Attacks on atheists like Avijit Roy and Pansare have left India’s growing tribe of non-believers wary

It’s 5 pm on a Wednesday and the streets are crammed with office goers heading home. At a Gurgaon cafe, a lone table is occupied. A 53-year-old businessman and a bunch of youths, including an MBA student, a musician, a graphic artist, an entrepreneur and two software engineers, sit around the table deep in conversation, their coffees gone cold in front of them.

“It’s scary. That could have been me,” says software engineer Lalit Chawla, bespectacled and clad in a beige shirt and blue jeans. The others nod in agreement. Chawla adds that he now avoids talking to strangers and stepping out late at night. This unlikely group is part of a collective called Delhi Freethinkers, which brings together atheists from across the National Capital Region (NCR). Their fear is linked to the slaughter of Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi atheist-author-blogger, by cleaver-wielding men in Dhaka on February 26.

When news websites and TV channels flashed photos of Roy’s wife, blood splattered across her face and kurta, standing next to the mutilated body of her husband, India’s atheists felt a sense of deja vu. Just ten days before Roy’s murder, motorcycleborne men had shot CPI veteran and progressive writer Govind Pansare in Kolhapur while he was on his morning walk.In 2013, anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar was killed in Pune in a similar attack. Several atheists who gathered at Pansare’s condolence meet had declared: “We are all Dr Dabholkar, we are all comrade Pansare,” to express their solidarity with fellow non-believers. But few in India acknowledge the existence of the God-less.

Beyond belief

Atheists have existed in India since ancient times: an atheist school, Carvaka, originated in 6th century BC. Since the early 1900s, many anti-superstition campaigns have been organized. But the movement remained confined to small groups and certain regions. “More youths are now coming out as atheists thanks to online platforms,” says Narendra Nayak, who heads the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA), an umbrella body of 85 atheist and pro-science organizations with thousands of members.

The Indian census has no category called “atheist” but the 2012 Global Index of Religion and Atheism report showed that 81% of Indians were religious, 13% not religious, 3% were convinced atheists, and 3% were unsure or did not respond.

The rise of the God-less also becomes evident when you look at the growing popularity of local groups. Delhi Freethinkers started with just 70 members in 2011 and now has over 1300. Chennai Freethinkers began with 15 members and has grown to 1500. These and similar groups in Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kochi, Pune and Kolkata have been set up under the aegis of Nirmukta, an online community founded in 2008 to promote science and free thought. A freethinker is defined as a person who forms opinions about the universe based on reason, not tradition or authority. New members are joining Nirmukta’s online forums every day . The Indian Atheists page on Facebook has 27,000-plus fans and the Indian Atheist’s Debate Corner has more than 10,000 members. Most of these are professionals under the age of 35. Interestingly , a significant number of them use “alter profiles” because they don’t want their family or colleagues to know their views. “There is still a lot of stigma attached to being an atheist,” says Chawla.

Although all of them reject religion, they have various ways of identifying themselves based on minor differences in ideology . Some are agnostic (they “don’t know” if God exists), others are rationalists (they hold reason above all), while some are sceptics (they doubt religious claims).

Searching for a safe space

Regional Nirmukta groups meet once in a month or two at cafes. When eight members of Mumbai Freethinkers decided to meet at a Dadar cafe recently, they did not realize the place was next to a temple. ” At least we came out alive,” remarked one of them with a laughter that rang with nervousness.

But online, the freethinkers are truly free -they mock the beef ban and ridicule the 400 men who cut off their testicles to “get closer to God”. Nirmukta makes sure there is no infiltration by the intolerant lot.Membership requests are approved only after the administrators check the applicant’s Facebook history .

In 2012, Nirmukta moved its focus from atheism to promotion of secular humanism, a philosophy which goes beyond one’s stance on religion and states that people should work together to improve quality of life for all. The organization supports social justice movements like feminism, LGBT rights, and rights of people with disabilities. They have also taken a strong stand against the caste system.

But atheists often find themselves alienated. “We need to make it normal to be an atheist,” says Chawla, adding that “depression and isolation” are prevalent among the God-less. “Many members of our group are ostracized by their families.” Back at the Gurgaon cafe, the freethinkers wish atheist celebrities and politicians would air their views instead of hiding them. “Only Javed Akhtar is unapologetically atheist.Arvind Kejriwal was known to be agnostic but once he became Delhi chief minister, he couldn’t thank `Bhagwan, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru’ enough,” laments Shivam Khare, a musician.

Right to offend

Nirmukta and FIRA have called for scrapping of Section 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code which they dub as “India’s blasphemy law” as it makes “deliberate and malicious” speech, writing or actions insulting religion punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment and fine.

This act is routinely abused to “persecute and hound” those who have points of view that stand out, say activists. Sanal Edamaruku’s story is a case in point. The Delhi-based rationalist had made it his life’s mission to expose `holy frauds’. In 2012, he had to flee to Finland after he was charged with blasphemy. His fault: he stated that the “tears” trickling down a Jesus statue in Mumbai were because of bad plumbing. His tussle with the Catholic Church led to many complaints being filed against him under Sec 295 (A) and his anticipatory bail plea being rejected.

“This law has no place in a civilized society ,” says Nayak. The 64-year-old has himself been at the receiving end of threats from religious zealots. Sunil Khullar, a member of Delhi Freethinkers, says there ought to be a `Right to Offend’ in the Constitution. “A speech or book should be opposed only if it incites violence or is sexist or racist. The focus on offense is wrong,” he says.