Putting a curse on people and on ancient gods is a human heritage that straddled civilisations and underpinned their mythologies. This unreason has somehow survived in 21st-century India to be propagated by tantrics often with official patronage on TV — not very different from voodoo-practising witch doctors holding sway in swathes of Africa.
Saffron-robed Pragya Thakur says she killed Hemant Karkare with her curse because the late policeman tortured her for alleged terrorism. There are two ways this could have come about. First, the official version of how the head of Mumbai’s anti-terrorist squad was laid low on the fateful night of the terror attack on the city in 2008. Ajmal Kasab shot the heroic officer from close range for which he was hanged.
In other words, Thakur’s angry hex on Karkare induced the young terrorist to travel by sea and, like a heat-seeking missile colliding with its target, he was guided by a force beyond his knowledge to fulfil the mandate of a distant curse.
The other view, albeit discussed mostly in whispers, is the claim by the former inspector general of Maharashtra police S.M. Mushrif. He has questioned the official narrative in his book, Who Killed Karkare? Mushrif suggested instead that powerful enemies, led by fans of Nathuram Godse, lured Karkare into an ambush since he was investigating their communally inspired acts of terror. They used the cover of the carnage and contrived a parallel plot to get rid of Karkare in the chaos.
In either case, Thakur’s curse would seem to have homed in on its target, promptly and accurately. It is another matter that the veracity of Thakur’s belief would not hold before India’s constitutional mandate, which nudges citizens to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.
Hindu mythology like other mythologies is replete with examples of curses by myriad gods and sages that transform humans into stones, and so on. Such stories appeared in all major civilisations, but their people now treat mythologies as mythologies, nothing less nothing more.
Celebrated documentary-maker Anand Patwardhan has created a riveting TV serial (available on YouTube) on the subject. It’s called Vivek or Reason, which focuses on the grim battle between obscurantism and rational reasoning in India. Pragya Thakur-like Godse-hugging Hindutva colleagues in the documentary subscribes to one set of people while an amazing group of men and women have dedicated their lives to the eradication of superstition and blind faith from the Indian milieu.
It’s an old struggle though, one in which B.G. Tilak and M.G. Ranade, two feisty Brahmins, took opposite sides in the fight for reason. Tilak was the regressive icon, while Ranade was greatly respected by leading social reformer Ambedkar. Patwardhan has pegged his narrative to the cold-blooded murders of popular rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and journalist Gauri Lankesh by revivalist groups not dissimilar to the ones Pragya Thakur may be identified with.
A most useful tool is this documentary to grasp the fraught consequences for Indian democracy should people like Thakur and far too many others of her flock win the elections for Parliament currently under way.
Najman Bua told us with certainty decades ago that Diwali was an occasion when people practised black magic to get even with their rivals. (“Wo kala jadu jagaawat hain”.) A method was to float a paper lantern with chilly powder, to fly to the targeted person, who would suffer great harm when the lantern landed. Of course, this sounds improbable, which it surely is, but thumb through the works of John Campbell Oman, the British Indologist from early 20th century. Oman has been usefully cited in a collection of essays in historian David Hardiman’s Histories of the Subordinated.
Another book by Hardiman, Feeding the Baniya, has disappeared from bookstores as books critical of wily business practices tend to. The moneylender was one of the most ardent practitioners of black magic and the widely prevalent institution of the hex. That was how he believed he could keep the peasants in constant need of his favours and thus of his greedy attention.
A reason that Indira Gandhi had banned the sharing of met forecasts for monsoons was to discourage this exploitation. Among the many tricks quoted by Hardiman of ways the baniyas, the usurers, would strive to stop rain to keep the fields parched is the one from Rajasthan. “In an interview in southern Rajasthan, I was told that the baniyas could stop rain by pouring hot water onto a small image which they kept for the purpose in the Jain temple.”
Oman recounts other ploys used to drive away rain clouds, in Punjab, for example. “They sometimes made chapattis which they then mistreated in such a way as to offend the gods, the logic being that the grain from which the chapattis (were) made came from the bounty of the gods who provided the rain; the angry gods would consequently withhold the rain.”
A hex that would probably make even Pragya Thakur sit up is the one from Punjab. Says Oman: “At another time I learned that a baniya had recourse to a still more effectual method of keeping off rain. He had a charkha, or spinning wheel made out of bones of dead men. Such an article could only be made very secretly and for a large sum of money, but its action was most potent. Whenever the clouds were gathering the baniya set his virgin daughter to work the charkha the reverse way, and by that means unwound or unwove the clouds, as it were, thus driving away the rain….”
It is not whether hexes and curses work, it is what a growing number of Indians expect them to do that should worry a country struggling with sub-Saharan human development indicators, including 37 per cent of the world’s illiteracy.
By arrangement with Dawn