Murders for prosperity: Whither scientific temper?

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
24 Oct 2022

Elanthoor is equidistant from Pathanamthitta and Kozhencherry in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala. I used to pass through Elanthoor every time I went to St. Thomas College, Kozhencherry from Pathanamthitta where I stayed those days. One day, I did not have 20 paise in my pocket and I did not want to borrow money from anyone. I decided to walk all the way from the college to Valanchuzhy in Pathanamthitta.

That is how I know how difficult is the Bharat Jodo Yatra being undertaken by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. If I remember correctly, I reached home only around 9 pm that day. 

Today I would not dare to walk alone through Elanthoor, where on January 20, 1920, Mahatma Gandhi visited to promote Khadi, at the invitation of a local leader who played an active role in the Vaikom Satyagraha.

Elanthoor is now a “tourist” spot, not because of the Gandhi museum which is part of the Elanthoor panchayat office but because of two heinous murders reported from there. 

Murder is as old as mankind. The Bible tells the story of how the children of Adam and Eve, to whom all the Abrahamic religions trace their ancestry, enacted the first case of fratricide.

In the Book of Genesis, Cain and Abel are the first two sons of Adam and Eve. Cain, the firstborn, was a farmer, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. The brothers made sacrifices to God, but God favoured Abel's sacrifice, instead of Cain's. Cain then murdered Abel, whereupon God punished Cain by condemning him to a life of wandering.

Enmity, jealousy, hatred, covetousness and war are some of the reasons that prompt a person to commit murder. Most murders happen in a fit of rage and they are looked at differently from well-calculated and well-planned murders aimed at killing a person and evading the law.

What Elanthoor witnessed was the worst kind of murders. There is a superstitious belief that while constructing a dam or a bridge a human being should be sacrificed and the body should be buried deep to lend strength to the foundation of the structure.

Some even claim that the Mullaperiyar dam, built 127 years ago, stands strong because it was built on a sacrificed body. When India became independent, the literacy rate was barely in double digits but we had a literate prime minister in Jawaharlal Nehru, who saw superstition as superstition and did not promote it. Nehru invited a Santhali girl named Budhni Mehjan who worked at the Damodar Valley Project to inaugurate the power project at Panchet dam alongside him in December 1959. The story was different at Elanthoor.

A certain person called Bhagaval Singh and his wife Laila lived in a large house situated in a two-acre plot. Many people wonder how he got the non-Malayali name. His forefathers belonged to the Ezhava caste which did not enjoy much social status. They were not even allowed inside temples.

Some Sikhs from Punjab came to Vaikom to provide langar to the participants of Vaikom Satyagraha. The satyagraha was not religious. It was against the temple authorities who decided against letting the “untouchables” walk on the road around the Shiva temple. The satyagraha was not to let them enter the temple. It was to let them walk on a public road. In other words, it was a civic, not religious, issue. For all his greatness, Gandhi saw the satyagraha differently.

He thought it was a religious issue. He asked the Sikhs to pack up from Vaikom as it was a Hindu affair. Gandhi did not even permit George Joseph, brother of journalist Pothan Joseph, to lead the agitation. By the time Gandhi’s refusal came by way of a telegram, Joseph had already courted arrest. He was so disappointed that he quit politics altogether and went back to his legal profession.

Some of the Sikhs were missionaries. They did not leave Kerala. They went to some places like Ranny, not far from Elanthoor, and tried to proselytise. Some Ezhavas suffering caste discrimination were attracted by the egalitarianism of Sikhism.

Ranny had a small group of Sikhs, who in dress resembled Sikhs but spoke Malayalam. One of the Sikh girls was a friend of my elder sister. I accompanied her to the village where I saw for the first time so many men with long hair and beards enjoying the sun. They treated us well. They were beekeepers and gave us a lot of honey to drink. I never drank so much honey!

Alas, the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 had a deleterious effect on the community. The Sikhs of Ranny were not spared. Many of them were forced to cut their beard and go back to their original caste. Soon after I joined The Tribune, I wanted to do a cover story on the Sikhs of Ranny.

I went there with my wife but I could not find any Sikh. The one Sikh who lived near Block Junction at Ranny refused to meet us. It was with great difficulty that I could trace one boy from Ranny who migrated to Jalandhar but he too refused to talk. I could not do the cover story I planned.

I am not sure if Bhagaval Singh is from that group. The fact is that there are some people in Kerala who have adopted Sikh and Christian names to hide their caste identity. Today, the Ezhavas are one of the most prosperous and politically powerful communities in Kerala. 

Bhagaval Singh was a traditional massager, who also dabbled in poetry. He was an active member of the CPM. His wife was superstitious but had her husband totally under her control. For both of them, it was their second marriage.

It was at that time a character called Muhammed Shafi entered their life. He had created a fake Facebook page using the name Jayashree. He befriended Singh who fell for “her” charms and started reposing his faith in her. Naturally enough, he told her about his frustrations and how he wanted to have prosperity in his life.

“Jayashree” directed him to a tantrik who could do the rituals that needed to be done to make a turnaround in his life. “She” gave him his own telephone number. As Shafi was blessed with the gift of the gab, he was able to convince the couple that prosperity awaited them if they made a human sacrifice.

He first enticed Rosli by promising money and brought her to Elanthoor. There, the three together sacrificed her. Blood from her pubic area was sprinkled on the floor. Thereafter the body was cut into 56 pieces and buried deep inside a pit in the compound.

When the sacrifice did not bring instant prosperity to Bhagval Singh, Shafi was able to convince the couple that another human sacrifice was needed. This time, middle-aged Padma from Tamil Nadu, who used to make a living by selling lottery tickets in Kerala, was brought to Elanthoor.

She was also given the treatment that was given to Rosli. The body was cut into so many pieces and buried. The threesome is believed to have cooked some human flesh and eaten it. The refrigerator was used to store the flesh for some time.

Shafi told them that the full benefits of the human sacrifice could be obtained only after consuming the flesh. There are indications that Shafi was planning to blackmail the couple and capture their property.

Investigations into the disappearance of Padma brought the police to Elanthoor. A CCTV camera in the vicinity recorded Shafi’s car arriving there. That is how the whole story unravelled itself. Every Malayali felt ashamed that such an incident could happen in the state.

A few days later, a woman practising sorcery at Malayalappuzha was arrested. In the name of ridding a boy of some disease, she was terrorising him. The pity is that she had a good clientele from far off places.

Newspapers in Kerala carry classified advertisements of persons who claim that they can cure all kinds of problems like epilepsy, adultery, insomnia, cancer, wayward behaviour, lunacy and impotency. They also promise that they can usher in prosperity for their clients.

People fall for such promises and by the time they realise that they were taken for a ride, they would have lost a lot of money or suffered other indignities. Nobody likes to discuss in public his or her losses. The sorcerers know this weakness of the common man and that is what they take advantage of.

This is not a Hindu-centric problem. There are Christian pastors and priests who claim that they can cure the faithful of various ailments. The Bible speaks about Jesus curing a blind person. These pastors do not treat such patients. All those who claim that they can instantly cure anyone of his disease are outright frauds.

Islam is a scientific religion in the sense that it does not approve of even priestly practices. Of course, every Muslim has certain practices to follow. That is all. Yet, faith in sorcery is deep-rooted among the Muslims. There are Muslim clerics who claim to have divine powers. The fact is that when they themselves fall sick, they go to a hospital for treatment.

This being the case, no religion can claim to be above superstition. Of course, there are atheists who claim that religion itself is a superstition. 

Nobody can deny the fact that religion — be it Hinduism or Christianity or Islam or Sikhism or Buddhism or Jainism or Zoroastrianism — fills a gap in man’s life. It sustains man when he is down with disease or is old. Everyone knows that life without hope is hopeless. It is religion that provides hope.

The Constitution of India was the creation of leaders like Dr BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru who were rational to the core. That is why the Constitution expects the Indian state to promote the scientific temper at all times. In fact, India is the first and only country to explicitly adopt scientific temper in its Constitution. In the 42nd amendment, Article 51 A(h) was added under the Fundamental Duties that states: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.

In his book ‘Discovery of India’, Nehru explains “scientific temper” in these words. “The scientific temper points out the way along which man should travel. It is the temper of a free man. We live in a scientific age, so we are told, but there is little evidence of this temper in the people anywhere or even their leaders. 

“What is needed is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems”.

Where has India reached? Kerala is one of the most literate states. Yet, it is there that two women were brutally killed for “prosperity”. Why does this happen? Once I shared the dais with a senior faculty at the IAS academy at Mussoorie. What I noticed was the number of rings he wore. A few fingers had double rings, each with or without stones. It is not uncommon to find men sporting multiple threads on their hands. 

And we have a prime minister who is never tired of taking part in religious rituals with dozens of cameras capturing them for transmission to the whole world. Where is the scientific temper in such a scenario? 

Even Marxist ministers go to religious shrines before taking oath as ministers. Why blame only Bhagaval Singh, who wanted a little prosperity unlike many others who want power and pelf by propitiating godmen and godwomen and do anything suggested by the charlatans who masquerade as priests.

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