A rational approach and the inculcation of scientific temper have been integral to the practice of science, both in India and elsewhere. The Indian constitution also promotes the development of scientific temper. In spite of this, India has been struggling to combat the issue of superstition, which slows scientific and technical progress, and in extreme cases even claims lives. Following the murder of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar (doctor and anti-superstition activist) and the subsequent adoption of the Maharashtra Anti Superstition Bill (originally drafted by Dabholkar) in 2013, there has been growing interest among a section of the population, including scientists and researchers, to seek legislative and judicial interventions to uphold the spirit of scientific temper and protect people from occult practitioners.
In this background, Centre for Contemporary Studies (CCS), IISc, in association with Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS) organised a panel discussion in IISc on April 9, 2015, facilitating a dialogue on science and superstition vis-a-vis the Karnataka Prevention of Superstitious Practices Bill 2013. The discussion involved noted historian Rajan Gurukkal (IISc), noted theoretical scientist Shobhana Narasimhan (JNCASR, Bangalore) and legal researcher Neenu Suresh (NLSUI, Bangalore), and superstitious practices were reflected upon from scientific, social and legal perspectives.
Gurukkal talked about the social function of superstition, arguing that superstition, located in ‘social, structural, contingent belief systems’, has been used as an ‘instrument of collective oppression’, curbing ‘economic and social mobility of individuals’.
Shobhana Narasimhan focused her talk on whether science and superstition are antithetical, whether scientists are at times superstitious, and the responsibilities of the scientific community for facilitating discussion and engagement about the superstition bill. She also raised a pertinent issue – that the scientific community has been largely ‘quiet’ about the Bill in general, and called for greater participation of scientists to ‘foster scientific temper’ while respecting ‘human dignity and freedom of religion and expression’.
Neenu Suresh explained both existing legislations and common misconceptions in promulgating a legislation to protect people from obscurantist exploits. Compared to the recently adopted Anti Superstition Bill in Maharashtra, she discussed the more comprehensive nature of the proposed legislation in Karnataka, where the Bill not only ensures public safety from occult practices (black magic, witchcraft etc.), but also emphasises rehabilitation and awareness building.
The discussion saw enthusiastic participation from among students, writers, legal researchers.