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 Velankanni began to promote it as a site of pilgrimage.
So when Sanal Edamaruku arrived and established that this was not holy water so much as holey plumbing, the backlash was severe. The renowned rationalist was accused of blasphemy, charged with offences 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 Delhi into dropping the case. And on the first leg of a tour around EU capitals on Friday, he warned that India was sacrificing freedom of expression for outdated, colonial-era rules about blasphemy.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 told the Guardian 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."
Edamaruku, who has the support of rationalists and atheists such as Richard Dawkins , is well known in India for debunking religious myths, and was already unpopular among Indian Catholics for publicly criticising Mother Teresa's legacy in Kolkata.
When the state "miracle" was pronounced, he went to Mumbai and found that the dripping water was due to clogged drainage pipes behind the wall where it stood. His revelation provoked death threats from religious zealots and ultimately charges of blasphemy under the Indian penal code in the Mumbai high court.
"India cannot criticise 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 licence to be offended. It also allows people who are in dispute with you to make up false accusations of blasphemy."
Edamaruku said his exposure of the weeping statue was also 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 flat. "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 apologise for the exposure of the "miracle".
"The Catholic archbishop of Bombay, Oswald, Cardinal Gracias, has said that if I apologise for the 'offence' 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 apologise, which I will not do as I have done nothing wrong," he said.
This man should be given a medal, not put in jail. It's little news like this that aggravate my misanthropy and my sense that there there isn't much hope for humanity...
I remember when this first came out, but missed the update. Unreal is all I can say.
The Bishop wanted him to apologize for shattering their beloved myth (and endangering potential income) That's hypocrisy erected into an institution.