Angry Catholics have accused an Indian sceptic of blasphemy after he argued a dripping crucifix was caused by faulty plumbing rather than divine intervention, leaving him facing a possible prison term.
Thousands of believers flocked to a suburban street in the west of Mumbai in March, when drops of water began to fall from the feet of Jesus on the cross, drinking the prized liquid in the hope that it had holy powers.
Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, suggested otherwise. He said he inspected the site and found the source of the water to be leaking toilet drainage, making it dangerous to imbibe.
“It’s a case of miracle-mongering,” Edamaruku told AFP from his home in New Delhi. “Any kind of miracle-mongering is ultimately to get money and power.”
Accusing him of spreading “anti-Catholic venom” during televised debates on the crucifix, outraged religious groups in Mumbai have filed police complaints that could see Edamaruku jailed for up to three years under India’s blasphemy law.
“Don’t try to bring dark ages in India,” Edamaruku had warned in a TV discussion.
One complaint was lodged with police by Joseph Dias, general secretary of the Catholic-Christian Secular Forum, who objected to the rationalist’s “very obvious and stridently anti-Christian bias”.
In a statement emailed to AFP, Dias denied the dripping crucifix had been hailed as a miracle — a status that requires an official Church pronouncement — but he also dismissed Edamaruku’s theory.
“A plausible explanation which makes sense is still elusive,” he wrote.
Superstitious beliefs are still widespread in India, a fast-developing and officially secular country where Hinduism dominates but a diverse range of ethnic groups, religious practices and languages co-exist.
As a prominent sceptical campaigner Edamaruku is no stranger to controversy.
His association, which claims 100,000-plus members, was set up in 1949 to campaign for scientific reasoning over superstition — a job that has become his mission in life.
The 56-year-old has spent the last three decades exposing what he says are fake miracles and fraudulent gurus across India, whose top mystics and yoga masters have amassed huge followings and fortunes.
Edamaruku’s targets have included powerful spiritual leaders such as the late Sathya Sai Baba, who was revered by millions and famed for producing baubles out of thin air.
Now Edamaruku welcomes the moves against him as “an opportunity, not a thing to be afraid of”, he said, and is challenging India’s blasphemy law.
The legislation bans “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” — a rule Edamaruku believes runs counter to freedom of expression.
His lawyers are preparing to lobby India’s Supreme Court to overturn the colonial-era section of the penal code, as well as asking a court in Delhi to prevent his arrest.
Edamaruku said the Catholics’ response had been “like Islamic fundamentalists speaking” and drew parallels with the opposition to Mumbai-born British author Salman Rushdie.
Rushdie’s 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” remains banned in India for allegedly insulting Islam and the writer withdrew from a literary festival in January this year after death threats and angry protests.
“I always think there are two Indias,” said Edamaruku. “The 21st century, which is progressive, modern, scientific” and “17th-century India, which is pulling us back to the dark ages of intolerance, bigotry, superstition”.