Atheism in the time of Hindutva mobs and fascism

An ominous sign for the future if not resisted massively by the liberal, democratic, rational-thinking sections of society.

 |  5-minute read |   23-01-2017
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In ancient times, sage Yajnavlakya had threatened Gargi, a woman philosopher, to not ask too many questions: "O Gargi, do not ask too much lest thy head should fall off. Thou askest the Deity about which we are not to ask too much. Do not ask too much, O Gargi." (Brihdarnkya Upanishad-Sixth Brahma)

Asking too many questions even today is as much dangerous as it was in ancient times, at least in India, South Asia or religion-dominated societies as the one witnessed by Vrindavan's Balendu Swami in October 2016, with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) dismissing appeals about regarding the incident.

There was a time when EV Ramaswamy Naicker, popularly known as Periyar, started the self-respect movement, which was rationality-based and atheist in nature. It could shatter the conservative foundations of faith, particularly the brahiminical tradition in South India.

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During the freedom struggle, many leaders of the movement with their enlightened scientific outlook turned atheists, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, EMS Namboodiripad, a whole lot of socialists and communists and, above all, the most revered revolutionary hero of the nation: Bhagat Singh, who proclaimed himself an atheist with the essay, "Why I am an Atheist".

It was written almost a year before his execution on October 5-6, 1930 at a Lahore jail, following his meeting with another revolutionary Randhir Singh, who had refused his wish for a courtesy call, because "Bhagat Singh had shaved his hair" and become a "fallen Sikh"!

Bhagat Singh responded to Randhir Singh with the message, "It was just one part of his body, he shelved for the freedom of the country; we are going to shelve each and every part of our bodies for the nation in near future, but your narrowness pinches!"

After receiving the emotional message, Randhir agreed to see Bhagat; upon their meeting, the latter penned his classic essay, because he was far-sighted and aware that his meeting with Randhir Singh could be given a distorted communal colour later, which indeed happened.

After his release, Randhir Singh wrote in his memoirs that Bhagat Singh had "admitted" to the sin of "cutting his hair" and upon his advice, the freedom hero had "turned to the Sikh religious faith"!

The irony is this that Periyar, in his editorial in the March 29 1931 issue of his Tamil journal Kudi Arsu admired Bhagat Singh's courage of conviction as an atheist. He got comrade P Jeevanandam to translate Bhagat's essay into Tamil and published it as a booklet in 1934.

The freedom hero's classic essay has run into tens of editions by now and for decades Tamil Nadu has celebrated Bhagat Singh more for his revolutionary ideas than his heroic romantic image.

85 years later, on October 14-15, when Balendu Swami, an erstwhile Hindu faithful, became an atheist owing to a sense of rationality developed by his education and experiences, he invited many of his atheist friends to join his 45th birthday celebrations and discuss the ideas of atheism at his house in Vrindavan.

Born into a deeply religious family, Swami had spent more than three years in a cave-like abode - just in meditation; in search of "God".  And when he could not "discover" God, reason made him turn to atheism.

Swami had experimented with the atheist meet in 2015 too, but it was limited to being a Facebook event. However, in October 2016, the Facebook event got a bigger audience. Print media too took note of it, and so it attracted nearly 500-plus people from at least sixteen states. They travelled from as far Belgaum in Karnataka down South to Jharkhand in the East.

Gauging the response, Balendu Swami sought permission from local authorities for the event, as he had booked many hotels for his guests' stay in the city.

But few malicious elements from the media, incited by local religious Hindutva groups, reported the anti-religion philosophical comments of Balendu Swami as "anti-Hindu" on October 13-14; it was covered widely by local Hindi papers and TV channels.

On October 14, a group of nearly 50 persons, led by a saffron-clad Sadhu attacked Swami's house with sticks and stones, and misbehaved with the guests assembling there for the event. Sarvesh, a woman photojournalist from Delhi, was badly beaten as she tried to record the attack on camera.

The handful of policemen, who could have easily controlled the mob, instead helped the attackers. I reached the town the same day by 2pm and remained in touch with friends who were inside the ashram.

The police, along with the mob, forced Balendu Swami to state in writing that the event had been cancelled. However, some 200 of us - including families and children - gather at his house to continue with the occasion, albeit with caution.

The poetry of Pash, Faiz and other songs were sung by Ajit Sahni of the Ramnagar-Nainital group. We celebrated with the play, Panchali, based on Mahabharata, followed by a discussion.

The evening ended with birthday songs and cake.

The next morning, we held discussions on the atheist views of Bhagat Singh and many participants made useful suggestions to take the conversation forward. Such was the fervour that those from UP decided to hold a big atheist meet in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency Benares/Varanasi.

In the light of what we had witnessed the previous day, many of us wondered why religion is becoming a tool of fascist stifling of free and scientific rational thought in South Asian countries at a time it is becoming rare in many advanced and developed countries across the world - when Charvak, Ajit Keshkambli-like thinkers, and the Samkhya Darshan school of thought could hold beliefs about agnosticism or atheism in India of the past.

On October 4, an IPTA conference was attacked by Hindutva mobs at Indore. The Vrindavan attack was a continuation of their fascism - made prominent with the attack on JNU, HCU as well as the Central University of Haryana attack on the Mahashweta Devi play "Draupadi".

An ominous sign for the future if not resisted massively by the liberal, democratic, rational-thinking sections of society!

Also read: 'Revolutionary', not 'terrorist' Bhagat Singh scares the right-wing

Writer

Chaman Lal Chaman Lal @profchaman

The author is a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the author of Understanding Bhagat Singh.

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