Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Wall Street Journal
Sanal Edamaruku, pictured, has spent 30 years
debunking miracles and exposing fraudulent faith healers.
The man facing blasphemy charges after he claimed water dripping from a statue of Christ in Mumbai was not miraculous but the result of a badly plumbed toilet is preparing to ask India’s Supreme Court to abolish the blasphemy law.
Sanal Edamaruku is accused by Catholic groups in Mumbai of breaking the Indian Penal Code, which outlaws “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.”
Mr. Edamaruku, a rationalist who has spent 30 years debunking miracles and exposing fraudulent faith healers, denies the offense and claims the law is being misused in order to silence him.
His lawyers are asking the High Court in Mumbai to intervene to stop the charges going further, but Mr. Edamaruku also plans to make a separate challenge to the blasphemy law in the Supreme Court in Delhi.
“I see this as an opportunity to make sure this law isn’t misused any more against anybody,” said Mr. Edamaruku who is president of Rationalist International, a group working to promote science and reason in place of religious belief and superstition.
The blasphemy law, created in 1860, goes against the fundamental right of freedom of expression and should be abolished, he says.
Those invoking it against him said they were offended by Mr. Edamaruku’s comments that clergy at Velankanni Church in Mumbai were using the sight of water dripping from the feet of a Christ statue to make money from visiting pilgrims.
The Catholic Secular Forum filed a first information report with the police in Mumbai, while the Association of Concerned Catholics and Maharashtra Christian Youth Forum also objected to Mr. Edamaruku’s claims. The groups also accuse Mr. Edamaruku of alleging the Catholic Church practises idolatry.
“They want to avenge and put me in prison,” said Mr. Edamaruku, who fears he could be arrested immediately if he returns to Mumbai.
The Catholic Bishop of Mumbai Agnelo Gracias has called on Mr. Edamaruku to apologize for “hurting” the Catholic community and said that no money had been collected at the shrine.
In a letter to The Examiner, a Catholic Newsletter, the bishop said he did not believe the water to be a miracle. “But to make that an occasion to hurl false allegations against the Christian community and its leaders is quite another matter,” Bishop Agnelo wrote.
Although the groups who have taken the cases against Mr. Edamaruku do not represent the bishop, he appeared to praise them for their actions. “We can rejoice that there are some people who have the courage to stand up when the attempts are made to besmirch the name of the Catholic community.”
Father Nigel Barrett, coordinator of the Catholic Communications Centre in Mumbai, said that the miracle had not yet been officially ascertained because Velankanni Church had not referred the matter to the bishop for the proper process of verification to take place.
Some in the Catholic media have come out in support of Mr. Edamaruku, including Deepika, a Catholic newspaper based in the southern state of Kerala. Mr. Edamaruku believes the groups lining up against him are “fundamentalist,” taking their inspiration from Islamic fundamentalism in order “to preserve their religion.”
During his working life, Mr. Edamaruku, who is from Kerala, has been attacked with fire by an “angry god-man” and faced the black magic of a tantrik priest trying to kill him during a televised stunt.
But he says he has never felt as much under threat as he does now.
“This is the first time I have had cases filed against me… I don’t want unexpected people to come and attack me, so only close friends know where to find me,” Mr. Edamaruku told India Real Time.
He added that his case echoes that of Salman Rushdie, whose book the “The Satanic Verses” was labelled blasphemous and led Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s leader, to issue a Fatwa ordering the author to be put to death. Mr. Rushdie didn’t appear at the Jaipur Literary Festival this year because of claims he would be targeted by assassins from the Mumbai underworld if he turned up.
“It’s the same category of threat [against me]… just a different form,” Mr. Edamaruku said.
However, he said he refuses to be bowed by the cases against him.
“I’m determined, I have a duty to develop scientific temper and promote inquiry so on these two grounds we will challenge the very veracity of this law in the Supreme Court.”
Mr. Edamaruku added that if the blasphemy law could not be overturned then a committee to prevent it being used as “a mechanism to stop someone’s freedom” should properly police it.
“I believe in absolute freedom of expression in any free society people should have the freedom to ridicule to criticize or to be ridiculed. That should be guaranteed in any civil society,” he said.
Rationalist International has conducted over 2,000 outreach programs in villages around India to promote reason and “liberate” people from belief in miracles, superstitions and fraudulent faith healers, according to its president.
“India is a very fast developing country, we have a very serious interest in science and we are going around the world serving people with our IT and science knowledge,” Mr. Edamaruku said.
“That’s one India that is in the 20th century. We have another India that’s in the 16thcentury – we are in constant conflict and it is 16th century India that is pulling us back.”
Joanna Sugden is freelance journalist living in Delhi. Before coming to India in 2011 she spent four-and-a-half years as a reporter at The Times of London, covering religion and education.