M.M. Kalburgi, former vice-chancellor of Kannada University in Karnataka, renowned author and opponent of idol worship, was shot dead by two unidentified men on 30 Aug (2015). Indian rationalists have been physically attacked in recent months by Hindu extremists, who would rather kill off people with whom they disagree than debate their ideas. Think of India and you think religion. Please think again.
The 2011 Census in India has revealed an interesting factthe number of people who fell into the category of religion not stated grew by more than 300% from the last census taken in 2001. Its an astounding figure, given that the countrys total population grew by a rather more modest 17% from 1.02 billion in 2001 to 1.21 billion.
Much of the nations mainstream media has ignored this particular datum, choosing instead to delve into the rise in the number of Muslims as compared with Hindusa divisive topic of debate in India if ever there was one because the debate is often hijacked by religious extremists rather than framed by cool, scientific temper.
Now it could just be possible that because of unstated fears, many Christians and Muslims held back from ticking the box against their religion on the census form. Despite growing literacy, government enumerators can be viewed with suspicion in rural homeswho knows where these forms will end up and for what purpose.
Also, the fact remains that the numbers are minuscule in comparison with the billion plus who describe themselves as Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists and other religions.
Still, this jump in the number of religion-not-statedpeople from around 700,000 in 2001 to 2.9 million in 2011 is reason for jaws to drop. After all, the not entirely unreasonable likelihood that this jump is made up of growing numbers of atheists and agnostics flies against the commonly held notion that India is the land of religion and spiritualism.
It is a notion that has been promoted over centuries in Western narratives that tend to largely ignore alternative non-religious Indian traditions, including atheist, agnostic, humanist and rationalist thought. Rational thought, which promotes ideas of tolerance (the Indian saying, the world is a family is the ultimate rational idea) has had a long tradition in Indian politics. It runs from King Ashoka down to Emperor Akbar to the reformist thinker Raja Rammohun Roy to the father of the Indian Constitution, anti-caste crusader B.R. Ambedkar.
Most notably, theres Indias first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who presented to the world an idea of India that was radically different from what had been imagined by the Westhis was a nation with a layered past, a self-confident actor in international politics, in the words of the London-based academic Sunil Khilnani in his book, The Idea of India.
Not only academics and pioneers of British imperialism (they had great difficulty getting their heads around complex, alternative ideas of India), but New Age hippies, too, have been guilty of presenting this simplistic narrative of a uni-dimensional Indiato Indians and to themselves. The Indian establishment, in turn, has willingly bought into it, selling the idea of the spiritual India to the world, particularly the West.
Heres a rather good contemporary symbol of this consensus around the idea of an India, as seen through the prism of religions:
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his first visit to the US, gifts President Barack Obama with a copy of the Bhagawad Gita. In return, Obama gifts the visiting prime minister a book containing the addresses and papers from the World Congress of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It includes, of course, the landmark address delivered by Modis hero Swami Vivekananda.
Its a unique selling point, for sure, but perhaps no longer such a peaceful one.
Disturbingly, Indian rationalists have been physically attacked in recent months by Hindu extremists, who would rather kill off people with whom they disagree than debate their ideas. Across Indias eastern border, a similar trend is visible in Bangladesh, where the brazen killers are Islamic extremists.
The Indian victims have been: Narendra Dabholkar, social activist and founder of an anti-superstition organization in Maharashtra, who was shot by two unidentified gunmen on 20 August 2013, while out on a morning walk in Pune; Govind Pansare, 85-year-old Leftist activist who was shotagain by two assailants on a motorcycleon 16 February 2015, while he, too, was returning home from a morning walk with his wife; and M.M. Kalburgi, former vice-chancellor of Kannada University in Karnataka, renowned author and opponent of idol worship, who was shot dead by two unidentified men on 30 Aug 2015.
The murder of Pansare, whose decades of activism for the poor won the him admiration of even right-wing political opponents, created widespread revulsion in his native Maharashtra, while Dabholkars equally shocking killing prompted the state government to enact an anti-superstition bill that had been drafted by him.
In mid-September, police arrested an activist of a right-wing Hindu group called Sanatan Sanstha for his alleged involvement in Pansares murder. Still, death threats are issued to other such rationalists.
One possible reason for the assailants to have felt emboldenedso faris the failure of the authorities to move decisively and swiftly in their probe. A senior police officer in Maharashtra was quoted as saying in The Times of India that he found no similarity in the Dabholkar and Pansare cases, except that both men were morning walkers.
The fact that religious riots break out frequently in India means two things:
- people are armed, and
- that they are willing to take up these arms and kill in the name of their religion.
In such an explosive scenario, atheists and rationalists are particularly vulnerable, even as their numbers grow exponentially.