Below is the second in a series of dispatches by Marina Keegan and Luke Vargas, two young Humanists who traveled through India in 2010. First posted July, 2010. We are reposting these now to honor the life of Marina, who was taken from us in an accident on May 26.
Further installments can be found here.
Our on the ground research commenced today with a meeting with the Director of The Social Development Foundation, Mr. Vidya Bhushan Rawat. The foundation is a self proclaimed “Humanist organization” working to impart scientific education and eradicate superstition and myths regarding women and other vulnerable sections of society.
The headquarters were humble to say the least. We managed to navigate the New Delhi metro system and with the help of some locals and their cell phones, and found ourselves sipping hot chai in Mr. Rawat’s sweltering basement office. He was the only one there. He made the tea himself while we waited below – scanning the blanket covered desks and thick nineties-style PCs. Rawat is a Dalit, also known as an “untouchable”, and the work of his foundation focuses heavily on caste based inequality. His job is neither easy nor romantic, but he seems both cognizant and confident in the face of these realities: his pale blue T-shirt reads “Freedom from Fear.”
At first, the humanism was hard to find. Rawat was eager to divulge the details of his work with agrarian rights, women’s education and scavenging communities. However, the secular thread seemed to come second.
“Our approach is people centric,” he said. And it seemed to be. The Social Development Foundation primarily does social work. They work in a number of villages and communities as givers and builders, not as proselytizers. Rawat believes you have to meet people’s basic human needs before you start sprouting philosophies on them. However, even then, he doesn’t believe in “converting” people to humanism. “Humanism is freethinking,” he said. “If it becomes an authority, I don’t want it.”
But we kept probing; was their social work done in the name of Humanism? We explained that before we left we helped build a playground in Cambridge with a group of humanists who were happy and eager to advertize their “goodness without God.” Yet he found such publicity unnecessary. Rawat seemed to see Humanism as a personal philosophy – claiming later that Indian people tend to see “religion as private and not something to talk about.” The foundation doesn’t build schools and help women in the name of humanism, rather, they highlight religion’s detriments and use non-theism strategically.
Part of this work is eradicating harmful superstitions. Rawat told us the story of a foundation worker who helped expose false mysticism in a rural village. An authority figure had used a “mystical” procurement of a name on a piece of paper to blame an individual for stealing money, and the worker revealed the “supernatural” power as nothing more than a paper magic trick by using the same means to produce the name of accuser.
Yet the foundation’s humanism runs deeper than superstition eradication. The fundamental inequalities of the Dalit people are ultimately rooted in religion – what he calls the “cultural violence of Hinduism.” In this sense, humanism becomes a force against an unjust social system, and Rawat seems to believe lower caste Indians are ready to abandon religion and its role in their subjugation. (However, the verity of this statement is still unclear to us – as the lower caste Rajastani villages we visited were supposedly highly religious.) It’s hard to understand what individuals and populations are really believing when India’s official census demographics are still tied to caste – and interviewing Dalits personally in Hindi is nearly impossible for us.
When we walked off the metro in search of the Social Development Foundation’s office, we were dressed for a different meeting; tucked in shirts, pants, skirts and closed toed shoes. We expected the office to have a few staff members, air-conditioning and the presentation of a typical NGO. The foundation’s website writes of reports assessing government accountability, women’s empowerment centres, vocational programs and Dalit education. Perhaps naively, we expected more. Without traveling to the villages and seeing the work in action, we have no real way of knowing the capacity or efficacy of the organization. We’re certainly judging a book by its cover; classifying this fraction of the humanist movement as small because of a small office and a singular spokesman. But Mr. Rawat’s achievements seem to be well known and well praised. His presence at international conferences and United Nations assemblies speaks to this esteem. We’re learning that judging capacity on presentation won’t get you far in India – especially not in the Humanist world.
We’re starting to wonder if in some ways, Mr.Rawat is the embodiment of humanism. He believes passionately in human dignity and the right to life – and devotes himself and his organization to achieving such goodness. While he may do so with a personal atheism, his lack of religion does not seem to be a central tenant of his life or work. So too does the philosophy of humanism strive for a world where “God is irrelevant” – as Greg Epstein puts it. Humanism is clearly more than disbelief, and Rawat seems to understand that. Of course when he encounters harmful aspects of religion, he combats them with rationalism – but does so without advertisement or singularity of purpose.
Yet if this is the “embodiment” of the humanist philosophy, it does not seem sustainable. And herein lies humanism’s fundamental catch-22: how can one increase free thought without reneging its very philosophy in the act of promotion? This potential sterility of humanism is worrisome. The Social Development Foundation appears to be doing considerable work; though while it may be eradicating superstition, it doesn’t appear to be creating more humanists. Rationalists, maybe – or Hindus free from superstition – but not individuals taking up the humanist cause or young activists ready to teach the next generation to think for themselves.
When we left, Mr. Rawat handed us a book he wrote. It’s called “Land Rights are Human Rights” and is designed as a resource for “social activists on the ground who do not have access to information to fight their battle.” The book includes a history of land struggles in India, manuals for village mapping, report writing and bibliography making, and finally an amalgamation of declarations of rights, covenants and international laws. Not once is the word Humanism mentioned. But perhaps that doesn’t mean it’s not humanist. The word God is also omitted, and after all, the book teaches individuals to think freely, challenge established injustices and use scientific methods such as mapping and data collection as tools. The myriad Humanist journals, publications (and blogs) can hardly claim as much.