This is the story of a little girl of fourteen and the ambitions of her mother whom we met at the studios of Live India TV channel on the evening of 18th June. The story begins on this date, when I received a call from the channel asking if I could visit their studios if I was in Delhi. When the call arrived, Shubrum, Rakshi and I were on our way over to their house, after a very important and successful meeting with the present director of Vigyana Prasar Network, Dr.Anuj Sinha. Since Shubrum had a meeting, Rakshi and I decided to go for the live broadcast to investigate the case of this girl, Ranjana. It was the claim of her family and some others that she had the unique power to see blindfolded. Some of these folks also accompanied her to the studio. It was claimed that she had been given a certificate by the Ministry of Human Resource Development that she had the power of seeing with a cloth tied over her eyes! That was supposed to be in recognition of her ‘unique talents’. It was quite clear that this girl who was from a village near Varanasi wanted to go places!
On the panel which went on air at 9 pm there was an astrologer, an ophthalmologist, Rakshi and myself. The discussions started with the so called “unique talents” of this girl, with some prerecorded footage of her showing her so called remarkable talents! Then the whole drama started. The opinions of the panel were asked.The ophthalmologist said that the phenomenon needed testing. The astrologer, as to be expected, said that it was a case of supernatural powers. Rakshi said that there was nothing supernatural and I promised that by the end of the program I would prove that she had no supernatural powers.
The tests started with a blindfold being tied round the girl’s eyes and a newspaper shown to her. She brought it down at such a low angle that she could read it through the gap between the blindfold and her nose! When I said this was something that anyone could do, the blind fold was tied around my eyes and I was asked to read something held higher. Obviously I could not do that. That was said to be my defeat in round no.1! The discussions continued and when it was Rakshi’s turn she said it was to be seen as to how this girl was doing it. The anchor kept on harping about the unique talents of this girl and how these were recognised by the govt of India, throughout the program!
Then we took a break and there was an argument between the anchor and Rakshi! When the show was off the air, heated discussions were going on. Though I tended to agree with Rakshi, I am a veteran of many such shows and decided to hold my peace in the larger interests of the movement. This was followed by more heated arguments and Rakshi went off the air. But the panel continued without her and so did the nonsense!
Two pieces of cotton were kept on the girl’s eyes and the blindfold put back on. Again she managed to ‘see’ a paper held before her eyes, through the same gap. When I suggested that I would put the blindfold properly on her the anchor declined and said that I would get my chance later! That was never to come! In the meantime there were many other superfluous things going on, They were showing footage from Mahabharath, the part where Kunti put her unique powers into Duryodhan etc. The astrologer was harping on about the powers of Sanjay in the Mahabharath who could read written words from miles away! So, I pulled out a currency note from my pocket and challenged the girl to read its serial number from ten feet away. The astrologer backed out saying that the events he mentioned had happened in Threthayuga and it was Kaliyuga now!
Then came the denouncement! The next chance to prove the so called miraculous powers of the girl was another test. She was to have dough applied to her eyes and be asked to read the words. I said that I wanted to participate in this and went near her with two pieces of sticking plaster in my hands. I had observed where the gaps were between the blindfold and her cheeks and wanted to apply the dough to that area. When the ophthalmologist got ready with the dough, the girl complained that her eyes were hurting and that she was having problems seeing! I had anticipated this, as I could see the girls mother signaling to her, apparently out of the sight of all the others, that she should say no! The very sympathetic anchor said that she was a small girl and hence should not be subjected to more trauma! He who was keen up to that stage saying that we would conduct more and more tests to demonstrate these unique powers of the child, suddenly turned very sympathetic when the going got really tough.
I had got ready with the plaster, but there was no question of applying it now as the girl was shedding copious quantities of tears. The whole drama had been planned and carried out in such a way that the girl would be let off when it came to the crunch. She was to be ready to cheat when the criteria were not rigorous, and when really tough tests were to be applied such a drama would be enacted to get her off the hook! But, I was not willing to be a party to this. I was very vehement that the whole thing was a drama and asked why the rigorous criteria of applying dough to her eyes was not done in the first trial. I also wanted to know why I was not allowed to access the girl the first time! There was no need to go on for an hour when the so called miraculous powers could have been exposed in a few minutes.
The whole thing is about TRPs. They wanted to sacrifice a child at the altar just to improve their viewership. It was obvious that the driving force behind the whole farce was her mother who wanted to bask in the glory of her daughter’s unique “talents”. The whole exercise was fueled by the ambitions of the TV channels to improve their ratings. In fact before it went on air I was requested to wait for some time before I expose this girl, as the whole show was to go on for an hour or so.
Those in on this plan wanted the so called special powers of this girl to be certified by us, which is why I had been invited. This invitation led to their exposure and downfall. In the process, the child was hurt and had to undergo humiliation in public. But the very relevant issue here is that the child was put up to this sort of exploitation. The anchor had been talking all that time about a ‘testimonial’ awarded by the Ministry of HRD, govt. of India. I was wondering, on what grounds did the government issue this “testimonial”? How could have this department verified that this girl had the ability to ‘see’ with her eyes blindfolded, before issuing the testimonial? The anchor was also bragging about the ‘certificates’ issued by some local govt. medical officers. Who had given them the authority to certify this so called miraculous power?
While the child’s alleged miraculous powers were exposed on the show, what was the gullibility level of those who certified her? Did none of them have any sense as to see how she was reading blindfolded? My conclusion was that Rakshi had been right from the beginning. It was not about the exposure of so called ‘miraculous’ power, but about a greater exposure of how a publicity-hungry parent, TRP-crazy media and gullible public joined to make a celebrity out of an ordinary myopic girl who was peeking at things held under her nose through the gap between the blindfold and her cheeks. The case needs a more thorough investigation by some agency looking out for children’s welfare, because Ranjana Agarwal is only fourteen years old and legally still a child.
Professor Narendra Nayak is the President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA). He regularly tours the country, giving demonstrations and holding workshops to develop scientific temper.