The miracle statueIn early March 2012, a remarkable event occurred at the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Velankanni in Mumbai. In the grounds of the church is a large crucifix statue (right), and from the feet of that statue, through the holes made by the nails that pinned Christ to the cross, water was oozing and dripping to the ground. The church is named after a shrine in southern India, known as “the Lourdes of the east”, where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared in the mid-16th century, and worshippers were quick to declare the dripping cross a 21st-century sign from above. Visitors began to flock to the church, collecting the holy water, consuming it and extolling its healing properties.

For Indian news networks, the sight of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of believers gathering to hail the miraculous event was too good to miss, but the appearance of the holy water could not be accepted unquestioningly. Could this really be the work of God, or was there a more prosaic explanation? A sceptical voice was required, and the networks did not need to look far.

The President of the Indian Rationalist Association, Sanal Edamaruku, has spent the past three decades promoting reason and free thought in his homeland, rising to prominence as a high-profile debunker of the claims of India’s numerous gurus and mystics. His organisation is perhaps best known for what it calls Rationalist Reality Theatre – travelling road shows in which a rationalist, posing as a guru, arrives in a village and begins showing the residents his “miracles”, before eventually casting aside the costume and demonstrating how it can all be explained by science. In 2008, Sanal achieved global recognition when a tantric guru, Pandit Surinder Sharma, attempted to kill him using only his magic powers live on national TV. The footage, which shows Sanal laughing as the guru fails to slay him with his death mantras, became a Youtube hit.

When Sanal was contacted by Mumbai’s TV9 channel and asked to investigate the dripping crucifix, he was happy to oblige. For someone with his experience, it must have sounded like a routine request – show up, take a look, explain the science and provide a view to counter the talk of holy water and miracles. He certainly didn’t know that his trip to the Our Lady of Velankanni Church would change his life, leaving him facing three years in prison under India’s archaic blasphemy laws and forcing him to leave the country in order to avoid arrest and imprisonment ahead of a possible trial.

Sanal was invited to attend the church on 10 March, apparently with the blessing of the church authorities, but says now that with the benefit of hindsight he can see that he was perhaps walking into a situation designed to cause him difficulties. “When I reached the church the priest, the trustee and the leaders of the Catholic groups that later filed cases against me were all there,” he explains. “They welcomed me so cordially, but then the priest gave me a hammer, and I asked, why? He said, ‘Why don’t you just hit the statue, the crucifix, and see if there is some water trapped in there?’ I immediately understood what this meant. If I take the hammer and hit it, the next thing they will say is that he has done it without our permission. Nobody would support me when they saw a picture of me hitting the statue with a hammer.”

Sanal declined the offer to hit the statue, and set about investigating the source of the water. He discovered that a wall behind the crucifix was wet and covered in algae, and was able to trace the source of the water to the drainage system from a toilet situated close by. He lifted a paving stone about one foot from the statue, underneath which he found a large blockage of drain water. “It’s a simple principle,” he says. “If there is nowhere for water to go, it will climb. On the feet of the crucifix was a nail going through the cross and it was all wet. It was very clear that water had been going up inside the cross, and since it was painted there was no other way for it to escape, except through the nail hole, and it then dripped from the feet.”

A large crowd of perhaps 300 or 400 had gathered outside the church and, sensing the possibility of a hostile reaction, Sanal rejected demands to immediately explain what he had found. He said that he needed to return to his hotel room and study his findings, which he would discuss that same evening on TV9’s prime time news show. He did so, but was confronted with a panel of six Catholic representatives, consisting of the priest and trustee of the church, representatives of three Mumbai-based Catholic organisations, and the Auxiliary Bishop of Bombay Agnelo Gracias, who joined the programme by phone.

It was this show that would lead to Sanal’s legal difficulties, with members of the three Catholic organisations – the Catholic Secular Forum, the Association of Concerned Catholics and the Maharashtra Christian Youth Forum – filing police complaints against him under Article 295a of the Indian penal code, which covers “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. In the months following the complaints, the groups have released a long list of the insults they say were committed by Sanal, many of which relate to suggestions that the Catholic Church is anti-science and has a long history of promoting miracles in order to raise the profile of its activities and make money from believers.

“The Auxiliary Bishop came on the programme by phone,” explains Sanal, “and said that we have to understand that the Catholic Church is a scientific church, which promoted science in Europe and is the reason we have science now. When he spoke like that I laughed. I thought that was the best way to answer that. I laughed sarcastically and I said that I would like to invoke two witnesses from history – Galileo and Giordano Bruno. I also said that there is a tradition of miracle-mongering in the Church. There are more than 10,000 saints, with two miracles attributed to each. The Bishop was furious, and told the television channel’s boss, who I talked to later, ‘I didn’t like the tone of him’.”

Once the police complaints had been filed, life quickly became difficult for Sanal. A conviction under Article 295a can carry a three-year prison sentence, and the decision to grant bail is at the discretion of the local court. His only option, therefore, was to file for “anticipatory bail”, which would have ensured that he could not be remanded while awaiting trial, but this has been denied by High Courts in both Mumbai and his home city of Delhi. Sanal has been given the impression that there are influential voices ensuring that the case is pursued by the authorities. “An officer named SS Salvi from Juhu police station in Mumbai started calling me at midnight, waking me up and harassing me, saying I had to go to Mumbai to be arrested. My lawyer talked to him, and he said that very important people are pressurising him to arrest me.”

Facing the prospect of imprisonment, Sanal had little choice but to leave India for Europe, where he has remained since July. And in his absence he has heard some disturbing rumours about what his opponents would like to happen to him. “There was a blog post that said get him arrested for one night, and be done with it. Get some co-prisoner to stab him to death. This is a very common practice in India. If you have an enemy, you can get a co-prisoner to attack them. When I told my lawyer he said take a record of it, but in the meantime it had been removed.”

So what happens next? While the Catholic authorities in India have denied any involvement in the police complaints, they are close to the groups that did report him, and Sanal suspects that the complainants are acting with the blessing of more influential figures. The Archbishop of Bombay, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, released a statement in November in which, while pointing out that he was out of the country when the complaints were filed, he suggested that the case might be withdrawn in exchange for an apology. For Sanal, however, this is not an option. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he says. “And when I am convinced that what I did was absolutely correct I don’t allow anyone to force an apology from me.”

The alternatives are that the complaints are simply dropped, which doesn’t look likely in light of the Archbishop’s recent statement, or Sanal is granted anticipatory bail, which would allow him to return to India and fight the case. His lawyer has been pushing for this, and Sanal would be keen to take his arguments to the courts. Article 295a belongs to the penal code introduced to India by the British in 1860, and in Sanal’s view directly conflicts with the clauses in India’s constitution which protect freedom of speech and call on Indians to “develop scientific temper” as a fundamental duty. With the security of anticipatory bail, Sanal would like to take his case all the way to the Supreme Court and see the country’s top judges rule that 295a has no place in a modern, democratic India.

As well as wishing to return to his home and family, Sanal feels he has unfinished business in India. “Explaining these miracles, these holy experiences that people have, is so important for India, to come out of fear,” he explains. “There are two Indias. The modern, progressive India, and the India controlled by holy men, astrologers and tantrics, underpinned by the caste system. The modern India has to win, because an India with a prominent role on the world stage must not be controlled by the forces of reaction. We have to stop it now.”

A Rationalist Association petition in support of Sanal Edamaruku has gained more than 11,000 signatures. Add your name.