Moving Past Black Magic

Superstition lives on in our popular culture, as we saw on Bigg Boss last weekend. We must fight it.

Last weekend’s telecast of Bigg Boss, the Indian version of Big Brother, was problematic in more ways than one. At the end of Friday’s episode, one of the contestants, Megha Dhade, was asked to perform a secret task. She had to cut a few lemons into two pieces each, put vermillion and needles on each piece, and place it at various locations in the house. This practice, which is commonly believed to be a component of black magic used to destroy one’s enemies, did not need any introduction, either to the audience or to the contestants. It caused some distress among the housemates. The panic was further spread by the host Salman Khan saying that that other contestants in past seasons have also felt the presence of something unnatural in the house.

This secret task was apparently given to promote an upcoming supernatural drama Tantra on the Colours channel. Upcoming series and films are often promoted on Bigg Boss, but this particular incident was alarming as the fear was palpable in the contestants. While there might be nothing wrong with a simple one-off prank, a visit to the website of the upcoming show Tantra proved to be even more distressing. It stated that it is a supernatural drama that explores the untamed world of the unknown. Further, to add insult to injury, its producer claimed that it is a “progressive” show as it “truly shows that doing black magic isn’t good and the consequences can be dire.”

The dictionary meaning of the term superstition means a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation or an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition. As far as India is concerned, the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other inhuman Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act 2013 has one of the most exhaustive lists of activities/claims that are to be held illegal for reasons of being exploitative and degrading or for promulgating such regressive practices. Along with that, Entry 8 in the Schedule to the Act clearly mentions that threatening a person with death or causing physical pains or causing financial or psychological harm by practicing or tend to practise mantra tantra (chetuk), black magic or aghori act is a punishable act, while section 3(2) of the act makes the promotion or promulgation of black magic an offense.

In last five years, India has not only witnessed the murder of Narendra Dabholkar, who supervised the drafting of the Act, but also the killings of other anti-superstition activists such as MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare. Dabholkar, who also founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS; or Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith, CEBF),  raised concerns against issues ranging from canonisation of Mother Teresa on the basis of purported miracles to torture of mentally-ill people in a dargah in Chalisgaon to immersing Ganesh idols in water bodies on the the 11th day of the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi. Not only were all these progressive thinkers murdered in suspicious circumstances, but the Special Investigation Teams (SITs) formed to further investigate the matters have failed to do so.

Indian society has had a very checkered relationship with supernatural beliefs. The recent attempts at legislative intervention have tried to eradicate such baseless beliefs by educating the masses to not fall for conmen trying to exploit their vulnerability. But these efforts to curb such exploitative practices are rendered fruitless when network companies such as Endemol Shine India, with their far greater reach, generate such content, glorifying black magic. When such shows and practices are broadcast, it not only affirms pre-existing beliefs, but also promotes fresh superstitious beliefs to those who might not have been exposed to such thoughts. These beliefs then make the viewer susceptible to exploitation from godmen like Asaram Bapu, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and the like, who have recently been convicted of heinous crimes such as rape, murder, and castration. This not only disregards the law of the land, which expressly bars promulgation of such beliefs, but also creates an appetite for bad quality and mindless content.

The recent wave of #MeToo allegations drove the ex-Junior Foreign Minister MJ Akbar to resign from his position after multiple accusations of sexual harassment on Twitter. This was made possible by the convergence of media advocacy as well as legislations pertaining to sexual harassment at the workplace. The same audience that aggressively protested the show Pehredaar Piya Ki, which promoted child marriage, needs to remain a watchdog of the Indian media. It was only after its complaints that the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council asked the makers of the show to change the time slot so that kids couldn’t watch it, and to air it at 10 pm along with a disclaimer that it does not promote child marriage. Thus, it is important for us, as a conscientious audience, to use the power of the internet and the law to bring about positive social change.

We don’t need lemons for this.

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About the author

Sumati Thusoo

Sumati Thusoo is a Research Author at the Department of Sociology at Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit research organization based in Mumbai. She is a trained feminist social worker and a development practitioner, and has worked across various themes of gender justice, child rights and anti-trafficking. Her research interests lie in Social Anthropology, Culture Theory, South Asian Diaspora intersecting with Postmodern Feminism.

About the author

Kartikeya Bahadur

Kartikeya Bahadur is a practicing advocate at Bombay High Court. He has done Bachelors in Law from National Law University, Lucknow and Masters in Law focussed on Access to Justice from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He has a varied experience of working on human rights cases, ranging from land rights to disability rights to various other service matters. He has filed several PILs for enforcement of various welfare legislations and schemes.