India has 2.87 million people who have no faith in any religion — 0.24% of the country’s population of 1.21 billion — according to the 2011 census, which was the first to include a ‘non-faith’ category. The figure includes atheists, rationalists as well as those not interested in any religion but believe in some ‘unknown’ force.
A majority of people (1,643,640) who ticked the non-faith category live in rural areas as compared to those in urban areas (1,223,663). More males (1,463,712) than females (1,403,591) said that they did not believe in any faith. Uttar Pradesh accounts for the most people registered as ‘non-faith’ (582,000) than any other state. Bihar, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu all have more than one lakh people in the category.
TN, perhaps more than any other state, has a history of atheism. It started with E V Ramasamy (1879-1973), popularly known as Periyar, who propagated atheism (or rationalism) in the early 1900s. Since then, the political party he founded, Dravidar Kazhagam, and members of its offshoots, the Dravidian parties like DMK, have had avowed atheists. Over time, though, some of the non-believers found religion and perform yagas that Periyar had fought against tooth and nail.
“It is welcome that our voice has been recorded for the first time in the census,” Dravida Kazhagam leader K Veeramani said. But he believes there are many more non-believers than the census department recorded. “There are two parts to this,” he said. “One is that the census department does not have a foolproof system of collecting data. Two, there are some non-believers who don’t have the courage to say they don’t belong to any religion. If you include them I’m sure the non-faith category would comprise at least 1% of the population.”
A 2012 WIN-Gallup poll would appear to corroborate that view: the report, based on interviews with 50,000 people from 57 countries, stated that 3% of Indians were convinced atheists and 3% were unsure or did not respond. It said 81% of Indians were religious and 13% were not religious.
Andhra Pradesh too has had several non-believers. The Atheist Centre based in Vijayawada and its founder Gora (Goparaju Ramachandra Rao) and his wife Saraswathi Gora fought against superstitions both during the freedom movement and after Independence.