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.”
Nanda, from Mumbai, had problems at school “because I refused to go to the ashram or learn verses from the Gita.” She publicly repudiated her religion after the horrors of the 1992-93 riots. Akhtar, a 35-year-old from Moradabad, says he’s stopped participating in social and family occasions because of the inevitable heated arguments centred on his non-belief.
Marriage is a major flashpoint. Geetha, from Chennai, was coerced into a temple marriage. Swati, a Banjara woman who runs her own business, says, “I refused to get married to a believer and did not, in fact, ever get married since I couldn’t find a suitable atheist.”
Sarath, a Telugu Brahmin atheist, says he was “forced to do the Upanayanam [thread ceremony] because my parents want an arranged marriage. I have hopes of ‘saving’ my future spouse and kids if I have an arranged marriage, though I would prefer to marry a Freethinker.”
Nishant, a banker from Ambedkar’s community, faced peer pressure in his college hostel. “There, I was exposed to fasting, vegetarianism, hate towards other religions, religious fanboys and fangirls. I faced discrimination when I opposed religious practices, and many forceful attempts were made to change my thinking.”
Babu Gogineni, director, International Humanist and Ethical Union, remembers the occasion “when I was invited to speak to the Bar Association at Rangareddy District Court on Scientific Temper. The presiding judge learnt I was an atheist and refused to preside even though my subject had nothing to do with religion.”
Social media has helped such scattered individuals find each other. There are multiple Facebook and Google groups and local meatspace chapters. Nirmukta, for example, is a rationalist organisation that debunks superstition and hosts debate forums. Indians without Religion is another society that wants to become an NGO fighting for the rights of the non-religious.
As the non-religious band together, they hope to carve out some space and recognition. As Suchi, a engineer from Chennai says, “People need to respect that you have put at least as much thought into your atheist beliefs, as they have into their religion. Only then can there be a true separation of church and state.”
Losing Their Religion Atheists have long demanded the inclusion of a ‘No Religion’ category on official documents. Lawyer Nikhil Mehra explains how an appeal could be filed: A writ petition would have to be filed challenging the absence of a No Religion category. The grounds would be freedom of conscience under Article 25(1) and Article 14. The core is: I have the right to live my life as I wish as long as I am within the ambit of the law and am not trampling on the rights of others.
Article 25(1) guarantees the freedom of conscience, and that must inherently encompass the right not to profess any religion. Every citizen has the right to profess and exhibit such religious belief as is approved of by the citizen’s judgement or conscience.
If my conscience or judgement doesn’t permit the acceptance of existence of God, or any particular religion, I can’t be treated differently for it, provided my actions do not impinge on the rights of others. Following from there, I have the right not to engage in certain religious practices and similarly, I have the right not to belong to any religion.
In terms of the right to equality (Article 14), a standard government form ought to permit atheists to not be compelled to forcibly ascribe to a particular religion. This amounts to a suppression of their right to freedom of conscience. In that sense, an atheist is being treated unequally since his freedom of conscience is not treated in state action at par with that of a believer.