The Big Story: Freedom of irreligion
Last week, 31-year-old H Farook, scrap dealer, member of the Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam and self-professed atheist, was hacked to death in Coimbatore. The police believe it was because he refused to take down a WhatsApp group on atheism that had 400 members from several districts. His family say he received threatening phone calls for Facebook posts speaking against god, caste and religion. Farook’s death would appear to confirm that, in India, atheism is the faith that dare not speak its name.
While religious fanaticism is on the rise across the world, atheists are also a growing population. In communist China, there are between 40% and 49% who do not believe in god, in Norway, apparently the happiest country in the world, there are more non-believers than believers and in stridently secular France, about a fifth of the population is atheist. Of course, in the United States, where religious conservatism is still strong, those who identified as atheist or agnostic was only 7% in 2014, but even this number is up from 4% in 2007. In India, according to the 2011 Census, about 29 lakh people, or just 0.24% of the population, were catgorised under “religion not stated”. Of these, only 33,000 identified as atheist, or those who do not believe in god. The rest of the number includes rationalists, or those who would base their actions and opinions on reason and knowledge rather than emotion or religious belief, and others who did not want to identify with any particular organised religion. According to other international surveys, the number of people who do not believe in god is higher, ranging from 3% to 6.6% for the population.
Atheists and rationalists now form a small, embattled minority, whose rights and beliefs are the target of violence and largely unrecognised by law. Indian secularism is so rapt in the fraught debate on freedom of religion that freedom of irreligion is yet to enter the public imagination. Yet, over the last few years, as the tide of religious fundamentalism rises, they have come under frenzied attack. Three rationalists, Govind Pansare, MMK Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar, have been allegedly murdered by Hindu extremist groups but the trials in these cases are barely inching along. There is also active popular resistance to the discussion or practice of such beliefs – in Mathura, Hindu and Muslim groups came together in violent protest against a “Nastik Sammelan” earlier this year.
The courts, on their part, have given delivered conflicting judgments over the years. A school teacher from Nashik won a case against his employers, who had withheld his dues because he did not join his hands in prayer. In 2012, a sessions court in Thane ruled that a person would have to legally identify himself as part of a religion, no matter what his personal beliefs were. But in 2014, the Bombay High Court held that the government could not force an individual to declare a religion in any document or form. Perhaps the ambiguity exists because no official recognition of atheism or irreligion exists in India. In December, the US introduced protections for those who identified as atheist into a bill on religious freedoms. India, a country where such beliefs attract actual violence and the threat of death, should also consider a similar law.
The Big Scroll
TA Ameerudheen speaks to the family of H Farook and leaders of the political party to which he belonged.
Shoaib Daniyal observes that though the 2011 Census showed a rise in the number of people who did not identify with any religion, India is no country for atheists.
- The Election Commission recommends a lifetime ban on convicted people from contesting in polls.
- The kin of those accused in Dadri lynching of 2015, where a mob battered 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq to death for allegedly eating beef, take heart from Adityanath being appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
- From West Bengal, the Mamata Banerjee government has approached the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the Calcutta High Court’s order of a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation on the Narada scam.
- In the Indian Express, Seema Chishti points out that during the Uttar Pradesh campaign everything meant to signal “vikas” was directly linked to Hindutva.
- In the Hindu, Manjari Katju comments that Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh chief minister is a case of the fringe going mainstream.
- In the Telegraph, Ruchir Joshi observes that the BJP’s talk of development, “sabka saath” and fighting corruption was “just so much cow manure”.
Amit Sengupta on how India’s new National Health Policy sets a low bar for public health:
“The National Health Policy 2017 has actually rolled back promises in two significant areas. The policy proposes that the government undertake an increase in health expenditure as a percentage of GDP from the existing 1.15% to 2.5 % by 2025. The draft policy released in 2015 had promised that this will be achieved by 2020. In other words, in 18 months, the government has already doubled the number of years it forecasts will be necessary to increase public spending on health to 2.5% of GDP. Even if this is achieved, it will be half of what the World Health Organisation recommends as optimum public spending on health.
If we now contrast this with public spending by the central government in the last three years, there is a clear gap between claims and rhetoric on health. The Union Budget of 2015-’16 effected a 5.7% cut in total allocation to the health sector. The 2016-’17 budget allowed a marginal rise of just 5% when adjusted for inflation and there was a similar marginal increase in the 2017-’18 budget. In fact, the sum allocated in the 2017-’18 budget is less than the 2011-’12 allocation when adjusted for inflation.”