makes it clear that it is definitely a New India. An India which has rediscovered old prejudices, exclusions and discriminations and is surging ahead on the path of unreason, decked with superstition.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.