The Rise (and Fall) of Atheism in India

The Rise (and Fall) of Atheism in India

Searching for any reliable data about the statistics of irreligiousness in India is a challenge in itself. The 2013 Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism found the increase of irreligiosity from 13% in 2005 to 19% in 2013. However the same study showed a decline in the percentage of participants from 4% in 2004 to 3% in 2012 who explicitly referred to themselves as atheists. The obvious drawback of this study is the magnitude of demographic surveyed. There is also no specific national census conducted in this regards, and the clause in the Census of India, the single vague ‘religion not stated’ option cannot be presented as a reliable source. The census stated about 2,900,000 people declined to state their religion, which is a significant increase from 700,000 in Census 2001. However this is not a matter of rejoice, since the parallel increase in the country’s population along with the rise in Hindu extremism ever since the win of the explicitly Hindutva promoting Narendra Modi led BJP has risen with a higher magnitude in the recent years.


If we were to look at atheism itself, increase in non-believers can be suspected to be much higher than the census result. Indians emphasize on family traditions and value, which from a cultural perspective may be desirable, but has proven to be a social disaster repeatedly. Indians feel ashamed to be deviant of their family values. They live on family pride, which often leads to the much pervasive social evil caste system. This pride turns into not only a fear of judgement and mockery, but more often than not that of total abandonment and safety. However due to rise in the level of education, exposure to foreign cultures and belief system, and increasing cases of preachers being exposed, it is safe to assume the increment in the number of atheists is much higher than what the census shows.


But what the practically flawed census fails to show is the ever increasing number of extremist and ‘fringe’ groups. Hindutva organisations such as the RSS, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, ABVP, Hindu Jagran Manch, etc have been growing at a dangerously rapid rate from a long period of time, however their ‘fringe’ tag is archaic ever since the election of the Bharatiya Janta Party(BJP) in 2015.
The party came into power at a time of unprecedented political dynamics in the Indian political history. People were fed up with the corrupt nature of then in power Indian National Congress(INC) and were in desperate need of a leader who had the guts to change the system by its core. They needed someone who is determined at his job, someone they believed to have the power to bring everything upside down and change from the core.
And now it’s 2018 and Hindus are marching in hundreds in support of a child rapist because of his religious affiliations.
Narendra Modi was vague about his extremist standpoints, contrary to party’s majority demographic of Hindu extremists. His involvement in 2002 Gujarat riots was buried under the slogan of ‘AAB KI BAAR, MODI SARKAR’. The BJP and Modi’s associations with RSS weren’t a mystery, yet his liberal facade made him the perfect candidate for a manipulative victory. With millions spent on advertising and brainwashing, against a government India had been fed up with for decades, BJP’s win was inevitable.


The BJP itself, among many other things, is a big concern for Indian atheists. With Extremists like Yogi Adityanath as its leading faces, not only is the party showing its true colours of hatred now, but also has the power to back it up with bureaucracy, red-tapism, and violence. This was proved by the party’s much criticized state leader, Yogi Adityanath when he withdrew all the criminal charges (and there were a lot) against him and his party members.
Alongside this undemocratic bureaucracy and power-abuse, there are cases of mob-lynchings, murder of journalists, sexual abuse, and caste-based abuse by those of and in support of such Hindu extremist groups almost every day.
Therefore while the number of atheists and agnostics in India had been growing, the magnitude of growth in power and population of Hindu extremists makes the matter only worse. The more the rise in number of atheists, greater the growth in Hindu extremists.


There had been almost uncountable occurrences of violence in name of religion, even much before the BJP’s rise to power. Those were fringe groups, a bunch of men with saffron scarfs riding through minority colonies and yelling ‘Jai Shree Ram’. However the exponential increment in their number, the fact that government is now prioritising painting hospitals saffron by cutting the health and education budget is a nightmare for any rationalist, or a nation that dreams of growth itself as well.
In 2013, anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar was killed in his hometown of Pune. In 2015, another Maharashtrian rationalist, Govind Pansare, was murdered in much the same way.


In 2015, and Indian scholar and atheist MM Kalburgi was murdered by an unidentified assailant. He was known to have his feud with extremist Hindutva groups. According to NDTV, members of the BJP held a mocking funeral for him.
On September 5, 2017, Gauri Lankesh, a renowned journalist and rationalist activist who regularly criticised the right-wing Hindutva was assassinated. One of the convicted, Waghmare stated that he killed her to ‘save Hindutva’.


Is there any hope?


While the increase in number of extremist groups is a matter of great concern, it also leads to the exposure of flaws in the perpetually praised preconceived religious liberty in India. More and more people are realizing the potential atrocities of religion. Being a conservative nation India will need its time to be considered a rationalist nation. However in this day and age of technology and information this far-fetched dream just may not be solely idealistic.

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