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2

It is rare that one needs to speak up as an atheist and disown the speech or behavior of other atheists as communal hatred. Atheists are usually the smallest minority anywhere and where there is communal violence, they are usually on the receiving end, so the question of atheists being perpetrators of communal hatred rarely arises. There is the occasional Dawkins outrage, but it is not so relevant to India. However, there is extremism among atheists as well and today seems to be a good occasion to condemn and disown it as well.

Atheists often argue that there is no collective belief system called atheism. It is merely a lack of belief in God. It is true as far as it is a question of extrapolating the actions of one to others. However, the label itself confers a certain amount of shared traits - notably a stated disbelief in god. And while disbelief is an absence, the issue in extremism is rarely the belief or lack of it, it is the fervor in making the statement and imposing views on others. Atheists can cross the line between stating disbelief in god and religion to attacking a community based on their beliefs.

Like the beliefs of two atheists may have nothing in common, the beliefs of ISIS may have little in common with other Muslims as well. All atheists believe there is no God. That word play on disbelief being a lack of belief is well and good, it is also a belief about that lack. We aren't merely considering that there may be no God given the lack of evidence or that God is an unproven claim. We are certain that there isn't any God. We are not open to the possibility that there may be one (those are the agnostics). We aren't interested in exploring the possibility and potentially invalidating our claims. We define God by what we reject and ignore any interpretations of God that are saner. We are certain and see no need to contemplate alternatives as potentially viable.

Muslims believe there is one God and it is Allah and Mohammed is his messenger. Hindus have a diverse array of beliefs that can encompass countless gods or none. Christians believe there is one God and Jesus Christ is his son and so on. As an atheist, I must say there being no god is the logical conclusion of a contemplation of God as a sentient, omnipotent being. Belief in imaginary friends is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn't lead to denial that prevents well being. One simply projects what one believes is the best onto an imaginary external figure and gives it the authority we don't feel confident claiming as ourselves. I know there are lots that define God in a manner that makes sense to them and stay away from intentions and super powers. Indeed, a vivid imagination is necessary to creativity. I am sure, there are benefits. To others. I don't see the value.

No matter what a religious book says, the extent to which it is complied to by people always varies and the extent to which atheists engage with their disbelief also varies. For many, like me, it is a non-issue. God is absent. It doesn't take any space in daily life unless there is a requirement to analyze or discuss or state. Encountering someone expressing belief creates no urge to validate my own belief through convincing them into disbelief - a very similar process as seen in believers who tend to get you to believe in their Gods. It is no concern of mine whether you prefer God to Mickey Mouse. There are atheists who are more radical. They will not tolerate you being irrational and will strive to get you to .... um... see the light. Heck, there are atheist fundamentalists who won't tolerate "moderates" like me and expect us to do more to counter claims of God. To what end, I have no idea. Waste time over a non-existing creature even when fully aware it doesn't exist? What for?

Free Speech is a fundamental right. It is a bit dinged in India legally, and further butchered in practice. There are limitations by law or processes of engaging with the state. But apart from larger processes that are a part of belonging to an organized country, state, city, locality, home, etc that are established and a consequence of our social contract, while we do no harm to another, the assumption is that we have a legal right to speak, act and behave as we wish without being subject to impositions, limitations or harm. The rules are the same for all. Even when the laws have flaws and restrictions - typically those covering blasphemy - the understanding is that they are known to people up front and they apply to all (needless to say they get enforced with religious bias almost everywhere they exist). These are usually always facing a challenge, and rightfully so because they infringe on the right of disbelievers and critics to state their own views.

Free speech for atheists and in congruence with their "beliefs" typically ignores prohibitions on blasphemy where they exist and naturally includes the right to disagree about religion and God, to state their disbelief, to criticize the beliefs of other religions, including revered figures. We gleefully say, we are ok with you doing the same. Quite liberating, it is, to have nothing to defend. Turns out, the larger problem with religion - fundamentalist and communal violence - is a human trait and atheists are not immune to it either.

Communal hatred is not about our views or opinions - which in my view are acceptable regardless of being offensive. It is about people. It is the tantrum of the child being told there is no Santa. It is the tantrum of the child who proves Santa is better by calling Spiderman stupid, except these are adults with real power to inflict harm and when at the end of their ability to convince someone that Santa is better, are perfectly capable of harming someone for thinking Spiderman is better. Harm is not always physical. It can be emotional, social, economic. And when it targets the socially vulnerable and allies with others attacking them, it threatens to splinter social coherence for all.

There isn't any rational critique of religion when you comment on brutal ISIS beheadings that Muslims are taught to slaughter at an early age. You are simply letting your hatred for the Muslim community blind you into thinking of them as a monolith that acts in a manner you have associated in your mind with the worst of Muslims you hate. It isn't a rational critique of Hinduism to say Hindus burn their wives on funeral pyres or stigmatize widows. It is stereotyping of an entire community and reducing them to nothing but the nasty attributes you give them. It is not recognizing them as individuals, not even recognizing a diversity of compliance with your arbitrarily assigned trait.

And this is where atheism has its own brand of extremism and communal hate. It is a matter of rationality, whether our criticism is a logical evaluation of something or a statement of own belief or a statement of unfounded beliefs about other people (also known as fake news, if media does it). The last is not a fundamental right. I don't actually have a right to call you a scammer and hound you, taking every opportunity to discredit you and cause you emotional and possibly professional and economic harm from the consequences of my selectively interpreting your actions to fit my projection of you as a scam artist. That is stalking and harassment.

Just like knowing one atheist doesn't mean you know what all atheists do, selectively picking one Muslim or Hindu fanatic and calling all Muslims or Hindus fanatics based on that is the sign of an irrational mind that speaks more about paranoid delusions than skepticism or disbelief. Where does this hate come from?

Well, a lot of it from human nature. Unlike most identities associated with belief or a lack of belief, atheists are unique in the sense of their lack of belief having originated from different places and as a result of different circumstances. Some born to non-religious families are too.... vacant on the subject of belief to even qualify as atheists - they are more in the zone of that measuring scale not being relevant to them. Many others are a product of losing belief in a specific religion and its Gods and then learning to apply it to other gods. The religion of their origin can have a lot of anger or trauma attached to it, because they have suffered the disillusionment from it. In many cases, they may have suffered persecution as a result of it. Additionally, they may have stopped believing, but their experience as an insider gives them a unique insight into that religion and culture which allows them to make a more vigorous criticism of that religion more than others.

For example, I am no fan of Islam, but I can take it or leave it unless someone harms another. When they do act like absolute idiots, it still hurts me less than when Hindus do it. Because as someone born a Hindu Brahmin and who lacked belief in both religion and caste, but grew immersed in the culture, my own identity is mired in it. I know enough of the religion to hold a visceral anger against fundamentalists as those who enact the worst characteristics of the religion - that anger is a result of the betrayal of my painstakingly adopted values at the hands of the religion, not my lack of belief, which in itself is no reason for any particular emotion. That anger is because the acts of that brand of extremism caused me to have to reinvent my core identity as distinct from my roots. To consciously distance myself from aspects that I learned to feel ashamed of when I examined what the things I unthinkingly assumed to be "truth". In contrast, I don't feel anything about Islam. I haven't invested anything in it to feel cheated. I feel some for Buddhism because I spent half a decade as a part of a Buddhist family, so again, that feels like home culture and any wrong perpetrated in its name would make me feel violated. This will continue till I make my peace with it mentally. It is part of being human. Learning to recognize these influences rather than being an unthinking slave to them is a part of our philosophical evolution.

Similarly, Taslima Nasreen or Tarek Fatah (two ex-Muslim atheists) are vicious in their attacks on Islam and Muslims. I can understand that. They have had their trust broken by Islam. Taslima has been exiled from the country of her birth (and I think Tarek moved away on his own before they decided they didn't want him back). Needless to say, both have got plenty to be angry about on a personal level.

The problems arise when you believe your "insider" status as someone who was once a Muslim or Hindu gives you a unique insight into the case, but it actually isn't so and it is your hostility with the religion preventing you from seeing the observable reality. For example, like many upper caste Hindu men too fought for the rights of women and caste equality and widow remarriage, many Muslims are non-violent (to the point of being vegans), gentle, insightful souls. The vast majority of any identity is rarely acting in any manner similar to the extremist stereotype. In fact, extremists of all sorts have more in common with each other than the various identities they hijack. This is actually a no-brainer. if you take any diverse collective, the minute you stray the slightest from the definition of that collective, you stop being able to accurately describe its constituents. If an accurate description were possible, it would have already been included in the meaning of the word. And often, even the actual definition doesn't really fit.

Most people are born into their religion and had to do nothing, in particular, to "accept" it. So even core beliefs like "all Muslims believe in one God who is Allah" are actually up for debate depending on their conditioning. Most people aren't excessively religious and often kids grow up without any major belief and they are of the religion simply because that is part of the traditions of the family they belong to. Such a person may actually spend less part of their day thinking of their religion and what some holy book teaches than an atheist from it with a grudge or a zealous follower of another religion, who seeks validation of his beliefs being "right" by somehow proving others "wrong".

Regardless, there is a line. Atheism or rationalism cannot be the shoulder to fire guns of communal hatred from. Unlike religion, rationalism is not an identity, but a trait. If you make an irrational argument, sorry, you aren't being "a rationalist" no matter what you claim. Atheism is a lack of belief in God, not a set of beliefs about people who believe in that god.

Exploiting atheism and rationalism to conceal deep rooted hatred of specific communities is living in denial. There are terms - Islamophobia. Hindutvawadis recently helpfully invented "Hinduphobia". Use them.

Not atheism. Not rationalism. Not in my name.

3

R K Laxman on political fickleness
R K Laxman on political fickleness

It was a republic day of rulers, by rulers and for rulers, as India made a big fuss out of the President of a country that has historically undermined our interest. A guard of honor, protocols waived. A deal the Prime Minister had himself declared to be against national interest passed as though it were a good thing.

"Board Education" Cartoon by R K Laxman
"Board Education" Cartoon by R K Laxman

The previous months had seen an India slowly eroded with decreased attention to education, health, undermining the income lifeline of NREGA, increased attacks on minorities and more. It was a country where the Prime Minister did not find attending the Parliament a priority for himself, though he ordered his MPs to attend. Where laws happened as ordinances without the oversight of elected representatives of people.

rk-laxman-destroy

Where brute disinformation kept crucial information out of reach of the common man who was to believe that India was doing very well indeed, and if their life did not reflect that, they were the anomaly. It is an India where "Make in India" is designed by an American. An India most Indians have no idea about.

rk-laxman-opposition-visitThe day was no different. A party that had shown only disdain for the "added" values of secularism and socialism to the constitution further cemented their disdain for it by issuing the official advertisement with a fascimile of the original constitution without the two words they detested being present. As though a democratic revision had never happened at all. Unilaterally, the constitution was represented as something it no longer was.

Indian Government Republic Day ad
Indian Government Republic Day ad

Removing secularism and socialism as a deliberate action basically was an intent of not having the interests of the minorities or disadvantaged as a priority. In a country where a fifth of the population is under an absurd poverty line, where minorities are already facing attacks ahead of elections, it was a flat out statement of complete disinterest in all but the powerful.

R K Laxman cartoon on government issued clarifications
R K Laxman cartoon on government issued clarifications

Perhaps it is no surprise then, that the vice President of the country himself was not immune to crude insults by the foot soldiers of the party that has taken over the country. His belonging to a minority religion itself a reason enough for insult by ignorant bufoons who believed that if their ruler and defense minister presumed to accept a salute meant for the President, the vice president should as well. And if he didn't, it was because he was of a religion that was not in the interests of those in rule.

The Nation seem to have been rendered the private fiefdom of a party with not even the pretence of respect for democracy. Where tableaux from statesruled by the party had disproportionately high representation than other states. Where a candidate who has never won an election, but sits with official dignitaries can tell an ex-CM that he needs to join the party to get an invite for India's Republic Day.

Kiran Bedis complete contempt for democracy
Kiran Bedis complete contempt for democracy

As the President and our ruler held court with the powerful businessmen of India, after subverting many of the nation's protections against sellouts of vital interests, perhaps it was only poetic timing, that the legend who had given the common man voice, breathed his last.

R K Laxman's common man who endures everything
R K Laxman's common man who endures everything

R K Laxman's political cartoons had been the voice of the common man living the consequences of decisions beyond his control. His illustrations for television adaptation of his brother R K Narayan's Malgudi days are the enduring image of his brother's legacy for those of us who discovered the magic on TV.

Malgudi days illustration
Illustration for R K Narayan's Malgudi days by R K Laxman

It is a perspective that is no longer valued. A simple life, real people, a common man enduring what he must as a fact of life. He created a space for political cartoons in India. Lit a torch for others to uphold with biting satire imagery.

Neelabh Banerjee's satire on Indian politics puts R K Laxman's common man in the place of Jesus Christ
Neelabh Banerjee's "The Lost Supper", which is a satirical take on Indian politics based on "The Last Supper" of Jesus Christ puts R K Laxman's common man in the place of Jesus Christ

R K Laxman, the creator of the character of the "common man", who relentlessly educated the common man on the civics of the country in a way so visual that the least educated would understand.... died on this Republic Day. The common man is orphaned.

An image shared on social media as a shraddhanjali to R K Laxman
An image shared on social media as a shraddhanjali to R K Laxman - I don't know the source and will attribute if informed.

Perhaps in dying today, on Republic Day of India, R K Laxman made his most powerful political comment to date.

An article by Arundhati Roy that I respect highly. Originally published in theOutlook Magazine. Republishing here so that more people read it. Also a kind of public apology for writing criticism of her that did not acknowledge her excellent work. It was in the specific context of two of her articles, but got quoted by a few people as blanket criticism of her, which was definitely not my intention. I realize that my intention does not matter if its impact is off the mark. Putting this article up here is also a statement of respect. I am not, nor am ever likely to be “anti-Arundhati”.

Publishing this article in five parts, on request of readers who find pages difficult to access on mobile phones.

Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 5

The low, flat-topped hills of south Orissa have been home to the Dongria Kondh long before there was a country called India or a state called Orissa. The hills watched over the Kondh. The Kondh watched over the hills and worshipped them as living deities. Now these hills have been sold for the bauxite they contain. For the Kondh it’s as though god has been sold. They ask how much god would go for if the god were Ram or Allah or Jesus Christ?

Perhaps the Kondh are supposed to be grateful that their Niyamgiri hill, home to their Niyam Raja, God of Universal Law, has been sold to a company with a name like Vedanta (the branch of Hindu philosophy that teaches the Ultimate Nature of Knowledge). It’s one of the biggest mining corporations in the world and is owned by Anil Aggarwal, the Indian billionaire who lives in London in a mansion that once belonged to the Shah of Iran. Vedanta is only one of the many multinational corporations closing in on Orissa.

If the flat-topped hills are destroyed, the forests that clothe them will be destroyed too. So will the rivers and streams that flow out of them and irrigate the plains below. So will the Dongria Kondh. So will the hundreds of thousands of tribal people who live in the forested heart of India, and whose homeland is similarly under attack.

In our smoky, crowded cities, some people say, “So what? Someone has to pay the price of progress.” Some even say, “Let’s face it, these are people whose time has come. Look at any developed country, Europe, the US, Australia—they all have a ‘past’.” Indeed they do. So why shouldn’t “we”?

In keeping with this line of thought, the government has announced Operation Green Hunt, a war purportedly against the “Maoist” rebels headquartered in the jungles of central India. Of course, the Maoists are by no means the only ones rebelling. There is a whole spectrum of struggles all over the country that people are engaged in—the landless, the Dalits, the homeless, workers, peasants, weavers. They’re pitted against a juggernaut of injustices, including policies that allow a wholesale corporate takeover of people’s land and resources. However, it is the Maoists who the government has singled out as being the biggest threat. Two years ago, when things were nowhere near as bad as they are now, the prime minister described the Maoists as the “single-largest internal security threat” to the country. This will probably go down as the most popular and often-repeated thing he ever said. For some reason, the comment he made on January 6, 2009, at a meeting of state chief ministers, when he described the Maoists as having only “modest capabilities” doesn’t seem to have had the same raw appeal. He revealed his government’s real concern on June 18, 2009, when he told Parliament: “If left-wing extremism continues to flourish in parts which have natural resources of minerals, the climate for investment would certainly be affected.”

Who are the Maoists? They are members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist)—CPI (Maoist)—one of the several descendants of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), which led the 1969 Naxalite uprising and was subsequently liquidated by the Indian government. The Maoists believe that the innate, structural inequality of Indian society can only be redressed by the violent overthrow of the Indian State. In its earlier avatars as the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in Jharkhand and Bihar, and the People’s War Group (PWG) in Andhra Pradesh, the Maoists had tremendous popular support. (When the ban on them was briefly lifted in 2004, one-and-a-half million people attended their rally in Warangal.) But eventually their intercession in Andhra Pradesh ended badly. They left a violent legacy that turned some of their staunchest supporters into harsh critics. After a paroxysm of killing and counter-killing by the Andhra police as well as the Maoists, the PWG was decimated. Those who managed to survive fled Andhra Pradesh into neighbouring Chhattisgarh. There, deep in the heart of the forest, they joined colleagues who had already been working there for decades.

Not many ‘outsiders’ have any first-hand experience of the real nature of the Maoist movement in the forest. A recent interview with one of its top leaders, Comrade Ganapathy, in Open magazine didn’t do much to change the minds of those who view the Maoists as a party with an unforgiving, totalitarian vision, which countenances no dissent whatsoever. Comrade Ganapathy said nothing that would persuade people that, were the Maoists ever to come to power, they would be equipped to properly address the almost insane diversity of India’s caste-ridden society. His casual approval of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka was enough to send a shiver down even the most sympathetic of spines, not just because of the brutal ways in which the LTTE chose to wage its war, but also because of the cataclysmic tragedy that has befallen the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, who it claimed to represent, and for whom it surely must take some responsibility.