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Witch doctors beware: Indian state passes bill to debunk black magic, religious charlatans

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NEW DELHI - Witch doctors and religious charlatans beware: New legislation passed in a central Indian state aims to prosecute those who use beliefs and superstition to defraud or physically harm followers.

Maharashtra became the first state to pass such legislation in multicultural and secular India, where witch doctors and Hindu holy men enjoy huge popularity and can amass millions in contributions or fees for promised miracles and health cures.

Once the bill is signed by the governor, police will be able to investigate religious fraud, extremism and human sacrifice. Activists said they'd like to see such legislation passed nationwide.

"This is great news," said activist Deepak Girme of the Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Committee. "A lot of awareness has been raised about the fact that this superstitious mindset still exists among the poor, who are often illiterate and uneducated."

On Sunday night, police arrested six men suspected of beheading a 50-year-old woman in a ritual human sacrifice on the outskirts of Mumbai. The victim had gone to visit a holy man over concerns for her ailing son, but instead was sacrificed by some of his followers who threw her head over a bridge in an act they believed would cure their own health problems, according to district police superintendent Anil Kumbhar.

Police did not say if the religious man who allegedly advised the beheading received any payment or tribute.

Lawmakers in the state, where the financial city of Mumbai is located, passed the legislation following an 18-year debate and intense lobbying by activist Narendra Dabholkar, who was gunned down Aug. 20 after receiving death threats for encouraging villagers to embrace secular and scientific reason. Last week, police arrested two men suspected of killing Dabholkar.

"Our mission has long been to show that these people are against the downtrodden and depressed, these are the people who have been looting from this country since the beginning," said Girme, whose organization was founded by Dabholkar.

Opponents of the legislation say it is an attack on religious freedom.

In passing the bill Saturday, the assembly was careful to exempt many common religious or cultural practices, including consulting astrologers or palm readers, preaching from ancient Hindu scriptures or mythology, or fasting or flagellation during the Muslim holiday of Muharram.

Activists regretted that the legislation only allows complaints from victims and their families — not from third parties — which they said will limit the bill's effectiveness because most victims are invested in superstitious beliefs and are not likely to complain.

India has long been committed to secularism despite its cacophony of cultures defined by caste, clan, tribe or religion, including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism.

There are countless places of worship, from lavish and enormous compounds to tiny altars that can be packed in a car trunk. Politicians offer prayers or consult astrologists before important elections, and Hindu yogis made famous by TV can amass millions of dollars in donations.

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Follow Katy Daigle on Twitter at twitter.com/katydaigle

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