When the Census 2011 enumerators came knocking on the doors of Vishram Swaroop Katiyar, 64, in Patel Chowk area of Kanpur Dehat district and asked him about his religion, he said: “The Constitution is my religion.”
“I didn’t see what he eventually wrote, but that’s what I told him,” says the bespectacled man in a dhoti-kurta, sitting in the first-floor office of Arjak Sangh, of which he is a member. From the outside, the structure seems like any other office of umpteen little-known organisations in Uttar Pradesh; except, all those inside the office are avowed atheists. A slogan on their wall reads: “Bhagwan se yadi nyay milta toh nyayalay nahi hote; Saraswati se yadi vidya milti toh vidyalaya nahi hote (If god was just, there would be no need for courts; if Saraswati gave education, there would be no need for schools).”
In the just-released Census 2011 figures for religion, over 28 lakh people said they followed none of the six religions listed in the Census form. Of them, 5.82 lakh are from Uttar Pradesh. The obvious reason being that it is also the most populous state in the country, with almost 20 crore people. Question no. 7 in the Census form offers a choice of six religions with corresponding codes. The enumerators could also list other religions with names and without codes, and that’s how the atheists, agnostics, the rationalists and the humanists stepped forward to be counted.
In UP, the figure could be attributed to the thousands of followers of Arjak Sangh, perhaps the largest atheist group active in the state, both in rural and urban areas. Their members in Kanpur, Basti, Faizabad, Pratapgarh, Varanasi and in neighbouring states of Bihar and Jharkhand swear by a 32-page handbook, written by founder Ramswaroop Verma, who was born in Kanpur, and was also the finance minister of UP under chief minister Charan Singh in 1967. “Arjak” translates to a community engaged in physical labour, and hence, those born Brahmin or in other “upper” castes are not entitled to become members. While propagating conscious human equality, Arjak Sangh is staunchly opposed to ‘Brahmanism’. Idol worship, fate, rebirth and soul are also some of the things they rally against.
Sitting in his house near the office, Suresh Babu Katiyar, 66, an Arjak Sangh member, a former Nagar Palika chairman as well as a former college teacher, says that discussions on religion would inadvertently crop up at his workplace. “I would reason that no evidence, in terms of the tools of Ram’s times, has been found [to support his existence], but they would not listen,” he says. He could speak freely as there were about five-six atheists in the college’s staff of about 30.
Sriram Swaroop Katiyar, a former psychology lecturer, whose daughter-in-law is a practising doctor, recounts how he put his point across to her. “Three-four years ago, she had set up a temple inside the house and used to be a pure vegetarian. Of late, she has stopped worshipping and started consuming meat; I’m sure she is pondering over my thoughts,” he says with a smile. Sriram brought up his two sons and a daughter as atheists.
It has not always been smooth going for the Sangh members. Once, Vishram accompanied his youngest sister to a meeting to arrange her wedding. “They came
to know we were atheists and they broke off the match,” he says. “They may ask, how do you decide morality? We say whatever stands the test of reason and evidence,” he adds.
Sitaram Katiyar, district president of Arjak Sangh, quotes from Ramayana as easily as Darwin, shredding the former with the latter. “Hindu scriptures, like those of other religions, are said to be god’s will; it is god’s will that you’re born into a low caste because of your deeds, and that Brahmins are at the top of the social order. You cannot dare revolt against god, so Brahmins continue to enact suppression of ‘lower castes’ through society and government,” he says, terming Ramayana as “Brahmin mahima (Brahmin praise)”. “And now you have a PM talking of plastic surgeries in ancient India. It is certainly regressive,” he adds as an afterthought.
Sitaram was one of nearly 80 people who went to jail in 1978 when founder Ramswaroop Verma burnt copies of the Ramayana in Dayanakpur village, amid heavy police presence. “It forced people in these parts to take note. Earlier, they just trusted the pandit to recite shlokas at marriages and in temples. Now they took up reading and found it to be one man’s gupp (fantasy).” The movement grew in the 1970s and ’80s, until Verma’s death in 1998. However, regular street plays, a weekly newspaper and conventions ensured that Verma’s way of thinking is still ingrained in these parts. Though it is not as if the Sangh draws new members, the sons and daughters of the earliest members continue steadfast in their un-belief.
A 10-minute walk away from the office, 72-year-old Balak Ram, sitting with others beneath a tree in Mohammadpur Nagar panchayat, terms all religion as “pakhand (that which deceives).” Not all those who sit with him are members of the Ajrak Sangh, though they subscribe to the ideology. “All religions are lies, I’m a humanist,” Ram says. “Vermaji awakened us,” he says, as others around him nod.
Mohammadpur is in Sikandra assembly seat, which has about 400 villages. Many residents of the villages subscribe to this ideology, though they are not necessarily members of the Sangh.
The nonbelievers are spread across the spectrum. Some may be closet atheists or agnostics, some don’t worship idols yet believe in a supernatural power, or may be atheists, yet follow all religious rituals under family pressure. They may be humanists or consider the elements as the real driving force (padarthwadi) of life, and so on. Nonetheless, the people sitting under the tree take pride that it is the “least superstitious” assembly seat in the country, “even more so than in southern India.” Politicians, and “goonda types”, have not been able to get a foothold as “ours is an aware society.”
Ved Prakash, 45 recounts how a soothsayer would fool people along with a young accomplice, whose face would be hidden under a sheet. “He would give the child hints with his words and gestures and the kid would pretend to tell the future of the person. I persuaded him to replace the kid with my son, and under pressure, he agreed. However, my son could foretell nothing. When the Baba asked ‘Can you see an old mandir?’, he would say no,” he says. “[The scandal of] Asaram Bapu happened today, we are glad to have been told about it four decades ago,” Prakash says, mentioning a play, Raka Kaka, written by one of Verma’s aides in 1973-74, which tells the story of a lecherous godman.
There are three temples and two mosques in Mohammadpur, and no new ones have been built in years. Though “forward looking” in certain aspects, the Arjak movement has it weaknesses. Few women are present in their meetings, if any, though the men compete with each other to claim that their wives are atheists. “There are closet atheists [elsewhere], but here we have closet theists,” says Jagdish Narain, 65, a farmer. “In front of us, the women don’t talk of any god, but who knows what they do when we aren’t home,” he says. “Women do come, but only when we have large state-wide or national conventions,” adds Vishram Katiyar.
Children don’t return from school and ask “uncomfortable” questions about religion, or the lack of it, as over the past decades, the theists and atheists have learnt to live in apparent harmony. “On festivals such as Diwali or Dussehra, we just get sweets for the children, if needed,” says Radhey Shyam, 63, a farmer. Their “festivals”, instead, are Republic Day on January 26, Chetna Diwas on Dr Ambedkar’s birth anniversary on April 14, Science Day on November 1 (Maharaj Singh’s birthday) and so on. Even when it comes to weddings, the atheists here just have to take an oath, sign a paper with four people as witnesses and that’s it. They also avoid going to last rites or the terveenh, instead choosing to visit the grieving family before that.
The Brahmins of the region are apprehensive of the atheists and rationalists, especially those of Arjak Sangh. “They claim they burnt Ramayana, but we’ve only heard about it,” says Satya Narain Tiwari, 40, who sells manure in a nearby street. “So far it has been good, but if they try to impress their wild thoughts on our children, we will also return the favour,” he says. His father Ramesh Chandra Tiwari, 70, says that Ramswaroop Verma was a good man, but one look at his son, and he stops short of elaborating on the virtues of the man who led this league of unbelievers.