Ritesh stands out among the lakh or so students cramming for the Joint Entrance Exam in the coaching mills of Kota, Rajasthan. Unlike most of his comrades, the 18-year-old isn’t praying for a high rank. He has been an atheist since he was 11 and struggling to cope with bullying in his school hostel.
As he tells it, “I was physically weak and often got beaten up. I used to cry and ask God, Why does this happen to me? After the fiftieth time or so, I wondered who the hell I was talking to. And, on that wonderful night, I became an atheist.”
Ritesh is a member of a small community: Those who shun religion in an ostentatiously religious country. Disbelief in God does not necessarily exclude anybody from India’s broad religious spectrum. Buddhism and Jainism are agnostic. Hinduism had ‘Nastik’ philosophers.
Many historical figures were also atheists. Jawarharlal Nehru, Bhagat Singh and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, for example. Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar became a Buddhist, rejecting casteist prejudices. The Dravida Kazhagam movement was founded by EV Ramasami “Periyar”, who required his followers to renounce God. And of course, communists are atheists, by definition.
Many modern atheists have arrived at unbelief simply because religion didn’t make sense to them. Jude, a software engineer, quit on religion while in school, after running a scientific experiment: “I experimented with study a little and pray a lot, then pray a little and study a lot. Then I tried similar experiments with other kids. It was quite clear prayer never helped.”
The Census of India doesn’t have a separate category for ‘No Religion’, or ‘Atheist’, lumping them together with Bahais, animists, etc as ‘Others’. In the 2001 Census, the ‘Others’ added up to 0.6 percent (roughly 4.5 million). This is way less than the global average of 13 percent.
However, ‘Others’ doubled in 2001 over 1991, and may well have doubled again in 2011. There are also many non-believers, who find it too much trouble to claim lack of faith. Yash, a software developer from Mumbai, says, “I haven’t performed any religious ceremonies for my daughter. But the only options on the Birth Certificate are Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Other. I ticked ‘Other’ and wrote ‘None’. The nurses objected. I had to select Hindu in order to avoid a future legal mess.”
Given the multitude of forms Indians have to fill up, not being a recognised official category has costs. It also takes time and trouble in many other ways to be officially non-religious. A religious ceremony can be performed instantly and registered later. But a civil marriage under the Special Marriage Act requires a licence, a wait period, proof of residence, and other formalities. If one wishes to donate organs—or the body to science—after death, legal arrangements must be made in advance. If one wishes to avoid one’s assets being passed on by the default provisions of religious personal laws, it is necessary to make a valid Will and register it. After death, that Will must undergo probate. All this costs time and money.
In addition to bureaucratic tangles, the non-religious often face emotional blackmail, social pressure and even legal threats. India’s archaic laws, such as Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code, make it a criminal offence to question religious doctrine, let alone mock faith. These laws are often used to harass people in absurd ways. Sanal Edamaruku, a rationalist engineer, faces criminal charges for demonstrating that a cross in a Mumbai church was dripping water due to capillary action from a blocked drain, rather than through some miracle.
Not only can such laws be used to target the non-religious, they have no corresponding shields against mockery or ostracism. Quite a few have suffered estrangement from their families and have been abused by their peers. Asha, a Kashmiri Pandit, says her reluctance to perform shraddh ceremonies for her parents led to a breach with her siblings.
Anita, from a Catholic family in Kerala, says it was a “horrible day” when she ‘came out’ as an atheist. “My mom was most intolerant and I faced very harsh reactions from her. My dad was more sad than angry. Strangely, once you come out, people who previously seemed to be liberal now act like fundamentalists. Maybe it’s because they’re dealing with their own doubts.”