MANGALORE, Karnataka -- "The big man is coming," said Narendra Nayak, as he turned his car towards the Nandigudda Graveyard in Mangalore city on Saturday.
Nayak, a leading rationalist and a staunch critic of the Hindu right, was referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election rally in Mangalore later in the day, but he had no time to dissect the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its politics further.
The 67-year-old biochemistry professor, who heads the Federation of Indian Rationalists Associations, was preoccupied with another matter: black magic and its entry into the Karnataka Assembly polls.
"A Congress leader was targeted," he said. "Black magic has entered the election."
Earlier this week, Nayak received a frantic call about a "voodoo doll" found lying in a pit with neem leaves and lemons near the cremation ground in the city's main graveyard.
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Nayak, who has devoted his life to combating superstition, black magic and godmen, said that he had never seen anything quite so "elaborate" in Mangalore.
The voodoo doll appeared to be carved out of wood, covered in a blood stained white cloth and thread dipped in red kumkum powder. (Nayak suspects blood from an animal sacrifice). Three nails were pinned to its forehead, chest and navel.
More than the doll, however, Nayak was bothered by the frightened faces and nervous mutterings of the people who had gathered around the pit.
"No one dared touch it, remove it or even come near it," he said. "I immediately stomped on it to show them that there is nothing to be afraid of."
The rationalist said, "I wanted to show them that I don't give a damn. This is just a rising cocktail of stupidity."
I wanted to show them that I don't give a damn. This is just a rising cocktail of stupidity.
After an hour had gone by without the police coming to take the doll away, Nayak started removing the white cloth and red thread around it. Curled up inside was a piece of paper bearing the name J.R. Lobo, a Congress party leader and the lawmaker from Mangalore South. It was written in Malayalam.
Nayak, who has witnessed countless cases of black magic, said that evidence pointed to a ritual called the 'Aghori Kaali Machana Pooja,' which is conducted with the intention of harming a person.
"Usually, one puts a piece of hair or a nail of the person that one wants to harm, but in this case, we found a piece of paper with the name," he said.
Given that the ritual had targeted a Congress leader, Nayak has made a "safe assumption" about the culprits. Without evidence, however, he refuses to name names.
A. Sudesh, the caretaker of the cremation ground who has been investigating how the culprits entered the graveyard, believes they came through the area where Protestant Christians bury their dead.
Laughing, Nayak said, "They came from the Protestant graveyard into the Hindu cremation ground to perform black magic on a Roman Catholic."
"The culprits appear to be very secular," he said.
Sudesh, the caretaker, said, "I find it funny. If people think they can win an election by doing these things, it is funny."
They came from the Protestant graveyard into the Hindu cremation ground to perform black magic on a Roman Catholic.
Lobo, who is running to defend his seat, also refused to lay the blame on any person or party.
"I'm a student of science. I'm a rationalist, but I also have faith in God. I don't have any fear," he said. "I laugh at them."
On whether he was distressed about the vile nature of the ritual, Lobo said, "Only because it is a personal attack. This is an election. It is professional, not personal."
While the voodoo doll in Mangalore stands out for its vindictiveness, this is not the first time that Karnataka politics has dabbled in black magic and superstition.
In 2011, when the BJP was in power in the state, then chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa claimed that his enemies were engaging in sorcery, and reportedly decided to sleep in the nude for three days. He performed 12 surya namaskars in a river, also in the nude, to ward off evil. The BJP's leading man in Karnataka has reportedly participated in a ritual involving donkey sacrifice in order to subdue enemies.
Former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda, who leads Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka, has been accused of practicing black magic by fellow politicians. In 2015, when Congress workers were taking over the JD(S) office in Bengaluru, they found a lemon, chilly, vermilion wrapped in a red cloth, inside the premises.
Just this week, Congress leader and a former chief minister of Karnataka, Veerappa Moily, said, "Mr. Gowda is only interested in black magic and astrology."
Noting that black magic and superstition was a pan-India and pan-religion problem, which cut across economic and social backgrounds, Nayak said that it was deeply disturbing when politicians behaved irresponsibly because it encouraged others to do so.
"If people see them using black magic to win elections or against their enemies, they too will try it, to get revenge, to cure sickness, amongst other things. It can have very dangerous consequences," he said.
It can have very dangerous consequences.
Last year, in Karnataka, a 10-year-old girl was killed in a human sacrifice by four persons who were trying to cure a paralysed man. A family tried to sacrifice a 14-month-old baby in the belief that it would lead them to find treasure. Seven people tried to bury alive a 11-year-old boy after an astrologer told them that it would bring them good fortune.
Nayak, who tours the country educating people against black magic, said that he was stunned at the faith that people continued to have in godmen and the large sums of money they wasted on them. He recalled one case of an Indian living in Birmingham who was convinced that someone based in Jalandhar was targeting him with black magic, ended up sending £5,000 to a godman who was also based in Jalandhar.
The rationalist noted that godmen were particularly exploitative towards women. A local court in Mangalore, he said, recently instructed a godman against "bathing" women - a remedy he had been advancing to ward off evil.
It was only last year that the state legislature passed the Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill.
Nayak, who fronted the campaign for a law against superstition and black magic, said that it had taken the murders of his friends, rationalist M.M. Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh, for the bill to be passed.
"They are not here to see it," he said.
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