BATTLING BLINDNESS

By UDDALAK MUKHERJEE, The Telegraph, November 24 , 2011

A SRAI volunteer during a demonstration

Some years ago, in Purulia’s Kantaberia village, some people had gathered around a gunin who had been invited to identify a witch. Several women were lined up near him. Chanting prayers, the gunin beckoned one woman at a time, dipped a pellet of dough in a trough of water and watched it sink. When an old woman stepped forward, the pellet stayed afloat. The gunin grinned, pointed at the floating pellet, and pronounced her as a ‘witch’.

After such a damning verdict, a witch is normally tied to a tree, beaten to death and her body buried. On this occasion, however, a different script unfolded. A volunteer from the Science and Rationalists’ Association of India stepped out from the crowd, retrieved the pellet, broke it into two and then held it up to show that a piece of thermocol had been inserted to make it float. On being interrogated, the gunin admitted that this was a common trick to frame innocent women.

Prabir Ghosh of the SRAI says that Purulia witnessed nearly 55 such trials and 10-12 deaths till the 1990s. In 2001, the SRAI opened a local chapter, recruited volunteers and held workshops to sensitize the tribal community to the dangers posed by superstitions such as witchcraft and sorcery. Not a single case has been reported this year so far in Purulia. In neighbouring Bankura, the SRAI reported only two cases in the last 10 months, down from 30 such deaths earlier.

The transformation has been remarkable because of the democratic nature of the intervention. Tribal societies are particularly sensitive to contact with cultural values and practices imposed from outside. SRAI volunteers are trained to organize community initiatives in societies impoverished by superstition. Their success reiterates the fact that welfare initiatives — by the State or private agencies — ought to be inclusive and work their way up to bring change.

But the battle against unreason in India’s hinterland has to contend with a sinister political system that encourages superstition in the name of safeguarding indigenous tribal cultures. A gunin, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had once evaded arrest as a result of political intervention. Undermining education is yet another effective tool to resist social and political emancipation. Kantaberia has one primary school; the nearest college is 25 kilometres away. The bureaucracy, rendered ineffective by elitism and political subservience, extends occasional support.

In our cities, the rush among parents for induced deliveries to honour auspicious days, the unshakeable faith in mystical numbers and the popularity of astrologers indicate that middle-class India too has become a profitable market for the peddlers of blindness. New found prosperity and an intrinsic conservatism make it difficult to wean the middle class off the scourge.

A couple was reported to be inconsolable after the woman gave birth to a daughter a day after 11.11.11. Did someone suggest that there is a need to fight the battle to spread the light of reason in the forgotten corners of India only?

Courtesy: The Telegraph

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