Last Updated 30 November 2020

India is the world’s most populous democracy, religiously pluralistic, and for many years proud, in the main, of its secular Constitution.

Since the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in December 2019, sweeping protests and counter protests have turned increasingly violent, with the vast majority of victims being Muslims. The Act, which establishes a new route to citizenship for irregular migrants of various religions originating from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but does not offer the same path to Muslim or humanist migrants, has been widely interpreted as further evidence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promotion of Hindu nationalism.

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Constitution and government

India is a secular republic and its Constitution1 protects freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and association.

However, some laws and policies restrict these freedoms, and there continues to be some violence between religious groups and organized communal attacks against religious minorities.

Despite its famously secular Constitution, concerns about Hindu nationalism and interreligious tension have risen under the premiership of Narendra Modi. Modi’s presidency has been linked to a rise in Hindu nationalism — both socially and on the part of officials appearing to elevate and promote a politicized Hindu nationalist agenda. Several state or federal laws introduced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been designed to promote patriotism or Hindu national identity in particular. Along with a rise in Hindu nationalist rhetoric and state-sponsored religious fundamentalism these developments have sparked deep concern for minorities and their right to freedom of religion and belief.

Rationalism as a belief has a long and proud history throughout Indian culture; since the 6th century BCE. According to the 2012 WIN-Gallup Global Index of Religion and Atheism report,2; 81% of Indians were religious, 13% were non-religious, 3% were convinced atheists and 3% were unsure or did not respond.

Between 2013 and 2015, three prominent rationalists were assassinated apparently because of their work combating superstition or Hindu nationalism (see “Highlighted cases” below). The authorities were quick to promise action, but were also accused of prematurely ruling out links to Hindu nationalist extremist groups. Government officials refrained from forcefully condemning the killings. Whilst India’s Minister for Minorities, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, has said that “you cannot judge the government with isolated incidents of violence or isolated statements by some ministers,”3 this violence has happened against a backdrop of a number of BJP politicians making deeply derogatory remarks about minorities — including, Niranjan Jyoti implying that non-Hindus were bastards by telling attendees at a rally that they would have to decide between a government led by ‘sons of Ram or by bastards’.4

Education and children’s rights

Article 28(1) of the Constitution states,

“[n]o religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds.”5

While clause 3 of the same article states that,

“[n]o person attending any educational institution recognised by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institution or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution or in any premises attached thereto unless such person or, if such person is a minor, his guardian has given his consent thereto.”

There are a mixture of state and private schools, and some disparity between different states in this large and varied democracy. There has been debate for decades about whether India’s famous constitutional secularity, in a socially very religious country, should mean the exclusion of religion from the classroom, or its inclusion either with instruction for all, or under a comparative framework, and there were even experiments with a secular moral education.

Today, generally, the religious affiliation of children may be obvious from symbolic religious attire, and this is not discouraged or unlawful, but in this religiously diverse society the placing of undue influence on children through religious instruction is usually avoided in favour of inclusive secular norms, and parents who felt that their children were being wrongfully exposed to unwanted religious instruction would have legal recourse.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that,

“[s]tudents have to be made aware that the basic concept behind every religion is common, only the practices differ. Even if there are differences of opinion in certain areas, people have to learn to co-exist and carry no hatred against any religion.”6Ms. Aruna Roy And Others vs Union Of India And Others on 12 September 2002

Dating back to the British Raj, some Christian and even some secular schools do offer Christian instruction, as an optional extra.

The more religious nature of some private Islamic schools, and the taboo in some Muslim communities against educating girls, may be largely responsible for Muslims underperforming in literacy statistics.7

Christian and Muslim schools are covered under the minority institutions. However, more recently in order to counter this, and in a clear violation of the Constitution, Hindu nationalists claim that the government schools are Hindu schools and must teach Hindu religious texts. Government schools cannot be termed or converted into Hindu schools simply because there are certain Christian or Muslim schools preaching their faiths to their pupils.

Family, community and society

Rise of violence against religious minorities

The presidency of Narendra Modi has been linked to a rise in Hindu nationalism. Statistics on inter-communal violence show a 30% increase in the first half of 2015 with a total of 330 attacks, of which 51 were fatal, compared with 252 attacks, 33 of which were fatal in the same period of 2014. However, these statistics pale in comparison with the anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat, with more than 1,000 people killed in violent clashes after 60 Hindu pilgrims died in a fire on a

Critics of the government are often told that they should “go to Pakistan”.

In December 2019, the government passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which establishes a new route to citizenship for irregular migrants of various religions originating from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but does not offer the same path to Muslim or humanist migrants. The passage of the act led to sweeping protests and counter protests have turned increasingly violent, with the vast majority of victims being Muslims.

Cow vigilantism

One recurring social and legal issue is the slaughter of Indian cows for beef. Millions of Indians do eat beef, especially members of the so-called Dalit “caste”, as well as Muslims and Christians. It is often an important source of protein and, for many, income. However, many Hindus regard the Indian cow as a sacred creature, which is worshiped and decorated during festivals. The slaughter of cows is a highly sensitive issue across much of India and a source of violence.

Accusations of keeping and slaughtering cows for beef have resulted in many riots. The beginning of the most recent wave of mob violence may be associated with the well-publicized case of the brutal killing of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadrri on 28 September 2015, following a rumor that his family was in possession of cow meat.9 There were further incidents in the next few years and in 2017, an increasing number of attacks by self-declared gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) spurred nationwide protests under a campaign called “Not in My Name”.10 Attacks have included mob lynching and gang attacks on individuals and families. In July 2017 a mob lynched a man who was accused of carrying beef in his car in Jharkhand, and a local BJP leader was among the two people that were arrested in the case.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression is protected by the Constitution and there is a vigorous and diverse range of media outlets. Despite the vibrant media landscape, journalists continue to face a number of constraints. The government has used security laws, criminal defamation legislation, hate-speech laws, and contempt of court charges to curb critical voices.11

In September 2017, journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead by at least two assailants outside her home in Bangalore.12 She had been an ardent critic of Hindu nationalism and extremism. At the time of her death, Lankesh was in the process of appealing her 2016 conviction for defamation after publishing an article in 2008 in which she alleged that members of the BJP had committed theft. State police say it is widely suspected that the murder is linked to her work.

As a result of the investigations into Lankesh’s murder, the Karnataka Police Special Investigation team submitted a 9,235 page report to the Karnataka Court where a confession by accused Rajesh Bagera is recorded.13 Bagera also admitted that his group of assassins had also conducted surveillance of the movements of Narendra Nayak, the current president of Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA) (following the murder of his predecessor, Narendra Dabholkar). Narendra Nayak is a highly respected and well-known leader of the Indian rationalist community, with an academic scientific background. For decades, he has been campaigning against superstition, exposing ‘godmen’ as fraudsters, and advocating for separation of state and religion.

In March 2017, he reported a suspected attack on his life.14 As with many other rationalist and atheist leaders, he continues to receive death threats. Nayak is prominently featured on all known “hit-lists” against rationalists.

Internet shutdowns

Internet access is largely unrestricted, although some states have passed legislation that requires internet cafés to register with the state government and maintain user registries. Under Indian internet crime law, the burden is on website operators to demonstrate their innocence. Potentially inflammatory books, films, and internet sites are occasionally banned or censored.

Internet shutdowns have become an easy way for those in power to curtail protest, despite access to the internet being protected by Article 19 of the Constitution and being declared as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court.15

“Insult” and “blasphemy”

The Indian Penal Code provides an array of vaguely-worded or overbroad laws, which enable complainants to stifle criticism of religion.16 Among them, “blasphemy” laws are being increasingly used and cited.

Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes “insulting religious beliefs”; it allows up to three years’ imprisonment and fines for “whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a class.”17

In January 2015, the well-received and record-breakingly high-grossing Bollywood film titled “PK“, satirized problems with religion through the eyes of an alien in human form. It was criticized by Hindu nationalists who disliked its satire on “godmen” and called for a ban on the film and a the arrest of its star Aamir Khan and the

Director and writer Rajkumar Hirani responded by explaining, “In fact, with PK, I am saying that we are humans first and not Hindus or Muslims. Everyone should have the freedom to live and get settled with whoever they want to”

Freedom of assembly and association

There are some restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association. Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code empowers the authorities to restrict free assembly and impose curfews whenever “immediate prevention or speedy remedy” is required.20 State laws based on this standard are often abused to limit the holding of meetings and assemblies. Nevertheless, protest events take place regularly in practice.

Highlighted cases

In March 2017, the Times of India reported that an atheist and ex-Muslim, H Farook (age 31), had been killed by four assailants in Tamil Nadu state. He was apparently targeted due to his participation in an atheistic WhatsApp group and his Facebook page, where he posted “rationalist” messages including views critical of religion. A realtor named as “Ansath” of Muslim background reportedly surrendered before the judicial magistrate court in connection with the murder. A police spokesperson said: “Farook’s anti-Muslim sentiments had angered people, which could be the possible motive for murder.” As of July 2019, six individuals had reportedly been identified to have links to the crime.21

On 16 February 2015, Govind Pansare and his wife, Uma, were shot at by two men on motorcycles outside their house in Kolhapur, Maharashtra state, having returned from a morning walk. He later died of his injuries. Pansare was a senior left-wing politician of the Communist Party of India (CPI), a writer and rationalist, having often spoken out against right-wing groups. Pansare was a member of the Kolhapur Anti-Toll Committee having taken a lead in the campaign. Comparisons have been drawn between this attack and the earlier murder of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar (below). Raghunath Kamble, general secretary of CPI’s  Kolhapur unit has said that a few months before Pansare had received anonymous letters, saying “Tumcha Dabholkar Karu [you would also be killed like Dabholkar]”. Kamble said that Pansare had received threats several times in the past but that he would “ignore such threats and continued with his work.” Hamid Dabholkar (Narendra Dabholkar’s son) criticized those dismissing similarities in the two cases, pointing out that both Dabholkar and Pansare were rationalists and opponents of right-wing extremism, and had been threatened several times.22  To date, at least 12 individuals have been arrested in connection with the crime, including members of the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Sanatan Sanstha.23  In November 2019, Pansare’s family reportedly filed an application seeking change of investigating officer due to their dissatisfaction with the manner in which he was handling the investigation.24

In August 2015, M.M. Kalburgi, a 77 year old rationalist scholar and university professor, was shot dead at his home in the southern state of Karnataka. As in the case of Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, two unidentified male assailants on a motorbike were responsible. Kalburgi had received death threats following his criticism of idol worship during a seminar in 2014. In a statement to the Hindustan Times newspaper his daughter Roopadarshi said that “There was a threat to my father from groups that couldn’t digest his views on caste and communalism. The role of these groups should be probed…”25  On 18 August 2019, police filed charges against six individuals, including the man accused of killing journalist Gauri Lankesh (see above).26

On 20 August 2013, leading anti-superstition campaigner Narendra Dabholkar was shot and killed in Pune, Maharashtra state, by two men on a motorcycle. The murder came just days after the state government pledged to re-introduce an anti-superstition bill,27 aimed at making it an offence to exploit or defraud people with ‘magical’ rituals, charms and cures. This bill was closely associated with Dabholkar’s work, and was opposed by many right-wing and Hindu nationalist groups who labelled it “anti-Hindu”.28 Dabholkar was a long-time activist in India’s rationalist movement, founder-president of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), an anti-superstition organization, and a leader of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Association, a member organization of Humanists International. The anti-superstition bill was passed into law soon after Dabholkar’s assassination. In 2017, the state of Karnataka passed the ‘Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill,’ an anti-superstition bill, under pressure from civil society groups following the murders of Dr Dabholkar and Dr Kalburgi. Almost seven years since his murder, the trial of the accused had still not commenced as of March 2020.29 In February 2020, the Bombay High Court expressed concern at the delay.30


6 Ms. Aruna Roy And Others vs Union Of India And Others on 12 September 2002

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