Despite legal protection accorded to the freedom of religion, the assault on rationalism in general and atheism in particular continues. H. Farook has joined Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi in the ranks of the martyrs to no god. The only difference between them is that he was not a prominent rationalist, but a Coimbatore scrap dealer with a strong sense of identity. Farook’s father has offered the finest tribute to his son’s memory. Disappointed by an orthodoxy which will not brook dissent, he has decided to become an atheist himself. Thus, he has expanded a question pertaining to the freedom of religion into an issue of the freedom of speech. It is not enough to be an atheist; one must also have the freedom to proclaim it without fear.
While this instance involves Muslims, it is not a Muslim issue. When political events turn religion into a focus of identity, atheism and agnosticism threaten orthodoxies across religious divides, ignoring legal precedents which safeguard religious freedoms. The most significant precedent is a 2014 judgment of the Bombay High Court, which held that the government cannot force anyone to declare their religion in an official document. It also observed that citizens have the right to declare that they do not belong to any religion. This is really not unusual, in a region where numerous schools of atheism have flourished from antiquity. While Buddhism and Jainism are commonly understood to be heterodox, the Carvaka and Ajivika schools of Hinduism are unfortunately known only to scholars. This is apart from the numerous atheist and agnostic groups that have flourished in modern times, often as part of reform movements.
In modern times, of course, the right to be guided by the senses and the intelligence rather than scripture is a given. So is the importance of tolerance, without which the ideal of a borderless, globalised world would be unattainable. The intolerant persecution of the atheist is a special case, along with honour killings and caste abuse, since victims are attacked by the very community they were born into. Religious identity is only one of the many personas which are assigned to us, and which we should be free to change or discard. At a time when identity is central to politics, this freedom is as fundamental as the right to change party allegiances, and those who would constrain it are enemies of democracy.