When water started trickling down a statue of Jesus Christ at a Catholic church in Mumbai earlier this year, locals were quick to declare a miracle. Some began collecting the holy water and the Church of Our Lady of Velan Kanni began to promote it as a site of pilgrimage.
So when Sanal Edamaruku arrived and established that this was not a matter of holy water so much as holey plumbing, the backlash was severe. The renowned rationalist was accused of blasphemy, charged with offenses that carry a three-year prison sentence and eventually, after receiving death threats, had to seek exile in Finland.
Now he is calling for European governments to press New Delhi into dropping the case.
On the first leg of a tour around EU capitals on Friday, he warned that India was sacrificing freedom of expression for outdated, colonial-era rules about blasphemy.
“There is a huge contradiction in the content of the Indian constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and the blasphemy law from 1860 under then colonial rule,” Edamaruku said in an interview in Dublin.
“This blasphemy law can affect anyone in India, even a girl recently who wrote on Facebook against closing down a city because of the death of a famous local politician. She was prosecuted under the blasphemy law and another girl who ‘liked’ her comment on Facebook was also arrested and then charged with blasphemy,” he said.
Edamaruku, who has the support of rationalists and atheists such as Richard Dawkins, is well known in India for debunking religious myths.
When the state “miracle” was pronounced, he went to Mumbai and found that the dripping water was the result of clogged drainage pipes behind the wall where it stood. His revelation provoked death threats from religious zealots and charges of blasphemy under the Indian penal code in the Mumbai high court.
“India cannot criticize Pakistan for arresting young girls for blaspheming against Islam while it arrests and locks up its own citizens for breaking our country’s blasphemy laws,” he said.
“It is an absurd law but also extremely dangerous because it gives fanatics, whether they are Hindus, Catholics or Muslims, a license to be offended,” he said.
Edamaruku said his exposure of the statue was a contribution to public health in Mumbai as some believers were drinking the water hoping it could cure ailments.
“This was sewage water seeping through a wall due to faulty plumbing,” he said. “It posed a health risk to people who were fooled into believing it was a miracle.”
He has been living in Finland since the summer. He was in Europe on a lecture tour in July when his partner rang to say the police had arrived at his apartment.
“I felt really upset because under the blasphemy law you cannot get bail until the court case begins. I would be in jail now if I had been at my apartment in Delhi,” he said.
He has spurned an offer from a senior Indian Catholic bishop to apologize for the exposure of the “miracle.”
“The Catholic archbishop of Bombay, Oswald Cardinal Gracias, has said that if I apologize for the ‘offense’ I have caused he will see to it that the charges are dropped. This shows that he has influence in the situation but he will not use it unless I apologize, which I will not do as I have done nothing wrong,” he said.
“In a way I am lucky because I have friends and supporters in Europe. I am well known in India and have the telephone numbers of at least five Indian cabinet ministers. And I have some means of fighting back. But what would happen to the common man or woman if they were accused of blasphemy? They would be sent straight to jail without any chance of bail,” he said.
Edamaruku asked for “mounting international pressure” particularly from Ireland and other EU nations to be placed on the Indian government. The Indian state would have the power to halt the prosecution before a court case, citing a lack of evidence to pursue it, he said.
Mick Nugent from Atheist Ireland, the organization hosting Edamaruku’s visit to the republic and Northern Ireland next week, said Edamaruku’s plight also underlined the need for the Fine Gael-Labour government in Dublin to repeal the Irish blasphemy law.
“Blasphemy laws are very strange because they can be both very silly and also very sinister. They are very silly because you are talking about crying statues and moving statues or Virgin Marys appearing in tree stumps in Co Limerick. But on the other hand these type of laws are used in Islamic countries to jail people or sentence them to death. Or in Sanal’s case facing a jail sentence for his work exposing bogus miracles,” he said.