Indians Fight for Recognition of ‘No Religion’ Category in National Census

More than 80% of Indians identify as Hindus. Islam is the second largest group, and it’s six times the size of the third largest category, Christianity. There are a plethora of other religious identities in India, including Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. When it comes to the national census, though, the rest are all lumped into a single category: “Other.” That includes animists, Baha’is, Jews, Zoroastrians and… atheists. As it stands, there’s no category for “No religion.”

For the 2001 Census, the “Other” category added up to 0.6 percent. Which sounds small, until you realize that it amounts to around 4,500,000 people in a nation the size of India.

What’s the breakdown of that group? We have no idea. But we do know that the size of the “Other” category doubled between the 1991 and 2001 Census. If global trends are anything to go on, they may have doubled again between 2001 and 2011, which could mean we’re talking about 1.2 percent of the population or 9,000,000 people.

For the sake of comparison, there are fewer than 2,000,000 self-described atheists in the United States, so India has the potential to have more atheists than we do.

However, being non-religious or otherwise classified as an “other” in India has its costs:

A religious ceremony can be performed instantly and registered later. But a civil marriage under the Special Marriage Act requires a licence, a wait period, proof of residence, and other formalities. If one wishes to donate organs — or the body to science — after death, legal arrangements must be made in advance. If one wishes to avoid one’s assets being passed on by the default provisions of religious personal laws, it is necessary to make a valid Will and register it. After death, that Will must undergo probate. All this costs time and money.

Being an outspoken atheist or skeptic also comes with other hazards, which we learned the hard way this past week with the assassination of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar There are also old laws that make questioning religious doctrine a criminal act. Even without that, there’s a social stigma against atheists that impacts many facets of life, including finding a suitable partner to marry.

Forbes India quotes an Indian atheist by the name of Sarath:

Sarath, a Telugu Brahmin atheist, says he was “forced to do the Upanayanam [thread ceremony] because my parents want an arranged marriage. I have hopes of ‘saving’ my future spouse and kids if I have an arranged marriage, though I would prefer to marry a Freethinker.”

Despite these obstacles, atheists in the country have become more vocal and more visible, finding each other via social media outlets like Facebook.

Indian atheists are now trying to petition their government for the creation of a “No Religion” category in the Census:

Lawyer Nikhil Mehra explains how an appeal could be filed: A writ petition would have to be filed challenging the absence of a No Religion category. The grounds would be freedom of conscience under Article 25(1) and Article 14. The core is: I have the right to live my life as I wish as long as I am within the ambit of the law and am not trampling on the rights of others.

Article 25(1) guarantees the freedom of conscience, and that must inherently encompass the right not to profess any religion. Every citizen has the right to profess and exhibit such religious belief as is approved of by the citizen’s judgement or conscience.

There’s no reason for India not to count the atheists. Never mind the sociological implications or the importance of having accurate numbers in one’s Census — it’s just another way citizens can be recognized by the government. It would give them a way to fill out forms honestly when in the hospital or getting married. It’s a simple change that would actually go a long way to improving the status of atheists in the country.

About Kelley Freeman

Kelley is a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina. She is a former president of the Secular Student Alliance at the University of South Carolina and a former intern for both SSA and Foundation Beyond Belief. Kelley is also a board member for both Camp Quest South Carolina and the Carolinas Secular Association, a Volunteer Network Coordinator for the southeastern region for the SSA, runs a vlog series called Secular Start Up, sometimes does stand up comedy and can crochet like a fiend. She's on her way to becoming a Jane of All Trades. Follow her on twitter @ramenneedles

  • CanadianNihilist

    I know nothing relevant about India other than they the country is very hostile towards atheists, Is the India National Census anonymous?
    If not then a non-religion category would give the government the name and address of every atheist and their families in the country; which might end up being a bad thing.

  • rustygh

    Which Indian religion claimed the assassination of the Dr. ? Or did they not say? Just curious, I’m pretty sure all those religious Indians are nut jobs. Plus the way they live? Filthy!

    • Michael W Busch

      Your racism, xenophobia, and ableism are all unacceptable. Cut them out.

      And, no, “I was joking” is not any sort of defense.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Christians fight for recognition of their religion also, but more and first.

    • Bitter Lizard

      Can’t do it. Can’t post any more dog butts today.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        “More”? I don’t even see ONE yet today. Change your name to “Slacker Lizard”!

        I showed a friend who is a person of color the first dog butt post, sharing my amazement that CM didn’t even appear to know what he was looking at. He eventually read the entire thread, laughing, and spontaneously told me that CM’s positions were racially offensive. And that wasn’t even one of the threads where CM was working at being blindered and offensive.

        • Bitter Lizard

          It’s amazing how many running jokes CommentMaker has inspired in a few short weeks. There’s oxymoron, Excel, Jesus on butts and now the “more and first”. I just wish he had the mental capacity to realize what a punchline he is.

  • Paul (not the apostle)

    It is the easiest way to insure that there are no atheists in India. Look there, its official no atheists in our government census. If there were a “none”category and it started to grow imagine the discomfort of the theists. The none’s is a hotly discussed and much worried over number among my christian friends

  • DragunR2

    Author of Kannada novel Dhundi arrested

    Author of the controversial Kannada novel ‘Dhundi’, Yogesh Master, was arrested on Thursday evening after many Hindu outfits objected to the portrayal of the god Ganesh in the work.

    A complaint was lodged by Pranavananda Swami and some Hindu outfits had threatened to launch protests demanding withdrawal of the book which was released on August 21. Protesters had objected to the book as they said it contained that they called “objectionable material”.

    A senior police official said that the cases had been booked two days before the arrest. The author was booked under sections 295 A IPC (Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) and 298 IPC (Uttering words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound religious feeling).

    In the meanwhile, writers and intellectuals have strongly condemned the arrest of Yogesh Master and demanded his immediate release. They have said that an arrest of this kind — of an author for writing what is considered as being offensive to a religious faith — is unprecedented in Karantaka.

    Writer Banjagere Jayaprakash, who released Dhundi, strongly criticised the arrest and said that there were democratic methods to deal this kind of a situation. “Arrest is not an answer to dissent or controversy,” he said. “The incident is the first of its kind. The police did not arrest me, when my work was embroiled in a controversy.”

  • L.Long

    Paul got there 1st, but I will add…
    who would ID as an atheist?? Why put a bulls eye on your back, so that EVERYONE else can shoot you?
    I live in NorthCarolina and will not ID as an atheist. I would like a job! And even in large corporation it takes no real reason to be let go, but at least there are not 5 major groups that would like me dead as that is another way to insure no atheists in India.

    • ramenneedles

      “No Religion/None” is different than specifically atheist. “None” adds up to about 22% (for under 30) in the US if I recall correctly. Only about 2% of the entire US population is explicitly ‘atheist’.

      • L.Long

        I thought it was 16% and that the 6% increase to 22% by the NONES was not real because as you say NONE does not mean atheist.