The year was 2012. Water dripping from the feet of Jesus on a crucifix in a Bombay suburb was being hailed as a ‘modern miracle’. Hundreds of feverish Catholics, including nuns and religious and other curious residents flocked to the shrine in a nondescript Mumbai suburb to watch the hypnotic drip. Some even drank the droplets. Others began collecting the ‘holy water’ and the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni began to promote it as a site of pilgrimage.
Somebody scoffed at the President of the Indian Rationalist Association, a man named Sanal Edamaruku, and challenged him to investigate this ‘divine miracle’. So he went to the site with an engineer friend and traced the source of the drip backwards. The moisture on the wall upon which the crucifix was mounted on seemed to come from an overflowing drain, which was in turn fed by a pipe that issued from a nearby toilet. The “miracle” was simply bad plumbing, he declared.
Edamaruku said his exposure of the weeping statue was also a contribution to public health in Mumbai as some believers were drinking the water hoping it could cure ailments. “This was sewage water seeping through a wall due to faulty plumbing,” he said. “It posed a health risk to people who were fooled into believing it was a miracle.”
But did the educated, enlightened Catholics of Bombay (or Mumbai) thank the man? No.
Intolerant Catholic groups stifle the truth, issue threats
Sanal presented his case in a live television debate with representatives of Catholic lobby groups, and outside the studio a threatening crowd bearing sticks had gathered. So much for ‘peaceful Christians!’
In the following weeks, three police stations in Mumbai took up blasphemy cases filed against him by Catholic groups under the notorious Section 295a of India’s colonial-era penal code. The same law that Hindu vigilante groups used against artist MF Hussain!
What’s the difference between Shiv Sena and CSF then?
Section 295a was enacted in 1927 to curb hate speech in a restless colony bristling with religious and communal tensions. It makes “deliberate and malicious” speech insulting to religion punishable with up to three years in prison and a fine. However, some say it is frequently abused to suppress free speech.
Sentiments, superstition, but not sane logic!
For some Catholics the veracity of the miracle is no longer the point. They claim that Sanal insulted the Catholic church, by implying that the church manufactured the miracle to make money. They also said he called the church ‘anti-science’ and cast doubt over the miracle that ensured Mother Theresa’s sainthood. The Catholic Secular Forum (CSF), was one of the groups that made the initial complaint.
Sanal applied for anticipatory bail, which would prevent police taking him into custody before any investigation – but this was rejected. He says he received threatening phone calls from policemen proclaiming their intention to arrest him and telling him that unless he apologised the complaint would never be withdrawn. Contacts in Bombay (Mumbai) told him they had heard talk of somebody being hired to beat him in jail. The militant Catholic groups denied their hand in any threats Sanal may have received.
So Sanal Edamaruku left for Finland on a lecture tour. He arrived in Helsinki on a summer afternoon three years ago.. He thought he would only stay for a couple of weeks until the furore he left behind in India had died down.
But the furore has not died down – the Catholic Secular Forum (CSF), still insists it will press for prosecution should he ever return, So much for scientific temper and ‘Christian charity’.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai tried to broker a solution by calling upon Edamaruku to apologise and on Catholic groups to drop their case in return.
But Edamaruku staunchly refuses to compromise on his freedom of expression. “I don’t regret anything I said,” he says. “I feel that I have full right to express my views… I am open for discussion and correction but I am not willing to accept anybody’s bullying, change my views or submit to their pressure to apologise.”
Since he left India, his daughter has had a child, and his mother has died.
He conducts board meetings of the Indian Rationalist Association by Skype and every morning colleagues update him on the latest tales of the supernatural and fraudulent holy men. He plots their downfall.
Some legal analysts think he should return. The courts recognise that Section 295a is regularly misused, they point out. Writers, activists and others have been arrested and imprisoned before – but most were released on bail.
But in India today, rationalists are targets for the religious fanatics of every creed who want to cling to their irrational superstitions. The government machinery seems to have lost its will to act against religious right wing fanatics. Sanal fears for his safety, seeing that anti-black-magic campaigner Narendra Dabholkar, and several other rationalist authors are being assassinated or attacked by the rightwing.
Educated Catholics who often cry that they are persecuted are violent bigots too!
It’s a shame that powerful Catholic NGOs who have money and ‘education’ insist on spreading superstition, homophobia, and seeking to ban things which do not conform to their narrow logic, and what is worse, these rosary toting, bible thumping, holy rollers continue persecuting others, at times totally ignoring the official view of the Church hierarchy!
There’s a difference between faith and foolhardiness, between being spiritual and sanctimonious, having the courage to face the facts and sweeping things under the carpet!
[An article by Frank Krishner, President SIGNIS Bijhan and affirmed liberal]