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Dan Barker: Rationalism in Hindu-nationalist India

FFRF’s Dan Barker and Amitabh Pal with ceremonial turbans and shawls presented to them at a function in Mumbai, India.

By Dan Barker

Religious nationalism is rearing its hideous head all over the world. In the United States, it is Christian nationalism. In India, it is the Hindu nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ultraconservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is currently dragging the country back to sectarian divisiveness and religious (some even say “semi-fascist”) strife. Fortunately, there are many committed rationalists in both countries working hard to stem the tide.

In India, groups like MANS are fighting superstition and ignorance in the state of Maharashtra. (MANS stands for Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, “The Maharashtra Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith.”) The current leader of MANS, Avinash Patil — who succeeded founder Narendra Dabholkar after a far-right group assassinated him in 2013 for being “anti-Hindu” — was awarded FFRF’s “Avijit Roy Courage Award” in 2019 for his brave activism fighting irrationality, witchcraft and godmen well beyond just the borders of Maharashtra.

Between Dec. 31 and Jan. 13, FFRF’s Director of Communications Amitabh Pal and I visited India at the invitation of Avinash, who arranged a jam-packed “Knowing India & Indian Rationalists” tour for us. The two-week trip involved 10 events where we met with freethinkers and activists in five different Indian states and territories who are battling superstition and ignorance.

It was my first visit to the country, and I was astonished at the diversity of cultures, foods and languages. Even Amit, who often visits family in the north of the country, said he saw more of India on this tour than he has during all his previous trips. We met with people who spoke Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi and, of course, Hindi and English.

The first morning, a few hours after we landed in Mumbai, Avinash — who was usually accompanied by an armed state security police officer because of the threat to his life — took Amit and me to the prestigious Mumbai Press Club to meet with thinkers, activists, authors, professors, and lawyers (including a former state supreme court judge) about the growing problem of religious nationalism and “ethnic democracy.” 

It was at that meeting that I learned that the Indian Constitution contains these amazing words:

“[It shall be the duty of every citizen of India] To develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.” — Forty-second Amendment (1976) Article 51 A(h)

Imagine that! Science, humanism, inquiry and reform in the country’s governing document. Many of the speakers at the Press Club lamented the fact that so many Indian citizens, especially members of the BJP and the government it leads, are failing in their constitutional duty to develop a scientific temper. India, they complain, is currently being wrested away from its proud secular heritage.

The next day, we celebrated the new year and the 75th anniversary of Indian independence at the Ravindra Natya Mandir Performing Arts Center, where we were treated to cultural dance, music and dramatic skits focusing on liberty and diversity. (Our arrival, greeted by the blowing of a Maharashtrian tutari horn, was slightly delayed due to long lines of worshippers entering the Siddhivinayak Temple of Ganesh.) We met some freedom fighters from the Indian struggle for independence, one who was 99 years old, and another who was 100 years old!

Amit and I were the perfect team to compare India and the United States. Since he is an immigrant to the United States and I belong to a tribe of indigenous Americans, we were able to introduce ourselves as an Indian American and an American Indian.

In Mumbai, we visited the charming Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya (a museum and library in the house where Gandhi stayed when he visited Mumbai) and the seaside memorial to India’s “Father of the Constitution” B. R. Ambedkar.

Next, we drove up to the headquarters of MANS in Dhule. After meeting with activists and authors from the area, including the staff of MANS, we took a side trip to see the ancient Ellora Caves by Aurangabad that, for all their beauty, also harken back to a time when Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples could be built side-by-side in a spirit of tolerance and diversity.

On the other side of the subcontinent in the state of Tamil Nadu, in the city of Chennai on the Bay of Bengal, we visited and spoke at the Periyar Centre, an incredible atheist/feminist/scientific/anti-caste “self-respect” institution founded by the social reformer and politician Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy (known as “Periyar,” whose face was on a national Indian postage stamp) and now led by the 89-year-old Krishnasami Veeramani. The center houses a medical clinic, printing press (where a daily newspaper, Modern Rationalist magazine and books are published in many languages), library, research center, bookstore, marriage bureau and lecture hall. Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam social movement has spawned the two major political parties in Tamil Nadu, both of which have put into place various progressive policies that have ensured a much higher state of well-being for Tamils than most of the country’s population.

Then we went to a place I had been dreaming of visiting for many decades — the Atheist Centre in the city of Vijayawada on the Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh. The Atheist Centre is a member of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, which currently boasts 83 rationalist, atheist, skeptic, secularist and science organizations, including MANS. Like the Periyar Centre, it occupies a prominent property in the city. It houses a medical clinic, science center, capacious library, research center, broadcast/podcast center, criminal and jogini (prostitute) rehabilitation house, women empowerment and child development program, trade school, historical displays of science and freethought history, and a large open meeting area where lectures and cultural events are staged. 

The Atheist Centre was founded in the 1940s by Gora, an atheist friend of Gandhi. (One of the legends is that Gandhi said to Gora: “God is truth.” Gora replied: “Truth is God.”) Gora’s face was also on an Indian postage stamp. 

One of Gora’s sons, Lavanam, had visited FFRF in the 1990s, which prompted my hope of one day seeing the place. Because of its social work, the Atheist Centre is highly respected in the city and the state. Two different governors have spoken there. When Avinash, Amit and I gave our talks on Jan. 7, we were joined by a member of the state Legislature and a former deputy speaker of the state Assembly. Then we were treated to a spectacle of dance, culture and music celebrating the birth anniversaries of Gora and his wife, around which the conference was organized.

After spending two days visiting Amit’s mother in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (where temperatures in the 40s caused schools to close), we flew to the state of Punjab. The Tarksheel Society is a Punjabi rationalist group (tarksheel means “reason” or “rationality”) based in Barnala, a city situated in the center of Punjab. The group is “committed to the objectives of inculcating scientific and rational thinking among the people,” combating superstitions, rituals, charms, fortune-tellers, godmen, religious fanatics and occult practices. 

With a colorful van covered with quotes and pictures, the society drives around the state visiting schools and public meetings to promote science and reason and has actually instituted a rationalist syllabus for schoolchildren. The van unfolds into a library with literature for all ages, including many books published by the society. Amit and I spent a happy afternoon touring the organization’s grounds and talking with its dedicated leaders and authors in the large conference center with pictures and quotes of influential (and some martyred) freethinkers. Education, Tarksheel activists told us, makes a solid difference in the mental health of a society.

Before flying to Delhi the next day, Amit and I had a wonderful three-for-one tour of the famous Golden Temple (a very prominent and ornate Sikh structure), the new Partition Museum, and the sad-but-beautiful memorial park commemorating the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of Indian protesters by the British, all within walking distance of each other in Amritsar.

In Delhi, our final stop of the tour, we had three important events. We met with people involved with Studio Safdar. The studio is named after the playwright, director and actor Safdar Hashmi, a founding member of the Jana Natya Manch (People’s Theatre Front), who was assassinated by members of the Indian National Congress in 1989 while performing the street play Halla Bol (Raise Your Voice!) outside a factory. 

The People’s Theater Front creates an alternate and affordable space in Delhi for staging and experimenting with the arts. Safdar’s widow Moloyashree Hashmi, who helps run the studio, told us that she and most other members of the group are outspoken atheists who want to obliterate caste and religion, making all people equal.

The next morning, our last day in the country, Avinash took us to the distinguished Press Club of India in the nation’s capital where print and TV journalists (many from Maharashtra) attended our remarks and asked many questions about religious nationalism in India and the United States. Before heading to the airport, we stopped at the Gandhi Peace Centre to interact with activists, authors and reformers who are propagating Gandhian thought across the country. The grassroots social activist and human rights campaigner Shabnam Hashmi, the sister of Safdar Hashmi (the murdered theater personality mentioned above), was at that meeting, insisting that India is currently becoming a “semi-fascist state.”

And what is the solution? We learned from our many new activist Indian friends during this tour that while confronting superstition and fundamentalism is necessary, it is not enough. Before any progress toward enlightenment can be made, the needs of the people must first be addressed. It is hard to think about philosophy when you are hungry, cold and oppressed. Using a bottom-up strategy of winning hearts before changing minds, many intelligent and brave Indian rationalists are indeed focusing on making this world a better place.