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ATHEISM IN INDIA — A DISMISSED IDENTITY

INTRODUCTION

India, a country of culture and diverging beliefs inhabits over a billion identities. With 28 official states where people speak over 22 languages and associate with polarising social and political stances, there is little to no room for those who refuse to box themselves into a category. Although our society has developed with a growing acknowledgement towards changes and reconstruction of identities such as the LGBTQ+ community, one remains more hushed than the rest — that of an atheist.

In the 2011 Census of India, nearly 0.7% of the entire population (approximately 0.79 crores) fell under the category of “Other Religions and Persuasions”. Additionally, nearly 0.2% of the population (about 0.29 crores) was categorized under “Religion Not Stated”. Atheism was not officially recognized. In a Times of India article titled ‘Indian atheists seek recognition in the land of a million gods’, reporter Saumya Sethia states, “While apostasy (renouncing religion) is allowed under the right to freedom of religion and the Special Marriages Act of 1954 allows the marriage of people with no religious beliefs and non-religious and non-ritualistic marriages, there are no specific laws catering to atheists and they are largely considered as belonging to their religion of birth and caste for administrative purposes.” Hence, the legal identity of an atheist in India is, safe to say, overlooked and disregarded.

However, before dissecting the situation of atheists in the country any further, it is important to understand the concept of atheism. Cambridge Dictionary defines atheism as “the fact of not believing in any god or gods, or the belief that no god or gods exist.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in its entry titled ‘Atheism and Agnosticism’, states, “The word ‘atheism’ is polysemous—it has multiple related meanings.” The entry further expands on the idea, stating that “to be an atheist on this definition, it does not suffice to suspend judgment on whether there is a God, even though that implies a lack of theistic belief. Instead, one must deny that God exists.” Hence, the two main contrasting ideas that surround atheism, as discussed in the abovementioned entry, are whether it is simply a rejection of theism — rejection of the idea of God, hence giving itself meaning through the existence of theism, or whether it is something that more strongly opposes the existence of God. The latter meaning is more heavily favoured.

Nevertheless, regardless of the debates and the discourse over how atheism can be defined, one aspect remains constant – the utter dismissal of atheists. However, in recent times, attempts have been made to draw attention toward atheism in the country. From discussions on social media platforms to petitions in the legal courts, atheism has been the subject of many legal initiatives, such as those in the Ravi Kumar v. the State of Haryana & Others case.

RAVI KUMAR V. THE STATE OF HARYANA & ORS

Ravi Kumar is an atheist who sought to be recognised as one in 2019. He was issued a certificate on April 29 by the Naib Tehsildar, Tohana, District Fatehbad, attesting that he does not belong to any caste or religion and does not believe in God. However, the certificate was subsequently revoked. Kumar petitioned against the cancellation of the certificate for reasons including:

  • Although being a member of the Scheduled Caste category, he does not want to take advantage of reservations and instead wants to promote a casteless society.
  • Kumar strongly believes that everyone is created equal and that using caste and religion to divide people only incites enmity.
  • Every Indian citizen has the right to practise and spread the religion of their choice, and no citizen may be coerced into doing so. Article 25 of the Constitution of India states, “Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion”.

The Court concluded that it was not necessary to take any further action. The petitioner is free to practise any religion and not identify with any caste. Still, there is no legal necessity that he is given a certificate to that effect, as it would be of no consequence. The Counsel was unable to demonstrate that the petitioner would experience any prejudice due to the desired certificate’s refusal to be issued.

Although the Court did not necessarily disregard Ravi Kumar’s right to practice (or rather, not to practice) religion, it is hard to conclude whether his identity as an atheist was honoured. Indeed, one may not face any prejudice upon not receiving the desired certificate that would declare him an atheist, but what of his identity? Should not every individual’s identity be given importance in a country that claims to be secular? These questions were countered when another atheist from Vellore by the name of Sneha Parthibaraja received an official ‘no religion, no caste’ certificate on February 5, 2019, after a nine-year-long court battle.

One may view this as a significant milestone in acknowledging atheism. However, it is a heart-rending finding when one uncovers that it took nearly a decade for an atheist to be legally recognized as one. Disregarding irreligion has not limited itself to just the law but more prominently in social and political circles wherein criticism towards atheism has become increasingly common. 

EFFECT OF SOCIAL AND POLITICAL IGNORANCE TOWARDS ATHEISM

Indian politics has largely surrounded itself with religion and other social divisions such as castes, etc. Religion plays a laboriously significant role in the country’s culture and way of working and has weaved itself into a commoner’s way of life. When a country so rich in culture bleeds religion, it takes tremendous effort to garner public acknowledgement and support towards a minority that follows atheism. Hence although India is a secular country that reserves equal rights and opportunities for all regardless of their religious identity, receiving recognition amongst political tussles surrounding religion appears to be a strenuous task for atheists. There is hardly any atheistic representation in the major parts of the country’s politics which has left atheists an underrepresented minority. Since atheists remain underrepresented, it largely implies that the majority of the country lacks awareness about what atheism truly is, which, in turn, leads to discriminatory behaviour against the community.

This discrimination can take shape in many forms. Sometimes, it may be through legal dismissal of an atheist’s identity, as seen in the case of Ravi Kumar, and other times, it may be through social ousting. Certain statistics accrue to the same conclusions. For instance, Pew Research Center’s 13th annual report reflected on how religious groups had faced discrimination while Covid-19 restrictions were being imposed. However, a following report showed that India was among the 14 countries where religiously unaffiliated people faced Government harassment (defined as harassment “perpetrated by governments”) in 2020 during the spread of the coronavirus. Hence, it’s safe to conclude that where the government does not allow awareness about a minority to manifest (and instead, feeds into the discrimination), violence is bound to take shape.

Expanding on the same idea; in social areas, ignorance towards irreligion has resulted in consequences that take shape in the form of hate speech and crimes against those who identify as an atheist. For instance, in 2017, a young atheist in Coimbatore was “hacked to death” for his anti-religious views. As reported by India Today, “According to DCP Sarvanan, Farooq was the admin of a WhatsApp group of people with rationalistic views who regularly debunk religion and religious claims.”

This violence, albeit controlled and seen immediately by the legal authorities, must not be allowed to flourish. Most of all not in a country that claims to be democratic and secular. There are several ways to combat such brutality, the foremost being methods uptaken to eradicate ignorance towards atheism.

CONCLUSION

Although the number of atheists in the country has increased, much work needs to be done to improve and increase awareness of the concept of irreligion. More opportunities need to be provided to increase awareness about atheism and the identities surrounding it. As a diverse country, India allows personalities of all sorts to develop and flourish on its mainland, including atheists. However, it is undeniable that significant efforts are required to allow the atheist and agnostic communities in the country to indeed proliferate before one can truthfully say that India is a secular nation, one where all identities are acknowledged resoundingly. A land that proudly submerges itself in its various diversifying cultures, languages, and people must be inclusive to those who reject the existence of certain ideologies as well for it to thrive and prosper as a secular nation positively.

Author(s) Name: Tanishka Khokhar