If there is one identity that Indians have come to associate themselves with, to an extent that’s even made them kill each other, it has been that of religion. Although our Constitution has boasted the claim of our secularism for decades now, yet our fears and our insecurities have managed to get the best of us, time and time again.
As a result, in a society as religious as ours, the idea of atheism, or agnosticism, continues to baffle the masses. A typical example of the same has been that for official purposes, people, who tend to not buy into the idea of religion or of the existence of a supreme being, are forced to identify themselves as the ‘other.’
Additionally, according to the 2011 census, around 8.6% of the country’s population belongs to the Scheduled Tribes community. This stratum has, for years now, believed in their own set of religions – religions which have always been overlooked in our description of Indian history. Our histories have always managed to concentrate on issues that have involved the dominant communities, and a perfect example of this is the absence of any information about the struggles of the tribal communities in our textbooks.
Therefore, in a country as diverse as ours, the practice of coagulating all these religions under Hinduism, or Islam, or Buddhism, tends to white-wash the struggles and pasts of a significant number of people. Ironically, it is the same diversity that requires institutions, like colleges, government offices and bureaucratic structures to ask for the individual’s religion in the first place.
Quite recently though, in a step towards the creation of more inclusive academic spaces, Kolkata’s Bethune College introduced ‘humanity’ as a religion in its admission form. The college’s teachers told The Telegraph that a number of students preferred writing ‘humanism’ or ‘non-believer’ in the column of religion.
This isn’t all, though. The city’s Scottish Church College had offered options for students to identify as ‘secular’ or ‘non-religious,’ and Seth Anandram Jaipuria College allowed its aspirants to choose ‘atheism’ as a possible religion choice.
Ananya Sasaru, a Bethune College alumna, said to IANS, “Being an ardent believer in humanity myself, I would really like to congratulate the college authorities for coming up with such a progressive initiative. Such a step will hopefully restore faith in mankind and help us accept the heterogeneity of views.”
More than being an expression on the idea of the country’s diversity, this series of steps has also depicted an important feature of academic spaces. The feature of tolerance towards different opinions, irrespective of their dominance in society. The presence of this provision prevents students from conforming to an already established set of guidelines and, hence, contributes towards the conservation of their individual identities.
Although this step helps people with agnostic or atheist belief systems, it still fails to address the issue for people from non-mainstream religions of the country, like the Santhals. It is not to say that there is not a long road to traverse when we, as a country, would begin to acknowledge the presence of our own citizens. Nevertheless, the prevalence of this sort of emotion reflects the budding open-mindedness of our institutions, and I, for one, am optimistic.