India Insight

Anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar shot dead

Narendra Dabholkar, who campaigned against superstition in India for more than two decades, was shot dead in Pune on Tuesday, police said.

Dabholkar, 67, was a physician-turned-activist who openly criticised and questioned supernatural phenomena attributed to practitioners of black magic in India.

He was instrumental in drafting a new law in Maharashtra state that sought to target conmen who exploited superstitious beliefs, especially among the illiterate. The controversial bill is yet to be passed by the state assembly due to opposition from right-wing groups and political parties who fear the new law might curb religious freedom.

Superstitions prevalent in parts of India, especially in its villages, range from animal sacrifices and dropping babies in rivers to killing or raping children as a cure for infertility.

In his speeches, Dabholkar said his draft law was not against religion but against exploitative practices.

Finding harmony in music and Islam

The grand mufti whose words against music ended the short career of an all-girl teenage pop band in Kashmir last month made me wonder: is music really un-Islamic? He said that if women indulge in indecent, immoral acts such as singing, it would be a step toward their destruction. Is it really that simple in Islam? Of course it isn’t.

On one hand, you find words in the Qur’an such as “Zoor” – an Arabic word used for “falsehood” and musical expressions; “Laghv” – vain words and actions, useless entertainment;  ”Ghina” – prolonged sonic vibration, with pitch changes to such an extent that it might as well be “singing”, and of course, it’s sinful. According to another interpretation, singing, reciting poetry and playing instruments is allowed on occasions such as weddings and other festivals. Then there is debate going on all the while.

Music is also said to affect the body in a negative way – increasing blood pressure, impeding digestion, releasing adrenaline. All this could excite men’s lust and desire, and destroy their brotherhood and make them angry. If women do it, they should do it only around other women. And then there are videos like this, which clearly demonstrate another point of view.

‘Nobody can stop you if you engage in art with dignity’: Zila Khan on singing and Islam

The members of Praagaash, an all-girl band in Kashmir, split up this week after an influential cleric deemed their music un-Islamic. Zila Khan, one of India’s most popular sufi singers and daughter of sitar maestro Vilayat Khan, spoke to Reuters about how singing is closest to worship and meditation and how children should be allowed to sing.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Questions about Grand Mufti of Kashmir and Islam are best answered by experts in the field of religion. I am an expert in music, it will be no use pondering on subjects that I am not an authority on. There will be more experts to say better things on this issue. I can, however, talk about music, on my journey as a singer and the issue of women’s rights.

Obviously, I feel children should sing.

I feel the art of music and especially singing is the highest form of art in the world and in the cosmic cycle. To have the ilm (idea) and knowledge of this art is itself a blessing because it is much higher than any other form of art or work as such.

The news this weekend: LPG, Kejriwal, toilets, politicians… and Somali pirates

It’s shaping up as a busy weekend for India’s politicians…

The price of LPG — liquefied petroleum gas cylinders, or cooking gas — has risen 11.42 rupees per cylinder because dealers are getting higher commissions. TV channels attacked the government because this “shocker” comes right after the imposition of a cap on subsidized cylinder sales was imposed.

Bharatiya Janata Party politician Smriti Irani said the party will hold a nation-wide protest on Oct. 12, saying the higher prices are “anti-women”. This is presumably because they do more of the daily cooking than men, whose potential inversely proportional waistline shrinkage could be in their favour.

We all know who the main attraction is on news channels nowadays: social activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal. Here are the pots that he’s stirring:

Is the outraged Indian over-sensitive or culturally prudent?

Protests are as common in India as the ‘Singh’ surname in the national hockey team.

On the face of it, it’s one indicator of a free society where every citizen can get his voice heard. But agitations like the recent one against a film crew for recreating parts of Chandigarh to look like a Pakistani city seem to create an impression of misplaced priorities (and some would say too much free time for the protesters).

Hindu radicals decried the Pakistan link; and not to be left out, a Muslim umbrella body said the movie about the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden showed their religion in a bad light.

Of sex swamis, lies and videotape

The recent scandals over two spiritual gurus have shaken the collective faith of their followers in India.

A sadhu holds a trident in New Delhi August 2, 2006. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/FilesThe sanctity of religions or the people’s faith is not being questioned but these controversies put the spotlight on the uniquely Indian phenomenon of mortals given the status of gods.

Cities across the country teem with astrologers, tarot card readers or some self-proclaimed guru. Saffron silk robes, turban cloth and rosaries are available off the shelves in plenty.

India’s 26/11 – religion no bar

A year ago, after the three-day siege of Mumbai ended and people took to the streets with candles and banners, a group of young Muslim men, carrying a hand-written poster, walked quietly with the surging crowds.

Seeing them, people began to clap spontaneously, applauding their assertion that Islam was a religion of peace, and not terrorism.

Since then, people in Mumbai, which has witnessed some of the worst communal riots in the country in the past, have come together in their grief, crossing barriers erected by politicians in the name of religion.

What makes a religious symbol conspicuous?

Last week, a college in Mangalore in India banned a student wearing a burqa from attending class. The principal told local media the college had a policy of not allowing symbols of religion.

The media did not say if there were students on campus with a ‘bindi’ (dot) on their foreheads or crucifixes around their necks or turbans on their heads, other symbols of religion one commonly sees in India, besides the ubiquitous “Om” scarves and t-shirts.

Mangalore, a cosmopolitan city, is no stranger to controversy; it was recently in the news for attacks on bars and women by a fundamentalist Hindu outfit that declared they were against Indian culture.

Is caste behind the killing in Vienna and riots in Punjab?

Why did the murder of a preacher in a Sikh temple in Vienna spark riots in the faraway Indian state of Punjab, in which thousands took to the streets to torch cars, trains and battle security forces?

The root cause may lie in India’s caste system that Sikhism officially rejects, but that still grips swathes of India’s billion-plus people, including in Sikh-dominated Punjab state in northwestern India.

“Via Vienna, Sikh caste war returns, sets Punjab aflame” ran the headline of the Hindustan Times.

from FaithWorld:

Holding back the “religion card” in India’s election campaign

india-election-ayodhyaHindu nationalism, Muslim "vote banks", anti-Christian violence, caste rivalry -- Indian politics has more than enough interfaith tension to offer populist orators all kinds of "religion cards" to play. Coming only months after Islamist militants killed 166 people in a three-day rampage in Mumbai, the campaign for the general election now being held in stages between April 16 and May 13 could have been over- shadowed by communal demagoguery. (Photo:Voters show IDs at a polling station in Ayodhya, 23 April 2009/Pawan Kumar)

But in this election, the "religion card" doesn't seem to be the trump card it once was. It's still being used in some ways, of course, but the main opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has played down its trademark Hindu nationalism in its drive to oust the secular Congress Party from power in New Delhi. A BJP candidate who lashed out at the Muslim minority saw the tactic backfire. During a recent three-week stay in India, I found religious issues being discussed freely and frequently in the boisterous election campaign. But they were usually not the main issues under debate and not isolated from the pocketbook issues that really concern voters. Click here for the rest of my report quoted above. advani-waves(Photo: BJP leader L.K. Advani, 8 April 2009/Amit Dave)

This is one of those stories where context is king. Thanks to the internet and India's lively English-language media, anyone around the globe can find Indian reports highlighting the religion angle. One of the news magazines, The Week, ran an interesting cover story about the "high priests of hate." On balance, I think it looks a bit overdone -- it was written at the height of the Varun Gandhi controversy -- but it had this classic anecdote:

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