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India: Non-believers fighting for the right to not believe

Wednesday 12 June 2019

The Times of India

Non-believers fighting for the right to not believe

TNN | Jun 9, 2019, 02.51 AM IST

It was during his college years that D V Ramakrishna Rao, a 49-year-old agriculture scientist in Hyderabad, became a non-believer influenced by Marxist ideology and the works of anti-caste leaders like B R Ambedkar and Jyotirao Phule.

Over the years, his non-belief has only become stronger. But though he is bringing up his daughters caste- and religion-free, he says official forms forced him to tick the religion box, first for his younger daughter’s school admission form, and then for the elder one’s board exam forms. “Voters get the option of NOTA. The third gender has been officially recognised. These are good signs of democracy. So why don’t we get this choice in religion too,” asks Rao who, along with his wife Clarence, filed a PIL in Hyderabad in 2017.

The couple — incidentally, Clarence is a practising Christian but supports Rao — is still awaiting a legal verdict, and is quite enthused by the move by seven colleges in Kolkata to introduce “humanity”, “agnostic”, “secular” and “non-religious” to the list of religions on their under-graduate admission forms. Rao has written to the Census office to include a no caste, no religion category. Currently, the only option available is “religion not stated”, and 28 lakh checked this box in Census 2011.

In a country of so many faiths and thousands of gods, it’s not easy to be an atheist. Not surprising that most choose to be passive or indifferent non-believers. But like Rao, there’s also a bunch of active atheists who are ready to take on the law to get official sanction for their lack of faith.

Ravi Nastik, a 32-year-old atheist living in Haryana’s Tohana, not only officially changed his surname to “nastik (atheist)” in 2017, he’s also forced to do odd jobs. Employers are wary of hiring him, he says, because he’s a non-believer. He had to give up a job at a nearby government veterinary hospital after some colleagues complained that buffaloes started dying since he joined. The management even asked him to go to a local dargah and pray to remedy the “situation”. Ravi, of course, refused and resigned from his post of animal attendant.

But despite being jobless and having to do “mazdoori” (manual labour) for money, Ravi refuses to give up his quest for a no caste, no religion certificate. After a two-year wait, he did manage to get one from the tehsildar’s office on April 29, only for it to be revoked a week later. Ravi has now filed a case in the Punjab and Haryana high court to get it reinstated.

Sneha Parthibaraja, a lawyer in Vellore, fought a nine-year-long legal battle to get a no caste, no religion certificate issued by the government. The 35-year-old mother of two is perhaps the only Indian to be in possession of such a document. Her parents, both atheists, brought up their three daughters without religion and caste, even giving them names from different religions — Sneha, Jennifer and Mumtaz. Having been reared in such a faith-free atmosphere, Parthibaraja found it frustrating that the government didn’t recognise her identity.

In 2010, she filed an application for a no caste, no religion certificate at the tehsildar’s office, and got the document in January this year.

Despite all her official documents, such as birth certificate, not mentioning her religion and caste (hard-won fruits of a long struggle with babudom throughout childhood and adult life), it still took nine years, umpteen visits to the 10 tehsildars who came and got transferred before her wish was granted.

Why? “Because there was no precedent. The officials have no government order to issue such a certificate. It’s absolutely the discretionary power of tehsildar,” Parthibaraja explains. Recalling her struggle, she says, “Officials would ask me, mostly amused and some with concern, why I needed this certificate because it will put me in open category and deprive me of caste-based reservation. But my mission has always been to break this tie between religion and caste. We are born human and these identities are forced upon us by society.”