No atheists in our census

Inspired by the recent ad-campaign by the British Humanist Association calling upon people without religion to say so in their census data, I had a look at the Indian census form. While question 3 on the form demonstrates progressive politics in that it seeks to enumerate transgenders alongside men and women, Question 7 on religion is quite regressive. This is what it says:

Q 7. Religion:
(Write the name of religion in full)
Also give code in box if found in the list below
For other religions, write name of the religion in full but do not give any code number.

The list contains the following religions: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain

Thus, the only option atheists and agnostics appear to have is to leave the option blank. as But that can look like an omission and does not necessarily indicate the non-religious nature of the individual’s belief system. In the 2001 Census, 727,588 people left the column blank. They are reported not as atheists or agnostics, but as ‘Religion not Stated’.

Indeed, the parallels with transgenders are obvious. Presumably, before the introduction of ‘other’ in the sex question, trans-people had to leave it blank or choose between male or female. And like trans-people, the state and the society may not approve of atheists, but surely they must be counted.

Another noteworthy entry: under Q 9 on ‘Disability’, ‘mental retardation’ is listed as one of the disabilities. Who uses language like that any more?

Update: This post by Nivedita Menon on experiences that some women have had with census enumerators is fantastic – Arun, thanks for pointing it out.

Written by
Tarunabh Khaitan
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  • It is unfortunate isn't it? Given that the census doesn't do the job of counting atheists, what does? Can give me a rough estimates of atheists and agnositc people in India?

  • There can surely be many more entries in the list of religions. By claiming this list to be an exhaustive one, the government assumes the right to decide which religions an individual may or may not profess. Does the constitution give it that right?

    Do tribal religions all fall under Hinduism?

  • Good points, Tarunabh. Your critique reminds me of the feminist critique of the current census process in India. Over at Kafila, Nivedita Menon had this interesting recent post which focuses on her experiences, as well as those of other feminists, of being subjected to the census process. Both the post and comments that follow make compelling points.

  • I agree with Mr Khaitan's views and would like to add a little more to it. My views are divided on three plains:

    1) The Constitution of India, expressly uses the word "secular" which has now been incorporated in the basic structure list. The caste census done by the state is a violation of secularism.

    2) I would like to justify the statement made above by a reasons, that religion is a person's private exercise of rights and the state has no power as to indulge and know what religion I follow, if the state indulges in such type of census then it is also violating my right to privacy under Art 21.

    3) On the basis of analytical analysis, Learned author A. Barak, writes there has to be a purpose for an action, but here wasting cores of rupee for just a caste census is purpose less. I still find it very difficulty to understand what help will be given by these census for policy making, and if any then it would be a violation of Art 14, as the policy would be based on caste discrimination.

  • I differ with the view of the author expressed by the sentence "Thus, the only option atheists and agnostics appear to have is to leave the option blank. as But that can look like an omission and does not necessarily indicate the non-religious nature of the individual's belief system. "

    Atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of any supernatural bodies, deities, etc. It does not mean that the person automatically loses his status as a Hindu.

    Hinduism, along with other religions, are a way of life and a culture. There are many aspects to Hinduism or Christianity or any religion for that matter, other than Belief in a supernatural entity.

    An Hindu can very well be an atheist or a believer in the supernatural. Hence, just because a person fills in the column under Question No. 7 as a Hindu does not automatically mean he is a believer.

    I believe the solution, in order to distinguish atheists/agnostics from the others) is to have a specific question in the questionnaire as to whether a person is an atheist or not.

  • rahul, i take your broad point about the compatibility of atheism and at least some religions. but not all atheists are or want to be hindus/buddhists etc. *some* may choose to, and that is their choice. but making all atheists hindus by default is misrecognition. hinduism may be happy with atheism, but the reverse is not necessarily true. i, for example, would certainly not want to be classified as belonging to any religion. hence, as you acknowledge, a 'no religion' option is essential.

  • in Rahul's comment, he decides a religion on the basis of a persons birth, but that is not the core of this topic. For example if a guy/girl is born as hindu but converts to any other religion. She can indicate in that column as "the new religion's name". So, that column is for filling the religion that we choose to be.."Then what is the solution for athiests/agnostics" this is actual root of this topic.. I have been thinking this a long time hope the constitution accomodates it someday in the future. I would be happy, because whenever i cross that column in any form to be filled. I fill it with lot of hate doing something which i dont believe in.