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.”
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.