International Humanist and Ethical Union Chief Executive Gary McLelland writes about his recent trip to India and Nepal to meet with members of the humanist movement.
Elizabeth (IHEU Director of Advocacy) and I arrived in Chennai, South India, on Thursday 4th January. Over the course of the next two weeks we would travel to the north of India, and eventually to Nepal, meeting with humanist leaders, activists and many other human rights defenders as we went.
This is a short summary of a trip which, I hope, helped to strengthen the important bond between humanism in the sub-continent, and the international movement, as well as offer valuable insight and opportunities for greater cooperation with grassroots activists in India engaged in the noble and dangerous fight against Hindu nationalism.
I had known before the visit that India has a large humanist movement, as this map illustrates (the number of IHEU Member Organizations in this country is among the highest in the world). I also knew it was a diverse and thriving movement. However, this trip helped me gain a fascinating insight into the how the movement operates. Despite the amazing technology we have, and the many friends I have on social media from around the world, often there is no substitute for real human contact.
India has increasingly become a concern for IHEU as we reported in 2017, particularly on the rise of threats and violence against rationalists and other humanist activists. In September last year (2017) we raised serious concerns at the United Nations Human Rights Council about the growing threats posed by a rise in Hindu nationalism and impunity towards the violence and murder of Dalits (so-called “untouchables”).
In 2017 the IHEU’s Freedom of Thought Report highlighted India as one of its top seven countries of concern. In particular we raised the case of 31-year-old H Farook, who was murdered following comments he made online as part of an atheist or rationalist group. This followed shortly after reports of a suspected attack on Narendra Nayak, President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations.
So the background context to this trip was sombre. I knew that some of our colleagues in India were, understandably, feeling very threatened. I think IHEU has done a better job that some of trying to shine a spotlight on the growing nationalism and impunity in India, but obviously there is always more to be done.
I also used a speech to the World Atheist Conference on on 6 January to offer a vision for the future of our international humanist movement. In the speech I called for atheist, humanist, secularist and rationalist groups to unite behind the many causes we all share, and to work together productively to build a shared vision for an open tolerant and peaceful world.
Thursday 4 January
Our first day was spent travelling by car from the airport in Chennai to a city called Tiruchirappalli (referred to locally as ‘Trichy’) in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The car journey took around 6 hours, and gave us a wonderful opportunity to relax after the long flight and absorb the sights and sounds of India was we travelled along.
Reaching Trichy in the mid-afternoon we had a rest in the hotel before meeting with our gracious hosts, the Gora family. We met with Vikas Gora, grandson of the radical social reformer and atheist campaigner, Gora.
Gora was the founder of the Atheist Centre. Based in Vijayawada the Atheist Centre is a radical and pioneering centre for social reform across its home state of Andhra Pradesh. Among the many services provided by the centre were: secular social work, education for Dalits, inter-caste and widow marriages, and anti-superstition to mention just a few.
Friday 5 January
The World Atheist Conference was opened on Friday. Immediately I was struck by the size and scale of the event. The opening day was held in the Periyar Education Centre in Trichy. A full day of events began with IHEU’s Elizabeth O’Casey cutting the ribbon at an opening ceremony for a book fayre.
The conference itself was organised mainly by Dravidar Kaxhagam (a social movement founded by the radical reformer Periyar, translating into English as the ‘self-respect movement‘), the Atheist Centre and the Rationalists’ Forum.
The day’s proceedings started with an opening address by Dr K. Veeramani, President of Dravidar Kaxhagam, and a series of speeches by representatives from Periyar International, Atheist Alliance International as well as former Government Telecommunications Minister A. Raja.
I gave a short opening address, thanking the organisers for their invitation and passing on the greetings of other colleagues from the international movement.
It was a very impressive line-up, with an audience of over 600 in the main auditorium and even more spread throughout the campus.
During the first day a series of portraits were unveiled featuring four campaigners who had been recently murdered as a result of their humanist, rationalist or anti-caste campaigning.
Saturday 6 January
The second day of the conference began at the nearby Periyar University in Vallam. After a short car journey, we arrived at the huge campus of the Periyar Institute of Science and Technology – we would later find out that the establishment was at the vanguard of women’s and girl’s education, and was proud to have sent over 25,000 women engineering graduates out into the world!
Before the main business of the conference began Elizabeth and i were honored to receive a tour of the university campus, and we were also invited to plant a tree in the grounds of the campus.
Then the main programme of the conference began with a series of talks on the importance of educating in children an understanding and appreciation of the scientific method.
During this session Elizabeth O’Casey gave a talk on the IHEU’s advocacy programme, highlighting the particular issues of discrimination often faced by women in India as a result of harmful cultural, traditional, or religious practices.
Following a wonderful lunch at the University we travelled by car back to Trichy were a public event was planned to take place in the evening.
We arrived at the venue in the evening, blown-away by the scale of the audience. It is hard to estimate the size of the crowd, but it would be measured in the thousands, not hundreds.
To open the event we were treated to a series of 6 forms of traditional Indian dancing, performed flawlessly by a group of children. After this was a series of dramatic performances, depicting the various forms of religion and superstition which have spread through India since ancient times, with a message of empowerment for atheists, humanists and rationalists.
The main event began with a series of speeches by representatives from Dravida Kazhagam, Atheist Alliance International and the Atheist Centre.
I was honored to give a talk explaining my plans for IHEU and reflections on the future of our movement.
In this speech I explained our vision for IHEU, as the democratic union representing the organised non-religious movement, and as a thought leader within the winder human rights movement.
I took the opportunity to recognize the narrow partisanship that can sometimes lead to division within the movement, and called for a new confidence of unity for the international humanist movement. As I noted, the nationalism and populism which is currently trying to untangle the delicate fabric of Indian democracy has much in common with other forms of nationalism across the world (you can read the text below).
After the speeches, Elizabeth and I were invited to rededicate an honour to the late Dr Narendra Dabholkar. Dr Dabholkar was a passionate and dedicated campaigner for rationalism and humanism. Following a successful career as a medical doctor he founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS, “Committee for Eradication of Superstition in Maharashtra”) and despite knowing the risks he faced by his very public work, continued his campaign for social reform.
Dabholkar rejected offers of police protection, saying “If I have to take police protection in my own country from my own people, then there is something wrong with me, I’m fighting within the framework of the Indian constitution and it is not against anyone, but for everyone. He was assassinated on 20 August 2013.
A special posthumous award for Distinguished Services to Anti-Superstition was made to Dr Dabholkar by IHEU President Andrew Copson in London on August 2017.
The highlight of the evening was a speech by poet and Member of Parliament, Kanimozhi. The parts of her speech in English mentioned the need to continue the fight for social reform, equality for women and LGBTI people and human rights.
Sadly for us a large portion of her speech was given in Tamil, but judging by the positive reaction for the audience it was very well received.
After this a new portrait of murdered humanist activist H Farook was unveiled.
The evening itself was a very positive one, with a lot of focus on the strength and growth of the movement in India. However, the sombre mood as we unveiled the portrait was repeated at several points throughout the programme, as speakers warned of increased risks against human rights defenders in India, and the growing impunity of the authorities towards these attacks.
Sunday 7 January
Sunday began early with a 6am car ride to a building site outside Trichy, were work was due to begin on a large museum and conference centre to celebrate the life of the founder of the self-respect movement, Periyar.
Elizabeth and me were given a tour of the site before being asked to join in a fruit tree planting ceremony.
Following this we returned to the Periyar Education Centre for the final stages of the conference.
A final plenary session was chaired by Vikas Gora, who began the session by asking delegates ‘what does atheism mean to you?’
Following this we explored a series of celebrations and exhibitions which were taking place around the campus of the Periyar Education Centre to mark a local harvest festival.
The closing ceremony of the conference featured some wonderful dancing and music performances.
At the very end of proceedings, Elizabeth O’Casey was invited to give the Valedictory Address.
In her veledictory address, Elizabeth highlighted the human rights issues that IHEU focuses on relating to India, including caste-based discrimination, religious extremism and various forms of violence against women and minorities often defended on cultural and religious grounds.
She said: “We are clear in our advocacy: Culture, tradition and religious doctrine should never be permitted to undermine the human rights of women or anyone else.”
Monday 8 January
Monday began early with a flight from Trichy to Chennai, where we had a 6 hour wait before the final leg of the journey took us to Hyderabad.
We were able to, very briefly, take a cab to the beach and have a look our over the beautiful Bay of Bengal.
Our flight arrived into Hyderabad late into the evening, and despite this our fellow humanist campaigner, and former Executive Director of IHEU, Babu Gogineni, met us at the airport and accompanied us to our hotel.
Tuesday 9 January
We spent Tuesday meeting with Babu. The day began with a tour of statues in Hyderabad dedicated to humanist and rationalist campaigners of the past. The region, as we learned, has fascinating history as a bastion of culture and high art.
In particular we spent some time learning about the campaigns which are undertaken by Babu and his colleagues to help expose confidence tricksters such as astrologers and fortune tellers.
We gained an insight into Babu’s busy life when after a phone call in the afternoon, he told us, plans about an investigation into an astrologer and alleged fraud had suddenly matured and a TV News channel was interested in running an exposé . After more frantic phone calls it became clear that it would happen that night.
I left Babu to prepare for his TV appearance and joined one of his colleagues Madhvi and his son, Arun (an impressive 13-year-old polyglot), for dinner. After a very nice meal I asked Arun to check on how the TV show as going. Shock crossed his face as he translated the rolling-news crossing the screen ‘attempted kidnapping at TV studio’ in relation to the exposé that Babu was working on.
I did my best to reassure Arun whilst we tried to contact Babu, and also keep an eye on further news as it was being announced. It was clear to me that this story was big news, and that the supporters of the alleged fraudster were lashing out in response.
About another hour later, to our relief, Babu got in touch to reassure us that he was safe, but that the reports of intimidation at the TV studio were correct. They had been directed at one of the witnesses he had been working with.
However later on we would discover that the TV studio had also received a death threat against Babu directly. This was a very worrying evening, and gave us a reminder of the threats that colleagues in India face.
Wednesday 10 January
Wednesday began with an early breakfast meeting with Babu and his two colleagues from the South Asian Humanist Association (SAHA), Ram and Madhvi.
SAHA is a newly formed organisation mainly run by South Asian diaspora in Europe and North America. The Association, which I hope will soon become a member of IHEU, aims to help highlight human rights violations occurring across South Asia in international forums and help to focus attention on the station for humanists and rationalists.
Despite being relatively new, SAHA already has an impressive track record of events with a North American and European lecture series, and other international engagements.
After a long and productive meeting with SAHA, it was time to begin our journey to Delhi. We left Hyderabad late on Wednesday evening, arriving at the hotel around midnight.
Thursday 11 January
I spent some of Thursday morning catching up on emails. At the time of writing, IHEU was receiving a higher than usual number of requests from humanists at risk around the world. These cases are difficult to manage, and require a lot of attention.
In the afternoon we met with VB Rawat, a humanist campaigner who has tirelessly fought out against unfair land laws, caste discrimination and anti-Muslim prejudice across India. VB worked closely with our Director of Advocacy Elizabeth O’Casey, during the Universal Periodic Review of India at the United Nations.
VB helped us gain a comprehensive overview of some of the challenges facing human rights defenders in India.
Friday 12 January
On Thursday VB had very kindly organised a meeting for us with veteran Indian journalist John Dayal and the inspirational Dalit-rights campaigner from Hyderabad, Sujatha Surepally. Over lunch we heard the awful stories of how both John and Sujatha has been targeted by online hate campaigns and received credible death threats against them, simply for standing-up for human rights.
We spent the rest of the day talking with VB and Sujatha. I was blown away by the courage and strength of Sujatha. Despite repeated credible threats against her life (you can read about an example here), and a reticence from the authorities to protect her, she never seemed to doubt the need for her to continue to speak out against caste discrimination in India.
In this job we deal with heart-breaking cases almost daily: news of murdered activists, undercover humanists fearing for their lives and legitimate asylum seekers being denied safety.
Despite this familiarity with such cases, listening to Sujatha explain her security threats, in such a matter-of-fact way, I found deeply upsetting. At one point during a darkly-humored exchange about who was higher on the ‘kill list’, Sujatha told us “when your number’s up, that’s it”.
Saturday 13 January
We left our hotel early on Saturday for a train journey that would take us from New Delhi to Chandigarh in the Pubjab region.
After a long 6 hour journey we arrived in Chandigarh, and after a short rest we met-up with our host for the two days, Rustam Singh, from the Atheist Alliance International (AAI).
Rustam is a Board member who represents and helps run the lively social media presence of the AAI. Meeting with Rustam, who is also a freelance journalist, helped us gain an insight into what life is like in India for young people involved in the atheist and humanist movement.
The city of Chandigarh, not technically in Punjab, but in the same region in the northern part of India, was very different to that of the south.
Sunday 14 January
Unfortunately due to changing plans, and it being a Sunday, a meeting with the Tarksheel Society Punjab (Punjab Rationalist Society) was not able to happen. However, the very hospitable Rustam was able to host us for another day of visiting cultural sights around the city, as we spoke more about the situation for atheists and humanists in India.
We visited the famous ‘Open Hand’ monument, which was only open to the public relatively recently following a campaign led by Rustam.
Ironically this monument was designed by the city’s architect, Le Corbusier, as a symbol for him of “peace and reconciliation. It is open to give and open to receive”.
The monument is in a region known as the Chandigarh Capitol Complex which also hold the legislative assembly and high court for the region.
Monday 15 January
Another early start, Monday began with a 5.40am taxi ride to the railway station to catch a train back to Delhi. The entire day would be spent travelling, with a short stop in Delhi, until we arrived very late and weary into Kathmandu in Nepal.
Tuesday 16 January
Tuesday began early, with a breakfast meeting organised by IHEU Board member Uttam Niralua. This was a fantastic introduction to the Society for Humanism in Nepal (SOCH Nepal), and the impressive guests at this breakfast gave us a great overview of the challenges and opportunities for humanism in Nepal.
This meeting lasted well into the afternoon and gave us a chance to speak to lawyers, politicians (including a serving Member of Parliament), youth campaigners and academics.
After this meeting we were given a tour of the SOCH Nepal Offices. We heard details of their amazing work to support women and girls who can be victims of a harmful cultural practice known as ‘chhaupadi’, as well as their programmes to promote models of good governance and community development.
Only a week before our arrival in Nepal a 23-year-old woman died from smoke inhalation after being forced into a small ‘Chhaupadi hut’. ‘Chhaupadi’ is a harmful cultural practice in parts of Nepal where women and girls are forced our of their homes during menstruation and made to live in a cattle-shed or small makeshift ‘Chhaupadi hut’.
Later in the evening Uttam and I went to a local restaurant called Sarangi for dinner. This is an amazing social enterprise run by and for a group of Dalit musicians. I would strongly recommend it, if you’re ever in Kathmandu.
Wednesday 17 January
On Wednesday, Uttam had organised several meetings for us.
We started just after breakfast with a meeting at the United States Embassy. There we met with US officials to discuss with them our trip so far, and highlight issues of concern that the US Government may wish to also show support for.
I cannot share the full content of the conversations we had here. IHEU staff frequently meet with representatives from governments around the world, and we take the opportunity to highlight human rights violations, particularly in relation to humanists and atheists.
Following this meeting we met with veteran Nepali journalist Narendra Jung Peter. Narendra has done a lot of work to expose harmful cultural, traditional or religious practices in Nepal, and was able to give us a thoughtful analysis of the situation.
After this meeting we then made our way to the Office of the Nepali National Human Rights Commission.
We met with Human Rights Commissioner Mohna Ansari, a wonderful and inspirational woman, and the only female Muslim attorney in Nepal.
As we learned from Mohna, the relatively new constitution of (The Federal Republic of) Nepal has incorporated a large number of international human rights conventions, and commits the government to joining any future ones. There are some still some concerns internationally around this constitution, which places serious restrictions on religious conversion for example. However, the human rights commitments mean it is overall a progressive legal framework for the protection of human rights in Nepal.
However, as we learned from Mohna, the reality on the ground does not live up to these ideals. We heard about a culture of acceptance in the police relating to harmful cultural practices, meaning that deaths from ‘chhaupadi’ frequently went without investigated.
There was some welcome optimism from Mohna, as we discussed how her office could help bridge the ‘implementation gap’. Given the relatively fresh framework of legal human rights protections, there is also a lot of scope for some very interesting public interest litigation in Nepal; this is something I look forward to with interest.
Nepal is also preparing for it’s first majority government in many years, so let’s hope that too will offer the stability needed for further reform.
On Wednesday evening the Board and staff of SOCH Nepal hosted a meal for us in their offices. It was a very friendly night, and gave us a great chance to get to know some of our Nepali colleagues.
Thursday 18 January
On Thursday morning I left Elizabeth in Kathmandu and headed on my penultimate flight back to Delhi, as she prepared to leave for Brussels.
Two days in Kathmandu was barely enough to scratch the surface, but thanks to Uttam’s great organisational skills we gained a valuable overview of the dynamic political situation in Nepal. There is an energy and momentum for change, and I hope SOCH Nepal can continue to influence that.
My delayed arrival into Delhi, and traffic at the airport, meant that I reached my hotel late into the evening.
Friday 19 January
I met with an official from the United States Embassy in Delhi at a nearby hotel for breakfast at 8am. This was a useful chance to raise some issues of concern to humanists and atheists around India.
After this meeting it was a quick taxi journey to the airport to begin the journey back to London.
Text of a speech by Gary McLelland to the World Atheist Conference, Trichy, Tamil Nadu, India on 6 January 2018.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, friends and comrades.
It is a great pleasure, and an honour to address you here this evening.
My name is Gary McLelland and I lead the team at the International Humanist and Ethical Union based in London and Brussels.
This is my first trip to India, and it is a very welcome change from my homeplace of Scotland where the weather is much colder.
I grew up on the West coast of Scotland, raised as a Catholic and taught in Catholic schools.
I believed in God until I was a teenager, until the moment when I could no longer contain in my mind the many contradictions necessary to believe in God.
This process of ‘de-conversion’ was a difficult one for me. It meant turning my back on the beliefs I had learned, some of them, seemingly at least, providing many thoughts of comfort.
It seems to me now that it was profoundly wrong for the Government and local authorities in my country to conspire to ensure that my entire education was based on the one flawed ideology of Roman Catholicism.
Ever since then I have been a proud and strong advocate for secular and freethinking education, and it is this experience which motivated me to become involved in our movement.
It was unimaginable to me then that I would one day lead the world-wide union of atheists, humanists and freethinkers.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union, or IHEU, is a democratic umbrella body which unites the various atheistic, humanist and freethinking organisations around the world.
The IHEU was formed in 1952 in Amsterdam, following the annihilation of the previous world union due to the twin onslaught of fascism and communism.
Since 1952 the IHEU has been the worlds only democratic union for atheist, humanist, skeptic and rationalist organisations.
Since 1952 the IHEU’s network has grown a lot, and today we have around 150 member organisations in 50 countries around the world.
The work of IHEU relies on the hard work and dedication of our Board, our team of professional staff, and our amazing network of volunteers and activists from our members around the world.
The work we do is very varied, but it can be understood in three broad categories.
First is our advocacy programme, led by the wonderful Dr Elizabeth O’Casey and supported by her team of dedicated volunteers and activists.
This work ensures that the issues and values which are important to atheists and humanists around the world are heard at the United Nations and other international institutions. Thanks to this work IHEU is able to challenge Government’s around the world, including recently the Government of India; as well as shining a light on the targeted violence faced by many atheists and humanists around the world.
Secondly, we have our communications and campaigns programme. This ensures that we link together the work of IHEU’s members organisations and share good news and fresh ideas.
We also try to inspire and promote new ideas for our network, such as our global End Blasphemy Laws campaign. If you would like to learn more about this, you can visit our website at iheu.org – where you can also signup to receive our newsletters.
Lastly, we have our growth and development programme.
This programme of work is very important for us. It is where we seek to nurture and support the development of new humanist organisations in areas around the world where atheism and humanism is not as well organized as it is here in India!
Thanks to this programme of work in 2017 we were able to organize a series of small conferences and online video conferences in Latin America, which led to the expansion of new atheist and humanist organisations in the region.
However, the story of IHEU is not complete without mentioning our very special relationship with India.
Of our around 150 organisations, about 20 are in Indian organisations. Such as:
The Indian Radical Humanist Association
The Atheist Centre
Kerela Yukthivadi Sangham
Social Development Foundation
The Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, and
The Ambedkar Institute – just to mention a few!
The development and practice of atheism and humanism in India is an inspiration for the rest of the world. The IHEU’s Indian connections are also very personal for me, as the leader of IHEU my predecessor many years ago is a Mr Babu Gogineni who many of you will know from his very public work to debunk frauds and magicians.
So hopefully this short summary will give you a useful understanding about the work of IHEU.
As we grow and develop the work of IHEU I want to ensure that we can help to share the wonderful experiences from here in India with the rest of the world.
I know that many of you will not be able to travel and join us in London to see our work – but you should feel confident that the leaders of your organisations, through their membership of IHEU, are representing your views and interests in the global discussions about the future of our movement.
I see it as a challenge for myself to see how we can work creatively and smartly to help connect our members and activists around the world.
I said some words yesterday about the situation for atheists and humanists around the world, let me say a little more now.
Every year IHEU publishes a report called the Freedom of Thought Report which details the legal situation for atheists and humanists in every country around the world.
The very bad news is that last years report highlighted that atheists and humanists are particularly at risk in 7 countries around the world.
In Pakistan we saw the murder of university student Mashall Khan, following a crack-down against blasphemy.
The Maldives saw the killing of Yamin Rasheed – someone who was known to my colleague Elizabeth.
In Malaysia we saw a local group of atheists targeted by Government officals simply for meeting together.
Also we saw our fellow freethinkers sentences to death in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Mauritania.
And lastly, the seventh country of concern to us was here in India.
Following the murder of our dear colleague Narendra Dahbolkhar back in 2013, and increased threats to activists such as Narendra Nayak, when we saw the murder of H Farook last year we became increasingly concerned about the environment for free expression in India.
On top of this – we see the emergency of a new problem for atheists and humanists, this is the problem of ‘invisibility’.
Following the growing threats of violence against atheists and humanist in some places our friends are less likely to be open about their beliefs – because to do so can mean death!
This is also given extra weight when nationalist leaders and other populists claim that atheism and humanism is unpatriotic – an awful lie which should be called out at every oppourtunity.
This invisibility then causes many of our friends around the world to meet in secret, in fear for their lives. Let us send them a message today – that they are not alone, that we stand with them!
Despite this very difficult outlook – there is reason for hope in the future of our atheist and humanist movement.
Massive increases in the quality of health and education, as well as new economic development is creating a new generation of young people who have no need for magic and superstition. Combined with new forms of instant communication, even our friends who live in fear because of their beliefs, can join us online for community and solidarity.
The future belongs to us humanists – the challenge we face is how to live up to our values.
Now, finally, please allow me to offer some thoughts on the future of atheism and humanism.
It is my firm belief that in order to achieve the world that we all wish to see – we must work together.
Far too often when I visit places around the world I find division within our movement, atheists don’t want to work with humanists and humanists don’t want to work with rationalists and so on…
This is not our future.
Our future relies on us being able to work together – because believe me, our enemies are able to do so!
I have been very encouraged by what I have seen here in India. It amazes me that such a large and diverse country is able to be so united – and the same is true for our atheist and humanist movement here in India.
There is very clearly a lesson for us in the rest of the world, and I want to share it.
The other lesson I can learn is the importance of putting our values unto action.
It is truly amazing to see how you put your humanist values into action here at the Periyar Centre, and the Atheist Centre and many more. This type of progressive secular social work simply does not exist in Europe!
So, let me say, thank you once again. This has been a most interesting and humbling experience, I am grateful to you all for your friendship and generosity.
In this worrying time of nationalism and populism, we must work together, be confident, be proud and be outward-looking.