Ghostbusters on a mission

In remote villages, people banish ‘evil spirits’ with logic, reason and counselling

120-rationalist-sarabhjeet-ukhla Truth behind the tricks: Rationalist Sarabhjeet Ukhla displays the accessories he uses when spreading awareness on the nonexistence of ghosts and the science behind miracles | Arvind Jain

IN DOHAR, A VILLAGE in Kaithal district in Haryana, 70-year-old Shankuntala recalls her house being ‘haunted’. “It was some kind of an evil magic,” says Shakuntala, who shares the two-room home with her two sons, daughter and daughter-in-law. “My kitchen utensils would be on the streets, and bricks and stones would fly through the windows. Sometimes, I would see horses hurtling towards me and would squeeze my eyes shut, fervently praying for them to go away. Often, the walls and floor would be splattered with blood, and our clothes would suddenly catch fire.” Her 40-year-old son, Pradeep Kumar, says, “We were so afraid, that we stopped buying clothes, even when we hardly had any left.” To rid their home of ‘evil spirits’, they consulted and paid numerous shamans, but to no avail.

Many mental health cases are dealt with by the members of Tarksheel Society— Dr B.S. Sidhu, head of psychiatry, Government Medical College, Patiala
Our only goal is to make them realise that ghosts do not exist and they need not go to godmen or faith healers for solutions. — Krishan Lal, rationalist
Victims create the best awareness. — Natyabir Das, doctor and coordinator with Mission Birubala

These incidents went on for more than a year. Then, Kumar met Krishan Lal, a water pump operator in the state’s public health engineering department. Lal, 59, is a rationalist; a person who believes that opinions and actions should be based on reason and knowledge, rather than on religious belief or emotional response.“Which god do you believe in?” was the first question Kumar had asked Lal. “I believe in the god of science,” Lal had replied.

Every Saturday, in a tiny room above a factory that manufactures aluminium wires, in Kaithal town, Lal runs a clinic for the “possessed and dispossessed”. Only, there is no shaman working as a ghostbuster here, but a rationalist offering explanations based on common sense and scientific reasoning. The most prominent feature in the room is a black and white poster in Hindi that reads: “Ghosts, spirits, and jinns do not exist.”

When a patient comes for the first time, Lal often uses a little trick. He asks the patient to hold an aluminium bottle cap covered in cotton cloth. This soon begins to singe, and the patient believes that the ‘evil spirit’ has burnt to ashes in his own hand. Lal achieves this by secretly coating the bottle cap with mercuric chloride, which reacts with the alumina, to produce an ash-like substance. “This is done to just gain their confidence,” says Lal. “I disclose the trick after a couple of sessions.”

Cured through counselling: Shakuntala and her son, Pradeep Kumar, with rationalist Krishan Lal (centre) | Arvind Jain Cured through counselling: Shakuntala and her son, Pradeep Kumar, with rationalist Krishan Lal (centre) | Arvind Jain

Most of his patients are from nearby villages. They trust him with their secrets and he maintains patient confidentiality. “As rationalists, this is a cardinal rule,” says Lal. “To get to the root of the problem, we counsel family members individually, to understand their inter-personal dynamics. But never we tell on them. Our only goal is to make them realise that ghosts do not exist and they need not go to godmen or faith healers for solutions.” He opens the cupboard and takes out a dreadlocked mass of amulets, raggedy necklaces and coloured wristbands that he has collected from patients over the years.

When asked about Shakuntala’s case, he is discreet. “Suffice to say that one family member was extremely depressed,” says Lal. “We continuously counselled her and the rest of the family.” Shakuntala often visits Lal to express her gratitude. “Krishan Lal is my son,” she says. “I haven’t found anyone like him in the world. After coming here, those diabolical incidents stopped.”

Victim to vociferous crusader: Birubala Rabha heads an NGO that fights superstition | Surajit Sharma Victim to vociferous crusader: Birubala Rabha heads an NGO that fights superstition | Surajit Sharma

Lal’s drive to expose godmen and faith healers comes from personal experience. When he was newly married, there were insinuations that his wife was possessed. After spending a lot of money chasing godmen, he approached the Haryana branch of the Punjab-based rationalist group Tarksheel Society. “It was because of Tarksheel that I learnt that my wife had a psychological disorder that arose from feeling alienated in a new house,” says Lal. In 2002, he became a member of the society.

Like Lal, they are other ordinary people working in rural areas attempting to bust myths surrounding paranormal activities, superstitions and old wives’ tales. Most are sceptics associated with decades-old rationalist groups that have sprung from larger movements of atheism and rationalism started by thinkers like Charles Bradlaugh, Abraham Kovoor, E.V. Ramasamy, M.N. Roy, Goparaju Ramachandra Rao and Annie Besant, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, most of these groups are members of an umbrella organisation called Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, made up of individuals like Lal, who have no-frills government jobs, or are retirees. With their free time and meagre resources, they travel to villages by bus or two-wheelers, to ward off ‘evil spirits’ using common sense and reason, and guide victims to the right medical care. Their numbers are stagnant and there is scant young blood among them. Even though most cases pertain to women, these individuals handling their cases here are mostly men.

Dr B.S. Sidhu | Arvind Jain Dr B.S. Sidhu | Arvind Jain

“We do have a handful of women rationalists in India, but they are mostly from big cities and empowered families,” says Leena Dabiru, 45, of Delhi, who has worked with the Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association.

Says Rajagopal Vakathanam, 78, secretary of the rationalist organisation Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham: “We have 3,000 active members, most of them above the age of 40; females constitute around 10 per cent.” Vakathanam says that all religions profess the existence of the ‘soul’, which breeds the concept of ghosts, and that science refutes this, since all human beings are merely living chemical substances. “This whole ghosts business comes from psychological diseases,” says Vakathanam.

Former journalist Sarabhjeet Ukhla, 60, has been a member of the Patiala branch of Tarksheel Society since 1985. “I have written three books of my experiences at Tarksheel, including a collection of the ten most interesting ghost stories, and how I cracked them,” says Ukhla, smiling. He unlocks a suitcase and displays its contents: stuffed birds, voodoo dolls, coconut shells, fake rubber snakes, toy skulls, pullover ghost face masks and metal boxes. “As rationalists, we go to local schools (with these objects) and explain the science behind miracles,” says Ukhla. “The next generation needs to know how fake godmen ply their trade.”

He is just leaving to visit a family in Kheri Musalmana village, some 20km from his home in Patiala, where a 45-year-old woman says a faceless creature has been raping her every night for the past six years. The woman has polio, her husband lost one of his legs in an accident, and they live in a single room with their two children. Ukhla suspects that the woman has a mental health issue arising from an absence of conjugal relations. To help solve her issue, the woman will need to be forthright about her problems, so she can be directed to the right counselling. Ukhla says that it is often difficult to get women to discuss their private lives. “Sometimes, I get my daughter or wife to talk to them,” he says.

Natyabir Das | Surajit Sharma Natyabir Das | Surajit Sharma

Dr B.S. Sidhu, head of psychiatry at the Government Medical College, Patiala, acknowledges the acute shortage of mental health counsellors and clinical psychologists in Punjab. “Many mental health cases are dealt with by the members of Tarksheel Society,” says Sidhu. “But the really serious cases, which cannot be treated by counselling alone, they bring to us. In fact, around 10 per cent of my referrals are from Tarksheel Society.” He regularly writes on mental health awareness in the society’s monthly magazine.

Birubala Rabha, 69, from Thakurbila village in Goalpara, Assam, is a rationalist, humanist and free-thinker. She received no formal education and was married as a minor. When her son was diagnosed with mental illness, and her husband died from cancer, the villagers branded her a witch. Today, she heads Mission Birubala, an NGO that fights superstition, and is one of the foremost crusaders against witch-hunting in Assam, having rescued numerous victims. “Victims create the best awareness,” says Natyabir Das, a doctor and coordinator with Mission Birubala.

Birubala regularly checks on people she has rescued. She goes to a village near the Assam-Meghalaya border, to check on Sarod Sing Marak, 79, who lives alone in a two-room hut. Marak once had a garden with 55 varieties of medicinal plants. Since hospitals and health centres were not easily accessible from his village, he was the go-to purveyor for natural remedies. For more than 20 years, he nurtured his plot, spending months in Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, to procure saplings for his garden. Once, a neighbour who had used herbs from Marak’s garden succumbed to cancer. His rival, Madan Rabha, planted a rumour that Marak was a black magician. As the rumour spread, a mob gathered outside Marak’s house, demanding he leave the village. They uprooted his plants and destroyed them all, except one, which was used to cure anaemic patients. Madan took off with the plant. Birubala came to Marak’s rescue, and also got the Assam Mahila Samata Samiti involved in the matter. The samiti members counselled the villagers, who then let Marak be. “No one will touch me now,” says Marak smiling. “They are all scared of Birubala.” Says Das: “If Birubala had not intervened, Marak would have been brutally murdered.”

Not all ghostbusters are common folk. Kuladhar Saikia, 59, is a Fulbright scholar, Sahitya Akademi Award winner, and has twice received the President’s Police Medal. On April 25, he was appointed as Assam’s director general of police. In 2001, as deputy inspector general of Kokrajhar district, Saikia had initiated Project Pahari, an innovative community development and policing strategy—involving local women’s groups, student bodies, science clubs, NGOs and the police—to curb witchcraft-related crimes. The project, which has been implemented in around 100 Assamese villages, was featured as a community management case study in the Harvard Business Review. “Project Pahari engenders tremendous amount of societal bond,’” says Saikia. “It aims to transfer the community energy into something positive.”

Saikia is a key architect of the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2015, awaiting the president’s assent. He says that allegations of witchcraft can arise from issues related to power dynamics in the village; property disputes, land-grabbing, personal discord or denial of sexual favours.

While villagers are benefiting from a growing economy and better education, infrastructure, mobility and connectivity, they are still entrenched in superstitious beliefs and pseudoscience. Witchcraft, human sacrifice and black magic continue to be practised by faith healers and godmen thanks to the absence of strict laws against them, or lackadaisical enforcement of those that exist.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, between 2001 and 2016, more than 2,500 people have been hunted and murdered in the name of witchcraft. In 2016, there were 16 reported cases of human sacrifice.

Rationalists say India needs a comprehensive national anti-superstition legislation to deal with crimes related to black magic, miracles and other occultist beliefs. The most comprehensive anti-superstition law in the country is the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013. Since it came into force, around 450 cases have been filed, and there have been at least 20 convictions. In more than half the cases, the victims were women.

The Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill, 2017, which was passed last November, has been designed on the lines of the Maharashtra Act, but has specified 23 more superstitions. The first draft of the bill was prepared by experts at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.