RATIONALIST INTERNATIONAL

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Sanal Edamaruku

Stuck in Finland

Read full report by Samanti Dissanayake, on BBC website.

Excerpts...

An Indian man who made his name exposing the "miraculous" feats of holy men as tricks has fled the country after being accused of blasphemy. Now in self-imposed exile in Finland, he fears jail - or even assassination - if he returns.

When a Hindu fakir declared on live television that he could kill anybody with tantric chanting, Sanal Edamaruku simply had to take him up on the challenge.

As both were guests in the studio, the fakir was put to the test immediately.

The channel cancelled all subsequent programming and he began chanting on the spot. But as the hours passed a note of desperation crept into his raspy mantras. For his part, Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, showed no sign of discomfort, let alone death. He merely chortled his way through this unconventional (and unsuccessful) attempt on his life.

He has spent his life as a prominent member of India's small band of miracle-busters, men who dedicate their life to traversing the country demystifying certain beliefs.

In the 1990s Edamaruku visited hundreds of villages replicating the apparently fabulous feats some self-proclaimed holy men became renowned for - the materialisations of watches or "holy" ash - exposing them as mere sleight of hand.

But in 2012, four years after his televised encounter with the fakir, a steady drip of water from the toe of a statue of Christ genuinely did, he believes, put his life in danger.

Immediately hailed as a miracle, hundreds of Catholic devotees and other curious residents flocked to the shrine in a nondescript Mumbai suburb to watch the hypnotic drip. Some even drank the droplets.

Edamaruku was challenged to investigate and so he went to the site with an engineer friend and traced the source of the drip backwards. Moisture on the wall the statue 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 said.

It was then that the situation turned ugly.

He presented his case in a febrile live television debate with representatives of Catholic lobby groups, while outside the studio a threatening crowd bearing sticks had gathered. He claims they were hired thugs.

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.

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.

"Under this law a policeman can simply arrest me even though there has been no investigation... they can just arrest me without a warrant and keep me in prison for a long timeā€¦ That risk I do not want to take," says Edamaruku.

Threatening comments were posted on an online forum, he says, and contacts in Mumbai told him they had heard talk of somebody being hired to beat him in jail. Catholic groups say they aren't behind any threats Mr Edamaruku may have received.

He decided to leave early for a European lecture tour. Finland was the first country to give him a visa and he had friends on the Finnish humanist scene willing to help.

He arrived in Helsinki on a summer afternoon two years ago, the endless hours of sunlight saturating both day and night. 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), one of the groups that made the initial complaint, still insists it will press for prosecution should he ever return.

His closest friend here - the founder of the Finnish humanist society Pekka Elo - died late last year.

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 what he sees as 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."

But Edamaruku fears for his safety, pointing to the fate of his friend, anti-black-magic campaigner Narendra Dabholkar.

"Narendra Dabholkar suggested that if I come to Mumbai he and his friends would be able to protect me. I was considering his proposal," Edamaruku recalls, referring to a conversation last summer.

But four days later he was murdered, a crime which many believe was linked to his campaign against magic.

He insists he has no regrets.

"I would do it again. Because any miracle which has enormous clout at one moment, is simply gone once explained. It's like a bubble. You prick it and it is finished."

The statue still stands in that sleepy suburb of Mumbai, but it no longer drips.