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Conversation with Vidya Bhushan Rawat


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/01/22

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you originally find humanism?

Vidya Bhushan Rawat: I lost my father in early childhood so my mother and sisters remained my guardians. We hailed from the mountain regions of North India. My mother was a religious woman but not into orthodoxy. She was deeply individually who faced the pains of being a widow at early age. Since, my family was not much into a joint family system, so the entire rules and regulations at our homes were of our own. My mother never imposed religious values on us. Her only point would be to be good, remain humble. We did not have enough money to survive so we were not really deep into it. I later found that for the rural poor, it is the struggle for their daily survival more important than any god and my case was no different. Religion was just kind of a relations between ‘God’ and human being. I could recite a few of Sanskrit hymns which was part of my curriculum but which were more as a moral studies, knowledge about respecting elders and following the path of truth.

My struggles for life were tough. As a growing young boy, I had none to support me. At the age of 16, I started working in a private company and taking tuitions. These were difficult in India in those days for survival. A great Indian author, brought me to Delhi who claimed to be a humanist. I was the student of literature so felt that I would gain. There at his place, I came to read numerous books but was also disturbed with my own conditions. The working conditions for me were terrible like a bonded labour. My desire to study never got fulfilled in such situation because each one who tried to support me actually used me too me for their comfort.

I came to Delhi in 1991. There was no one who I could share my concern as a young boy. There was a pressure at home. I came to many literature about liberation theology. One of my friend who saw my conditions and depression, took me to church. I started going there and slowly, felt that all my pains and agonies are due to my religion. I took to Christianity classes. After many days, when I was attending the theological classes, I asked a question about why ‘black is evil’, as being told by a theological teacher. She was dumb stuck and faltered. In Christianity, we were told that miracle do happen. I was in love with my friend who suffered from polio. We were planning to marry. Church helped us. Attending these classes, I felt may be a miracle can help her recover. I prayed and also went to those Godmen who claimed they can do any miracle. Nothing happened. Slowly, my disappointment with Christianity started. I also came in touch with friends in Islam, felt it was better to fight against injustice but inside there, I felt that people like me who question everything including the finality of the religious text would not be able be there.

Frankly, this was the period where I was introduced to the writing of two of the greatest Indian philosopher and political revolutionaries. One was Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar and the other was EVR Periyar. Dr Ambedkar brought the silent revolution in India about how the Dalits got their rights. Reading them about various issues particularly our social order, where he said that there is nothing called finality of religious text and we must question them. Ambedkar embraced Buddha but redefined Buddhism. I follow path shown by Ambedkar, it is what I called new humanism. Periyar, never believed in any God.

By 1994, I was deep into the social movements particularly those in the left political circles and the impact of writing of M N Roy, Bhagat Singh, Rahul Sankrityayan and many others who challenged religious orthodoxy and questioned, grew on me and I became a radical humanist. In fact when we married in 1994, it was a civil marriage without any religious orthodoxy. Religion has never been a part of my life since then, not merely mine but my family, which means my wife as well as daughter. We are absolutely comfortable with that and enjoy being without God.

Jacobsen: What defines humanism to you?

Rawat: Humanism for mean rationalism with compassion. I wont be a rationalist just for the sake of rationalism. For me, if this does not include Karuna, compassion, as Buddha says, we cant be humanist. A humanist cant be dogmatic like any other ism. They should be the best defender of human rights. For me a humanist is a person with whom a religious person too feel comfortable in talking. God is not an issue for me as I am not trying to convince but as soon as God is used for political and social purposes, i have an issue. I dont waste my time with people whether there is God or no God as there is no point as people world over have their own ideas and convictions. Secularisation too have made people mechanised and too individual. While we respect individuality yet you live in society, interact with each other, show concern and hence can not be totally detached with it. A humanist is a person who will even defend right of my religious neighbour to be religious as long as his religion does not infringe my personal liberty.

Jacobsen: Where you’re at geographically, growing up, what were your major difficulties with the religious and religion’s doctrines in general? I ask because humanists face so, so many prejudices and biases.

Rawat: I grew up in the mountains of Uttarakhand regions in India. It one side border with Nepal and other side with China. As I said, the place that I came from was conservative where people would go to temples and keep fasting but in my family, I never kept any. There was no imposition of any religious values on us except in marriage or any other ceremonies, we had to make a ceremonial presence or participate some time.

Since, we were a nucleus family there was not much pressure. In India, the religious norms and orthodoxies are mostly imposed in joint family system where the entire clan live together and role divided between men and women.

Our marriage was opposed by family as it was not merely between two individuals from diverse regions and cultures but also because my wife suffered from Polio. She was unwelcome. By that time, I had become ideologically too strong to challenge. It was an open challenge. I can say, that I am proud of my decision to remain lonely in the crowd for which i paid huge price as none of my relative would come to me and we are still growing in isolation.

Second incident happened when my daughter was born in 1995. We were living alone in Delhi. My mother and sisters wanted to come. We did not perform any rituals. In India after the baby is born, you have to do many rituals. When my mother and sister came to us, they asked us whether we have purified ourselves to which I responded in negative. She refused to enter the house. I was also adamant and asked her to live if she feel so. The situation was just compromised when the house owner came and said he would perform something. Which was nothing but a hog wash to satisfy my mother and she entered.

I give one example of how religious values some time dangerous. My brother in law was suffering from various ailments. He was admitted to hospital for surgery. He was wearing rings in most of his fingers. The fingers had swollen but he continued. The day doctors wanted to operate him, asked him to put off the rings which he was not keen. The doctors then remarked that if does not do it, his fingers would have to be cut. That day, I found how dangerous are the religious faiths which can take your life too.

Jacobsen: What organizations have you been involved with for the irreligious fight against religion?

Rawat: I founded Social Development Foundation in 1998. The aim was to develop human rights defenders as well as do some community work which were deeply rooted in superstition and religious orthodoxy. In India the biggest curse in the name of religion to humanity is untouchability and caste discrimination. You are born in a particular caste and you have to do that work. So if a person is born in a community of manual scavenging then he or she has to do that kind of work cleaning the toilets of other or sewage lines. It means that your identity is birth based and your work is predicided.

I knew during that period there were a few humanist organisations but they were confined to already converted a few, more like holiday discussion groups. We felt there is no meaning in humanism if this is not a philosophy which people could enjoy, particularly those who were poor and victim of India’s hidden caste apartheid. And hence in our human rights education programme and other leadership development programme, humanism became an inherent part and I can vouch that we succeeded in bringing the young humanists from those communities which were victims. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is over 220 million people, we organised camps, training programmes, miracle exposure programmes, awareness campaigns, marches etc to convey our point of view as why it is important to change ourself, question the authority of religious scriptures and for that we used the writings, sayings of those philosophers who had spoken for humanism, human rights and human dignity. So, Dr Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar, Bhagat Singh, M N Roy, Rahul Sankrityayan like legend came handy. Many sufi saints who were popular and respected might not be a one hundred percent humanists but their poetry and writings were also used as they talked about universal brotherhood, equality between gender and human beings, spoke against superstition even when they might have believed in one God or one power concept. Our point was religion is dangerous as it control and it is political in nature but if we confine it to individual which does not violate rights of others, we can still work with those people.

We knew that in the people in the villages go to quacks and other godmen because there are no medical services. Our effort was to educate people and take them to medication. We organised medical camps for ailments and the result was that in many villages things started changing. When you work with most marginalised, victims of social order and caste system, you have to bring them to science and it is possible through easy access to medical system so that they can get benefit of that. Once they get easy access they would enjoy it and will reduce their dependency on religious practices.

Jacobsen: What are the pluses of religion?

Rawat: The plus point is that religion give strength to people to do something good many time. Second is, it has the strength to socialise. People who are oppressed and isolated find solace in it. I say, it is the failure of those who call themselves as humanist and secular as they do not respond to the emotions of the people. Religion’s major aspect is socialisation and addressing the emotional needs of the people which the secularists and their individual tendencies does not understand.

Jacobsen: What are the negatives of religion?

Rawat: Religion is politics. I don’t say religion is mere superstition. Organised religion is a power equation of power elite many of them are technocrats, scientists, industrialists and politicians. It is superstition for poor who look upto god as a miracle for his problems but for the rich and powerful it is a way that leads to power. Christianity, Islam and Hinduism have been made organised religion to attain power. In many places Buddhism too has been used which is depressing. The main part of such mobilisation of religion is to convert the minorities into a villain and through their vilification enjoy the power. Entire South Asia today is victim of this majoritarianism which is the biggest threat to its democracy and human rights.

Jacobsen: How does religion influence politics in the world?

Rawat: Western World is divided between Islam and Christianity. The Eastern side has many including Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Religion used as a vehicle to ride the political power. Most of the human rights organisations are funded by the religious organisations. They are already in charities. Even the terrorist organisations have charities and calamities come handy for them. It is because of this, we had asked the humanist organisations to think of their interventions in developmental sector. There has to be a humanist response to human rights, developmental and charity sector otherwise it is in the hands of religious power. Through charities religious organisations have controlled all the human rights as well as political discourse.

Jacobsen: How does religious doctrine violate human rights?

Rawat: There are many. One is the religious scriptures are sacrosanct and you cant challenge. Now in our part of the world it is visible in everyday life. You cant marry beyond your caste and religion. If you try, you would be murdered in the name of honor. We have seen numerous killings of young couples because they belong to different castes or religions.

Religious taboos killing. Witch craft is another issue which is used to control women, her property if she has, particularly when she is alone, single, divorced or widowed. It is easier to make a character assassination and then engaged in mob violence against her.

In the past three four years, we have seen prejudices in the name of our food habits. Now, vegetarianism is being aggressively being promoted. It is not a choice but as a hate against those who eat meat particularly beef. Now state has regulated that beef eating is banned in India and there is heavy penalty and punishment if you are found eating or slaughtering it. India’s cow protection laws have similarity to the blasphemy laws in Islamic societies. It is terrible and anti minorities, anti Dalits. The incident of mob lynching against the so called beef eaters or those who were transporting cows-or buffaloes allegedly for slaughtering is an eye opener. The fact is that India is the biggest beef exporting country of the world. Which means that government has not stopped exporting beef but then why is it encouraging people to take law unto their hand. India’s anti beef or cow protection laws are aimed at controlling its biggest minority, Muslims. They have been targeted. Rather than investigating against the culprits, in most of the cases, police and investigative agencies were researching whether the meat that the person was eating or in his freeze was beef.

We also have religious leaders dictating about women, giving them direction as what they should eat, do and wear. All of them are united in telling the women that their freedom is the biggest danger for them. In the cases of violence against women, most of the people feel, that it is the fault of the women themselves.

Jacobsen: What do you see as the major human rights battle now?

Rawat: The biggest human rights battle today is the growing majoritarianism which is now taking fascist tendencies where every minority is being considered as an obstacle and a threat to nation. Majoritarianism and nationalism are being used in convertible and synonymous terms.

Humanists too are under the threat as they are speaking for the human rights of the people. Human rights defenders, secular activists, peace builders are being considered as anti nationals. Criticising the government is also considered as anti national. We always felt that media is the fourth pillar of democracy but now it look crony media is becoming the biggest threat to democracy as it is spreading lies and cooking stories in the newsrooms. Media was a watch dog but here in India media is actually hunting opposition and trying to finish it. Sadly and most importantly, India’s educated class which enjoy liberal western democracy, human rights, minority rights there does not want to support secular democratic movement in the country. Many of these Non Resident Indians, the scientists and technocrats, business persons have turned highly rightwing and support the hate campaign back home. My request to all of them is that you are enjoying the best in liberal democracies so please do support values of human rights, secularism and social justice back home in India. India can only survive because of its secular democratic republican values enshrined in our constitution. Converting India into a theocracy would be violative of our constitutional values and vision that the founding fathers of our independent republic had dreamt. Saving India’s secular liberal democratic values is the biggest challenge that we face today.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Vidya.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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