In the latest article in his series The Human Angle, Babu Gogineni reports from Suryapet, India on a leadership training camp for Dalits and alarming talk of human sacrifice in rural India. In his illustrated article, he brings news from the front line of the war against superstition and charlatans.
A Day Charged with Humanism
The Leadership Training Camp for Dalits that was being organised in Suryapet town (14 and 15 July ’07, Andhra Pradesh, India) through the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s support was going on full-speed. Mr. Veeraswami the leader of Spoorthi, the local implementing organization, and Mr. V.B. Rawat, Director of the Social Development Foundation, the event’s sponsor were participating as resource persons along with Hyderabad-based Dalit women’s rights campaigner, the sociologist Sujatha. There were a hundred Dalit youth, men and women, eager to learn about modern science, about the situation of Dalits and that of women in the country, about superstitions, and about the plight of untouchables worldwide.
Veeraswami of Spoorthi welcomes the Dalit Youth
It was a day charged with Humanism, which the newspapers would report later as being the only alternative for Dalits. Amongst the participants there was a keen sense of involvement and a burning desire to change their lot – this was the first time I saw that participants stayed on in the meeting hall till well past midnight discussing and sharing information. Of course, during the day they had heard many ideas challenging long-held views. We had questioned whether they really thought they were Hindus, whether they needed to be part of the caste system, whether affirmative action was really benefiting them or diverting them from the real issue of emancipating themselves culturally and socially. This was also the first Humanist event in India where participants after their self-service lunch washed their own plates. It feels good to spend a few days amongst those who speak of the dignity of labor and who also practice it.
Training Session in progress
When at the end of a full day of discussions and lectures, Chandraiah the miracle-exposure activist that we had invited concluded his demonstration, many of the Dalit youth, several of them superstitious themselves, had a change of orientation. Some of them declared that they were now inspired to work against superstition in their community as they understood the tricks being played on them by charlatans, and as they now realised the harm it does to their fellow Dalits. Some others informed us that they heard of plans in their village to kill a suspected witchcraft practitioner, and that following the day’s training they were now determined to prevent it by educating the villagers and also informing the local authorities. Veeraswami then clarified to us that the reason the next day’s miracle-exposure programme was going to be held in Pasunur village of Tungathurthi Administrative region was because the Dalits in the village were traumatised and terrified – there has been talk of human sacrifice for some time there.
Killing of witches? Human sacrifice?
As what we heard sank in, I could feel goose pimples of disgust and horror all over me. We were just 6-hours away by car from Hyderabad – one of India’s Hi-tech show piece cities – and how time rolls back a thousand years in this short distance!
Because the Gods Want it
“In the 60s whenever a rice mill or a new industrial unit was to be inaugurated in the region, one of the workers or a villager would mysteriously die in the factory premises. Everyone remained silent, but all knew that the gods wanted a sacrifice and they were now satisfied; the victim’s family would get ten thousand rupees and all was forgotten,” Chandraiah was talking to me and to V.B. Rawat about his experiences as a child who grew up in the region. In the other car were Veeraswami and other Dalit leaders from the region, along with a reporter from ETV, (one of most important TV channels in South India), who we woke up at 5.00 am to take with us. We had to urgently intervene.
The abandoned School building
On the way the situation was explained to us: the government had constructed an impressive school building at the expense of 3.5 million rupees, with wide, spacious and well-ventillated rooms: it was the pride of the region, yet, because the building was awaiting a sacrifice, no classes were being conducted one month into the new school year. It was the practice that goats or chicken were sacrificed at the time of a house warming, but this was a special case: a man ‘possessed by God’ had declared that the school building demanded ‘aarambham‘ of 6 children before it could be inaugurated safely. Aarambham is the local code for human sacrifice.
Pasunur Village Dalit Colony
At the Dalit colony a welcome party was waiting; meeting banners were set up, and a man with a drum went around the village summoning everyone for the morning meeting. Quite agitated in mind, I asked the village president about this matter of aarambham. He denied it. When we asked the other villagers they denied any knowledge of the matter. V.B. Rawat said children always tell the truth – so we had a talk with the children and asked them why they were not going to school. When the children spoke, and this time to the TV cameras, the adults had no choice but to acknowledge that they were in fact terrified that their children might be sacrificed for the school inauguration and that was why they were not sending them to school. After all, who heard of upper caste children being sacrificed? If it were to happen, it would be theirs that would be the victims.
The children speak to the television cameras. Sujatha looks on.
We soon realized that it was a ‘skeptical’ crowd that had gathered to listen to us, and to the local elected official. One woman loudly whispered “Are you going to give us money for coming to this meeting? Because of you our men are not going out today to work”. It was a Sunday, but in the Dalit colony life is on a day-to-day basis and everyday one has to work to get some money – after all in this period of India’s vertiginous but jobless growth, the National Employment Guarantee Programme provides employment support for a mere 100 days per year per household – did not Charles, from the Dalit Social Forum tell us the previous day that Globalization was of no real use to the common, hungry, downtrodden Indian? When I was speaking, one of them shouted “You tell us what you know and we will tell you what we know”. She, and her fellow villagers knew a lot about ghosts, and how they possess people. They were aware of how spirits kept a cloth dipped in water from becoming wet – their local godman had already demonstrated this. They knew about spontaneous roof fires, and they knew about getting healed through mantras or magical incantations.
The villagers watch the demonstration
Now, Chandraiah proceeded to create fire by pouring water on sand. He cut a lemon which dripped blood-red juice. He dipped a piece of cloth in water and it came out dry. He broke a coconut and out came blood-red water. He performed every feat the local charlatans performed, and then also explained the tricks behind what he had done. He over-turned a glass full of water but the water did not spill fall, supported by a paper – some said it was not science and tried to do it themselves. They soon got the trick – it was not a spirit that was holding the water up, it was atmospheric pressure. As the interaction continued, and when Chandraiah first played with a piece of burning camphor and then swallowed it and claimed it was tasty, the mood relaxed. When he made the children do the same, there was much excitement.
Chandraiah shows a trick to an old woman
It was a quick thaw for a group of villagers who were till then terrified that their children might be sacrificed for the inauguration of the school building, and for those who feared that ghosts lived in the shadows and in the trees. The show continued to work its magic – and soon the children were shouting with Chandraiah “There are no ghosts! There are no miracles! We are not superstitious”. Sujatha was mingling with the children and asking them about the talisman they were wearing and explaining how hygiene, rather than the talisman, was a better cure for diarrhea. Meanwhile, Chandraiah made an old woman feed milk to a statue of Ganesha, in imitation of a shameful hoax that fooled India for two full days over a decade ago.
Soon, some of the men came to us to say that they agreed with us, but that they still had some doubts. So I made bold and asked, “How many of you are ready to tackle the rascal who said that the new school building asked for human sacrifice and caused you so much of suffering?”.
We Will Defend Ourselves
Several children came forward, as well as some ten men. Because it was not an entirely safe activity and as we had no security with us, we set out with just a few children and the adults. As we walked through the slush of the recent rains to confront Devudu Chandraiah the goat herd who claimed to receive divine messages (no relation to our own Chandraiah!) we encountered many who were going to the temple where Chandraiah was – they were going to seek his blessings to cure infertility or to cure sick children. His weekly earnings were estimated to be about Rs. 10,000.
The expedition to confront the charlatan
But word that we were coming reached him before we did, and he was nowhere to be seen. We had an altercation with his sister at the temple who we questioned about her brother’s desire to see human blood. She denied it, but both children and adults who were witnesses to his pronouncements said they had heard him say this. There were angry confrontations and we threatened that we would get them all arrested. I cannot forget that the woman said to me that if people die at the time of an inauguration they are not responsible. She asked whether coconuts are not broken at a function? She did not dare say more, but we all understood the dangerous mindset of the people.
An argument with the magic man’s sister
It was disgusting and alarming, but this was a good day for the TV reporter who could capture what was happening and turn it into a good news item and also turn it into a Crimewatch-style story.
The Relevance of the Humanist Approach
We went back to the village, determined to spread the word that a group of Dalits from the village decided to confront the charlatan who came from a higher caste and that he fled the scene or did not dare to come to the temple that he regularly haunted, because of us. We agreed that we would at the appropriate time print posters of the charlatan and display them widely so that his humiliation would be complete and the self-assertion of the Dalits would be announced to the world. Spoorthi also intends to file a police complaint for incitement to murder against him if they hear the mad ravings of this blood thirsty charlatan again. But it will be some time before he will recover from the disgrace. And we had to balance the educational elements and the confrontational elements of our campaign in the area.
We then moved to the school building itself where the reporter wanted to do a special interview. There we met with representatives of the well-known M.V. Foundation which was organizing a training program for literacy workers. We were cordially invited to join them, and to tell them about our work. But soon we were disappointed to find out that the idiom they were going to use to encourage the people to become literate was a religious one, and that their mobilization of the people would be on the lines of and in the context of Bonalu, a festival where animal sacrifice is called for, and where people swoon and get ‘possessed’ and speak on behalf of God. The MV Foundation officials are of course against superstition and animal sacrifice, and expect that literacy will drive away the bad practices – they seem to ignore the counter evidence of the number of educated fools in the country who patronize cheats in religious garb and are willing to perform similar animal sacrifices. Sujatha found the use of the religious idiom inappropriate – and specially this particular one – after all, the original demand for sacrifice of human lives was voiced during a bonalu like festival!
Reviewing the events of the past two days we found that this was one of the most satisfying of our activities in recent times. While the preparation and organization for putting in place these training and demonstration events took a few weeks, the Dalit leaders found what they were looking for – a route out of the traditional religious thinking, and a forum where they could discuss these ideas as equals. They found a new determination and resolve to take their lives into their own hands.
And in one single magical morning from amongst a group of cowering, frightened and terrorized villagers we found enough number of people who were willing to challenge superstition and confront the source of their terror and deal with the problem. They do not need outsiders to defend themselves anymore, because most satisfyingly, they have found amongst their own colony members the resources and the strength to help themselves. At least in that area there will not be anymore witches or witch killings; and enough noise has been created to be sure that none will speak of human sacrifice or suggest it in that little pocket of Andhra Pradesh as the police and the local elected officials are all now alert to this danger. The disinfecting power of reason and the light of science and scientific temper made its first entry even if only through a narrow crack.
We will now have to nurture the new desire and ability to think critically which we kindled, so that a permanent defense can be created in their minds against medieval and barbaric practices and pave the way for a society of equals where modern values will prevail.
International Humanist and Ethical Union