Circles of reason: The growing rationalist movements in India

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on September 25, 2020

ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Rationalist movements are swelling in ranks after a lull of three decades

The calamitous bubonic plague, which killed more than a third of Europe’s population in 1347-50, had a positive side effect. The Black Death pandemic triggered a transformation that historians now believe paved the way for European Renaissance, by introducing far-reaching changes in social, economic, cultural and religious spheres.

So, what does Covid-19, one of the worst pandemics the world has seen, offer on that front in India? No doubt it led to prayers and rituals across the country. But India’s rationalist movement also got a shot in the arm in the novel coronavirus pandemic with the health scare prompting people to take a hard look at their long-held beliefs and analyse the role of rationality.

“The crisis offers a great moment for all of us to analyse our ways critically and rationally and people are asking critical questions,” says rationalist Narendra Nayak, the Mangaluru-based president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations.

As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc, people are questioning some of the widely adopted practices — lighting lamps or drinking cow urine to ward off the virus, for instance — that were supported by members of the ruling party at the Centre. “We have a regime that does not promote scientific thinking,” a rationalist from Kerala rues. “Instead, we have seen during Covid-19 even ministers and top politicians actively promoting anachronistic and anti-modern practices to ward off the pandemic.”

But at the same time, a movement against superstition or what rationalists call pseudoscience has also been gaining ground. Last year, just weeks before the first Covid-19 case was reported in the country, thousands gathered in Kerala as part of a rationalist movement.

At 7 am on October 6, the swanky Calicut Trade Centre in north Kerala’s Kozhikode, known for hosting international exhibitions and religious galas, was already buzzing with activity. Within hours, the giant, work-in-progress hall was precariously packed. Officers of the Kerala Fire And Rescue Services department asked the organisers to turn back at least 2,000 people from the crowd to prevent a stampede or a collapse of the walls. Already, over 7,000 people had entered the premises that could accommodate only half the number.

Kozhikode is known for its huge political rallies and packed religious events and if you think this was one such event, you’re in for a surprise. “With a lot of pride, I can tell you that, for the first time in the history of the country, a gathering of atheists had attracted such an overwhelming response,” says C Ravichandran, author, orator and chief architect of the event Litmus 19, organised by Essence Club, a collective of free-thinkers and atheists in Kerala and abroad.

Essence Global is an active presence on social media. Its Facebook group has more than 30,000 active members and the YouTube channel has over a lakh subscribers. These platforms see intense debates around issues such as religion, politics, atheism, gender, science and pseudoscience and medicine. Some of the most popular videos have viewerships running into lakhs.

“Considering that such an event is happening at a time when religious fundamentalism, casteism and anti-scientific temperament are at an all-time peak in India, leading to mass-murders and deep social polarisation, Essence Global’s success becomes quite a feat,” says Gehesh Edakkuttathil, a techie from Thrissur who attended Litmus 19.

Free thought

Essence is not the only rationalist group that enjoys such immense popularity in India today. Freethinkers Forum, another collective, enjoys a member base of over 2.6 lakh and its YouTube channel, Kerala Freethinkers Forum, has nearly 1.5 lakh subscribers. Here, too, members discuss a host of contemporary issues.

Turning points: The assassination of rationalists such as MM Kalburgi spurred sections of youngsters to back rationalist movements   -  V SREENIVASA MURTHY


The trend is not limited to Kerala. After a prolonged lull that arguably started in the 1990s and continued through the early 2000s, India’s rationalist movements are seeing an immense growth in popularity and reach largely because of factors such as the assassinations of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar (2013), MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare (both killed in 2015) and the spread of social media platforms and technologies. The atmosphere of religious hatred and intolerance has also prompted sections of youngsters to back such movements.

“In fact, all these crucial factors coincided with each other,” says Shiju Joseph, Thiruvananthapuram-based psychologist and academic. “The arrival of social media gave a lot of people who were sitting on the fence earlier on agnostic or atheist beliefs a chance to interact with others and cement their attitudes and theoretical frameworks.”

A slew of unscientific remarks made by political leaders in recent years also led to “the quest among India’s free-thinking young population to find platforms where they could pursue ideals of scientific temper and rationalist way of living,” notes Hamid Dabholkar, son of Narendra Dabholkar. Hamid works with the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), an organisation founded by his father.

Narendra Dabholkar   -  Mandar Tannu/ File Image

“Before my father was assassinated, I was an active member of the MANS for about 15 years, associating with its youth wing and addressing mental health issues,” says Hamid, a psychiatrist by profession. “His murder prompted me to become even more active and now I am part of the main organisation. Similarly, a lot of people were inspired by Narendra Dabholkar’s sacrifice.”

Interestingly, the number of people living a non-religious life has been rising over the years. The last Census, in 2011, showed that the number of people who preferred not to state their religion grew from 7 lakh in 2001 to nearly 30 lakh in 2011. “But the pace at which religious hatred, misinformation, fake news and political fallacies have been spreading since 2014 has fuelled the rationalist movements ,” says Suniti SR, a prominent rationalist from Maharashtra and a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements. “If you try to suppress rational thinking beyond a point, there is a natural tendency among people to rebound.”

A long tradition

Historically, rationalism has been an integral part of India’s social reform traditions. “The fight against irrationality and for social justice is not new to India,” notes Hamid. From Charvak, Buddha, Mahavir, Guru Nanak, Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram to Periyar in Tamil Nadu, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Shahu Maharaj, Sahodaran Ayyappan and Babasaheb Ambedkar, all the social reformers and thinkers were rationalists.

“Most of the leaders of the nationalist movement and the social reform processes in action were avowed atheists or rationalists,” explains C Viswanathan, a prominent voice of the rationalist movement in Kerala. Social historians point out that even though rational sentiments were a part of India’s post-Independence society in its early years, the movement started losing steam towards the ’80s and, thanks to globalisation, which sparked an open cunsumerist culture in the Indian middle class, rationalist ideas took a backseat in the ’90s and 2000s.

This voice of new India ran in contradiction to the basic tenets of atheist-rationalist ideals of austerity, progressiveness and scientific temper. But the rise of religious fundamentalism, rationalists believe, introduced a change. Rationalist groups in Karnataka, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Goa and many other states say they have seen a rise in the number of people joining their organisations,openly declaring agnostic or atheist ways of living, finding inter-religious spouses and raising their children religion-free. “I’m sure these people will take the movement forward. Rationalism is a continuous journey,” says Hamid. The MANS, for instance, had about 200 branches all over Maharashtra at the time Dhabholkar was killed, but now has more than 300 branches in the state.

Price to pay

Being a rationalist is a brave mission, he stresses. All social reformers have paid a personal price for their work, notes Hamid, pointing out that the writings of the Charvaka school (600 BCE) were burnt and books of Sant Tukaram (17th century) were thrown in the Indrayani river. “Society then could not appreciate the importance of their work but generations have remained indebted due to the sacrifice they have made.”

Hamid feels that this is a difficult period for rationalists. Nowhere in the history of independent India have rationalists been gunned down for their beliefs. Also, this is a time when pseudoscience and anti-science have received official support. “We have seen political leaders, including some prominent ones claiming Einstein was wrong about his discoveries and actively advocating pseudoscience.” Rationalists are also viewing the rise of politics based on sentiment with concern.

Often the debate around rationality gets entangled around god and religion, but Hamid stresses the need for rationality in all spheres — from education, family and gender relations to governance and public affairs. “It is all about basing your decisions not on sentiments or what some holy books said aeons ago but on evidence-based information, accurate data and tenets of social justice,” he argues.

There is also need for rationalists to underline social justice, feels Viswanathan of Kerala Freethinkers Forum. “If you have observed the history of the atheist-rationalist movements in India, right from the day the first rationalist publication The Yukthivadi was published in Malayalam in 1929, the focus has been on imparting the learnings of the Enlightenment [the 17-18th century intellectual movement in Europe] and its resultant ideals of the use of reason, the scientific method, and progress, to ensure social justice.”

The primary aim of the rationalist must be social reform, holds Nitin Pawar, an active member of the Mahatma Phule Sansthan Pratishthan, a social reform movement in Maharashtra. “That’s why fighting religious bigotry and cultural fascism and taking up the causes of Dalits and the peasants become part and parcel of the movement,” Pawar stresses,

That said, movements such as Ravichandran’s Essence are criticised for their indulgence in swashbuckling events and adhering to dogmatic views of atheism, ignoring its social justice angle. Critics say that such platforms will end up creating atheist cults that will be counterproductive in the long run.

“I don’t worry about such rebuke,” Ravichandran says. “I am losing money running these campaigns and I’ll be happy doing this as long as I help build a society where evidence leads to decisions. I am neutral in my criticism of all religions and ideologies.”

The leaders of the movement also wonder if the pandemic will introduce change, as it did in Europe.

“But I’m not really sure about how sustainable that is, given the power religion and pseudoscience wield in society,” Nayak says.

Once the pandemic wears out, he adds, religious establishments and godmen, in hiding because of fear of contracting the virus, will gradually emerge with their own cooked-up theories about the pandemic, the public may be hoodwinked again.

The coronavirus crisis, however, does offer an opportunity for rationalists to promote scientific thinking and reasoning, Hamid holds. Many, especially the young, have realised the futility of the teachings of godmen and practitioners of pseudoscience, he says.

Hamid Dhabolkar is hopeful.

Jinoy Jose P

Published on September 25, 2020

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor