Religious bigots are making a mockery of India's secular Constitution and agnostic philosophical traditions; they must be challenged.

A French journalist who read the manuscript of my book, Cultures & Vultures, wondered how my atheist beliefs and Sikh religion could coexist with “spiritual India.”

My atheism is not unrelated to the Sikh religion, which was originally based on Hindu philosophy. I referred to the weekly Gita lectures by S. Radhakrishnan as Vice-Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University. Students gasped upon learning from the philosopher that most classical systems of Hindu philosophy, with the exception of Uttara Mimansa, also called Vedanta, do not acknowledge the existence of god. He stated that Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkya, Yoga, Purva Mimansa and the earlier beliefs, Brihaspati's Charvaka, Mahavira's Jainism, and Theravada Buddhism were all agnostic. Gautama Siddhartha the Buddha (c. 563-483 BC) touched the Earth as the witness of his Enlightenment.

Romila Thapar reiterated this at a meeting held to revise UNESCO's History of Mankind. The eminent historian said the Charvakas were the earliest exponents of atheist materialism in “spiritual India.” They rejected as absurd all super-sensible things as “destiny,” “soul,” or “after-life.” Ajita Keshakambalin, a contemporary of the Buddha, proclaimed that humans go from dust to dust, ashes to ashes, earth to earth, and “there is no other world than this one.” He termed the authors of the Vedas “buffoons, knaves, and demons.”

It is amazing how Keshakambalin's notions transcended 25 centuries, and in our own time was invoked by E.V. Ramasamy, an atheist and a bitter critic of the Vedas. He led thousands of men and women in street processions to parody Hindu gods and goddesses. UNESCO awarded him with an unprecedented citation: “The prophet of the new age, the Socrates of South Asia, father of social reform movement and arch enemy of ignorance, superstitions, meaningless customs and base manners.” Until his death in 1973, people in India were freely able to speak their mind. Dalits could publicly condemn the Manusmriti without being branded “anti-national.” People would laugh at Aubrey Menen's Ramayana, in which he speculated that Sita was not abducted but eloped with Ravana, the handsome Lankan king. The former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi, an atheist, pooh-poohed the theory that monkeys built the Rama Sethu bridge across the Gulf of Mannar. He asked: “What Ram? Who is this Ram? From which engineering college did Ram graduate?”

Vote banks

The Hindutva political agenda rejected the traditional agnostic philosophical systems of Hinduism, beginning with atheism. Targeting vote banks, they accused my friend M.F. Husain of painting “obscene” images of Hindu goddesses — traditionally depicted naked in temples and shrines. The Hindu Personal Law Board offered Rs.51 crore as reward to anyone who would behead the great artist. Activists of the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad vandalised his Mumbai home and offered money, even gold bricks, to anyone who would blind Husain and cut off his hands — as in some Koranic verses that call on Muslims “to kill infidels and chop off their heads and fingers.”

The Islamic “fling stones” (from those who stone ‘infidels' during the Haj pilgrimage) jumped on to the communal bandwagon of the Sangh Parivar “fundoos” (as nicknamed by the writer Githa Hariharan). The All India Ulema Council protested against the screening of Husain's Meenaxi, in which a song lauds a woman's beauty using words that occur in an Islamic hymn that defines the persona of Prophet Mohammad. Thus threatened, the film was withdrawn from cinemas.

It was against this backdrop that I picked up cudgels against Taqi Raza Khan, head of the All-India Ibtehad Council, which wanted Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen deported from India for criticising Shariah laws that violate women's rights. He offered Rs.5 lakh to anyone who would behead (qatal) her. She had been granted a residence permit in 2005 to live and work in Kolkata, a city that she loves for its cultural environment. Taslima had won the 2004 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence.

Taqi Raza Khan found unexpected allies during the 2007 West Bengal local body elections when some Congress workers looking for Muslim votes provoked a demonstration against her along with the CPI(M). On November 22, the police escorted her out of Kolkata. She was flown to Jaipur and on the same day taken to Delhi and kept in ‘solitary confinement.' Outraged by the human rights violation, I contacted a number of government officials, and for weeks engaged in correspondence with political leaders including Jyoti Basu. When all those efforts, including a threat to go on a hunger strike, failed, I wrote to Manmohan Singh pleading that Taslima's expulsion from Kolkata was contrary to India's cultural tradition. I drew his attention to the 5th century Ajanta painting of the king of the Sibis, who saved a dove by giving an equal weight of his own flesh to the hawk that wanted to kill it.

The Prime Minister invariably acknowledges my communications, but the transparent sincerity and poignancy of his two-page letter dated April 4, 2008 was unprecedented. The concluding paragraph reaffirmed India's secular ideals and respect for human rights and dignity. He wrote: “India's glorious traditions of welcoming people irrespective of caste and creed, community and religion will continue, whatever be the odds. The atmosphere of hate being perpetrated by a small segment within the country will not prevent us from persisting with this tradition. We recognise Taslima Nasreen's right to remain in a country of her choice, viz., India in this case. She should also have the option to choose whichever city or state she chooses.” Taslima was delighted as it would enable her to stay on as my guest in New Delhi for as long as she wishes.

A farce

My optimism that the letter had finally snuffed out the political farce of hurt religious feeling was belied when Taslima's book Nirbasan (Exile) was barred from the Kolkata Book Fair. Before that, Deoband members prevented Salman Rushdie from attending the Jaipur Literary Festival. The bigots replayed the ludicrous drama, and took the initiative to file cases against four delegates for their “intention” to read out from The Satanic Verses, pushing Indian jurisprudence into the quagmire of endless interpretation of the freedom of expression under Article 19(2).

The courts cannot break the stranglehold of religious bigotry so long as the fundoos and fling stones define the communal terms of reference and ignore India's agnostic civilisation, the source of our secular Constitution. I inherited my secular ideals from my mother Sumitra Kaur, who died on March 18, 1987. On top of the packet containing the Sikh Adi Granth was a photograph of Swami Vivekananda addressing university students in the United States; a hand-drawn sketch of the ‘Mother' of the Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry; and a miniature painting of the Sufi sage Mian Mir who laid the foundation stone of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Sikh holy book contains verses of both Hindu and Muslim saints — Kabir, Namdev, Sheikh Farid and other devotees of a God whom they were unwilling and unable to delimit by means of a sectarian description.

Guru Nanak's Sikhism was inspired by India's multicultural civilisation that reflected the norms of India's traditional agnostic philosophy. He decried the caste system, empty religious ritual, pilgrimages and miracles. With his two life-long disciples, Bala, a Hindu, and Mardana, a Muslim rabab player, he built the religious edifice, as it were with “Hindu bricks and Muslim mortar of Sufi Islam,” as Khushwant Singh wrote in The History of the Sikhs.

My secular and atheist sentiments are deeply offended. I am consulting advocates on the possibility of moving against the bigots for making a mockery of India's secular Constitution and agnostic philosophy.

(UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Madanjeet Singh is the founder of the South Asia Foundation.)

More In: Comment | Opinion