A plea from the International Association of Free Thought

The International Association of Free Thought defends freedom of conscience and expression on all continents. We express our deep solidarity with victims of religious repression and call on people of all nations to mobilize for the defense of freedom of expression. Today we wish to bring to light a very troubling situation that is unfolding in India.

Reminder: The Indian Constitution does not refer to God and does not make membership in a religious group a criterion for citizenship. The Right to Freedom of Expression and the Right to Freedom of Conscience are totally guaranteed by articles 19 and 25 of the Indian Constitution; they are considered to be fundamental rights. In addition, Article 51 A (h) encourages all citizens to develop “scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

The Preamble of the Indian Constitution establishes that the Indian people have decided to create «a sovereign, socialist secular democratic republic ».

In several judgments, the High Courts (which are the highest jurisdictions in each of the 29 Indian states) have affirmed people’s rights to declare their non-religious or atheist identity without any discrimination or prejudice and their right to criticize religious thought and practice.


On the eve of elections in India, which will take place in May 2019, politicians have been using the media to attack those who do not believe in God.

In the past, Mrs. Uma Bharati, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, an important federal state and who now serves as Minister for Water Resources, had blamed atheists for the floods in the state of Uttarakhand! Others have called on people to kill atheists in public places, thus feeding feelings of hatred and inciting the most intolerant elements to wound or make non-believers suffer. In the state of Gujarat, some politicians during previous campaigns had declared that when they come to power they would make the state a graveyard for secularists.
It is clear that by making Hinduism a quasi-official religion, they encourage fundamentalists to spread hatred and possibly even take violent action against non-believers.

Currently, secularists are considered suspect and are steadily denigrated on social networks. This type of hate speech is subject to no legal proceeding from the authorities, and this leads Humanists, Atheists and Secularists into a deep feeling of insecurity.

Even worse, organized paramilitary groups disrupt humanist and rationalist meetings and lodge abusive and oppressive complaints against non-believers, while pretending their religious feelings are hurt by atheists’ expression.

Religious extremists have called for the elimination of rationalists from society for years and threatened them by saying they should go to Pakistan and not stay in India. These extremists have also falsely accused rationalists and vilified them as agents paid by the Christian Church. Now they are launching violent attacks, some of which have resulted in death.

  • On August 20, 2013, Narendra Dhabolkar (a rationalist who advocated for legislation that would place restrictions on those who use superstition to threaten and control others) was assassinated in the state of Maharashtra by unidentified gunmen.
  • On February 16, 2015, the writer and rationalist, the communist intellectual Govind Pansare was attacked and killed by unidentified assailants in the state of Maharashtra.
  • On August 30, 2015, M M Kalburgi, the former vice-chancellor of a university and a critique of the Hindu religion, was slaughtered.
  • On September 5, 2017, Gauri Lankesh, a rationalist journalist, was assassinated.

More recently, target lists of eminent rationalists have been circulating among far-right groups that are outraged at the renunciation of Hindu religion by those who were born in India.

Many rationalist and atheistic leaders continually receive threats via social media networks; some of them are victims of abusive complaints and are put in jail while awaiting trial.

The threat of violence has also spread to members of the general population, not only activists and public personalities. In March 2017, a 31-year-old Indian from Coimbatore, A Farooq, who had mentioned that he was atheistic, was killed by a group of people he knew. On December 4, 2018, police inspector Subodh Singh, a secular officer, was assassinated by a horde while he was on his way to investigate a dump of cow carcasses.  High government officials clearly indicated that the main thrust of their investigation would be the death of the cows and not that of the police officer!

For Professor Narenda Nayak and others, the danger is real and imminent.

The alleged assassin of Gauri Lankesh, has, in his confession, acknowledged that a group of assassins has also begun surveillance of Professor Narendra Nayak, a well-known educator in sciences and also the President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA). For the record, Dr. Dabholkar, who was assassinated five years ago, was the vice-president of the FIRA.

We are horrified to see that along with Narenda Nayak who appears at the top of all these lists, several others are being targeted by these extremists, among them K.S. Bhagawan, a famous rationalist Indian and writer; the anti-superstition activist Swamy Nijugunanand, a religious Hindu leader  with progressive ideas; and Girish Karnad, an actor and film director.

International organizations have a duty of solidarity

Those who fight and campaign to free Indian society from superstitions, (as it is written in Article 51 A (h) of the Constitution of the nation) are harassed and threatened. Some are assassinated; others are put in jail or in exile.

The IAFT appeals to all the associations, organizations, and trade unions in favor of freedom of conscience to take a stand to denounce this situation and require from the Indian government:

  • The respect of freedom of conscience for everyone
  • The immediate end of the prosecution and threats that weigh on rationalist activists
  • The release of all the rationalist leaders who are currently jailed for their ideas

Note: The situation for all Humanists, Rationalists and Free Thinkers is precarious in South Asia because of religious extremism, which is often backed by governmental policies.

In neighboring Bangladesh, besides Avijit Roy, an engineer and writer, 16 bloggers have been assassinated by terrorists, and the Prime Minister of the country has warned the unarmed bloggers against provoking terrorists.

In neighboring Pakistan, secular activists – 40 of them – have been kidnapped by the police; moreover about 40 people are sentenced to life imprisonment or are on death row for blasphemy in Pakistani prisons.

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