In continuation of his Fellowship experience, Somil writes about the problems of superstition in India that even haunts Pusa!
Of men of god
In the wake of the recent crackdown on the self-styled godman Rampal and his so called ‘ashram’, that has conjured up a nationwide demand of putting behind bars such self-proclaimed messengers of god, I suddenly recalled that I had witnessed something similar, just a few weeks before – another example of how the marginalized and weaker sections of the society are exploited even more by dastardly acts of such corrupt individuals.
About a month and a half back, I used to travel up and down 25 km from Pusa to Sakra, when I was still deciding which location I wanted to work in. I would travel in a shared auto, the seating capacity of which was around 7-8, but on an average 12 people managed to sit inside, all crammed up, with some even hanging outside behind the auto, making it a bumpy, uncomfortable and yet eventful ride. The concept of sharing autos is very common here in Bihar- even in the capital city of Patna, the autos run only on sharing basis, unless one is in a hurry. Barring the safety aspect (I heard that a couple of autos turned upside down in the past), I think it is a good concept- it reduces the cost of travelling significantly and at the same time the driver gets all his returns on investment with a good profit margin. It also has a direct impact on the environment- instead of ten different autos for ten people; the job is done using one!
During one such ride I was sitting right next to the driver right on the front seat. I always preferred sitting on the front seat- it was less congested, airy and relatively more comfortable. I used to look outside, think about the tasks that needed to be done that day, about this completely different world I had come to live in, which until now I had only either heard of or read about, and sometimes wonder about life and its meaning. That day, about half way through the journey, I noticed something different. There was a grey tent, roughly 10 metres long, right at the edge of the highway. In front of the tent, there were two rows of around 100 people each, seated facing each other with a gap of about a metre in between. It looked like they had made a path for someone to come out of the tent and bless them one by one. I noticed that they all were carrying a liquid that looked like oil, yellow in colour, packed in a small plastic bottle. Curious, I asked the people in the auto what it was all about. What I heard next was unbelievable! ‘Kuch dino pehle yaha phook baba prakat hue. Ye jab logo pe tel phookte hai toh unki saari beemariya aur saari dikkat khatam ho jaati hai!’ (A few days ago, phook baba appeared here. When he blows oil on people, their illnesses and problems vanish!). Apparently the liquid that the people were carrying was also an ‘exclusive’ product that phook baba had manufactured! “What foolishness! And people really believe in all this?”, I thought to myself instantly. But it was a rather pre-mature thought I later realized when I sat in rumination that night- were the people really at fault?
Over next two days, I saw swarms of people travelling 20-30 km, pay the auto fare and spend three-four hours to get their problems solved by one blow of phook baba. In a place where people do not have access to safe drinking water and bare minimum access to electricity, they pinned all their hopes in this one man who had just arrived a couple of days before! In our field visits, we saw that a lot of people were not at their homes- when we asked where they were, their answer was as expected- they had gone to visit the new problem solver! It wasn’t surprising that the news had spread like wild fire within two days. Everywhere everyone was talking about him, relieved that god had finally sent a savior.
It is extremely disheartening, the way such godmen function, thriving on the vulnerabilities of the poor and exploiting them on their insecurities. But there is no stopping such individuals, because if today you catch hold of one, tomorrow someone else will crop up. So whose fault is it in the end? Who is to take the blame? These questions linger on.
Instead, this issue must be tackled from the other end – the people. Any development activity being undertaken in an area should be coupled with extensive awareness. This can be done by building deep relationships with the community and breaking these archaic superstitions, while mobilizing and motivating them to think progressively. Because it is only then that the community will really be “empowered”.