An Interview with Narendra Nayak – President of Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations & Founder of Aid Without Religion

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You are one of the more famous unknowns. Your name should be more internationally recognised, I feel. You have done plenty of work in the sceptic movement and for reason. Your father bought a lottery ticket on the advice of an astrologer. This was a turning point for you. Why? What other personal/educational background assisted with the development of rationalist perspectives and tools?

As for me being an unknown, I do not mind that! But you have to remember that ours is a country of 1.20 billion people, and among them I am quite known as one of the most visible faces in the field. We would rather do the work than seek publicity. The international scene is replete with those who make orations at international seminars, and I have attended only a few. The IHEU had awarded me for outstanding services to Humanism at their Oslo conference. Thanks for your feeling that I should be more recognised internationally!

One of the reasons for my turning a sceptic was my father’s obsession with astrology. But there are more reasons. They can be read here. and here too It was that I first became an atheist and remained one for quite some time. Atheism is just a conclusion. Later on I should say may be at the age of 21 or so I became a rationalist who investigates things and looks for evidence before accepting something. At the age of 25 or so I joined the movement. My undergraduate training as a chemist and later on my post-graduate training as a medical biochemist made me more and more methodical in investigating claims of the paranormal.

The choice of a life without succumbing to any of the irrational practices thrust upon one by the society was a challenging task but I have managed to live up to it. You could read more here . The easy availability of literature and references was another plus point as I was teaching at a Medical College. Again we had many colleagues with such inclinations and would cooperate when needed. Later on about three decades back, when I came in touch with Humanism, I realised that that was what I have been doing all my life. So, can now say that I am a Humanist!

In your experience and transition, rationalism is not only a scientific and philosophical stance. It is an ethical stance derived from personal, likely emotional, experience within the family. How do you maintain high ethical standards in this professional work over decades?

This was probably because I was working at a university where there was very little interference in the personal lives of the faculty unless their stands were a threat to the commercial interests of the set up. Even in such situations I have stuck to my stand, and attempts were made to ‘put me on the proper track’. These did not succeed.

When punitive action was taken in 1989, I approached the courts and won my battle, and it was technically held to be termination from service which could be done only after a due process of law which had not been followed as there were no grounds at all for such an action.  Of course, due to the slow-moving Indian judicial system it took nearly five and a half years for the courts to decide in my favour.

But I had made my point and after that, there has been absolutely no interference in my activities! In my personal life, I have always stuck to my stand about ethics; no active participation in any religious ceremonies, no treatment from quacks etc. This has been followed even in my business which is run on totally ethical lines.

To you, what is a rationalist, or makes a good rationalist?

According to me, I would define a rationalist as one who puts things to the test of reason before accepting them.  Leading a life by one’s convictions makes a good rationalist.  Though this looks almost impossible in a country like ours, many of us have done it.

You are the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations(FIRA). What tasks and responsibilities come with this position?

My responsibilities as the President of FIRA are to hold the movement together on common points of action. I also work to promote the movement by going to places all over the country to speak to our member organisations, conducting workshops for developing rational thinking, representing our points of view at seminars, TV discussions, media and anywhere else needed. I write regularly for the printed media through press handouts, web site publications and a regular column for a monthly magazine called Mangalore Today.

For a long, long time I have been conducting workshops for teachers at the national children’s and teachers’ science congresses. Of course, it has been stopped after the present government has come into power. The responsibilities are difficult to perform as there are too many languages in this country and we have to communicate to people in their regional language which is possible for me as I can speak nine of them. Perhaps that may be the reason I keep getting re-elected repeatedly! The last one happened a few days ago on the 26th of February.

In July 2011, you founded Aid Without Religion. What was the inspiration for it? How did you identify this niche needing services?

The religious organisations try to justify their collection of funds from the public citing that they are needed for charitable purposes. They also directly or indirectly force the beneficiaries to sing praises of the head of the sect promoting these. Their photographs are posted all over the place which receives their charity and many time paeans to them are sung. They also promote quackery in the name of medical care. So, it was very much-needed to do some work without these. So, I started this trust for the specific purpose. Again, when I pass away I want my personal assets to be put to use to promote such work. My idea is to see that my work goes on after me and a charity with such specific aims and objectives would help in that.

You put godmen and frauds to the test. They fail. What are godmen? What is the most common trick of godmen and frauds in India?

The term ‘godmen’ is a specifically Indian usage. Some of these gurus call themselves Bhagawan XYZ where the term Bhagawan or god is a prefix to their name. They also change their given names to high-sounding ones having a meaning like ‘a great one’, ‘a realised one’ and so on. Some of them even add a number of ‘misters’ to their title like Sri Sri, Sri Sri Sri etc., the number of sris quantifying their greatness. In order to bamboozle their gullible followers, they perform tasks apparently impossible for a normal person say something like ‘materialising’ an object from thin air, walking on embers, dipping hands into boiling oil are a few such examples. There are also Jesus Christ-like moments multiplying food, converting one liquid into another, reviving the dead, healing disease etc.

Who was a particularly notable story in your professional career so far?

If you mean my profession as a medical biochemist, my involvement in the work about lead poisoning particularly in school children has been the most satisfying. As a consumer activist, we succeeded in bringing about a Consumer Protection Act for the country in 1986. As a rationalist putting a stop to a fraud called as midbrain activation, which was allegedly conferring supernatural powers on children to see even when blindfolded, was one of our major achievements. Check this-

What is the overall state of rationalism in India?

We are a diverse nation with a huge population. We need a lot of activists to make the people think rationally. We have a program which appeals to the people directly which is called the ‘miracle exposure program’. In this, we go to the people and show them the so-called God man tricks and explain how it is possible for anyone to do them. This helps as a starting point to make the people think about them. The newer generation of godmen have given them up and have started other things.

This would give an idea about some of the attitudes. This too- which pertains to a so-called yogi who has built up a marketing empire selling things like noodles and biscuits in the name of promoting yoga!

On one hand, we have the economically weaker sections who have been ruthlessly exploited by the religious system while on the other we have the more affluent the so-called middle class, whose icons are again an example of irrationality many times-

How does one present the rationalist worldview in a respectful and positive light in various sectors of Indian culture, and subculture?

The rationalist world view is nothing new to India. Gautam Buddha taught about it 2500 years back. Charvaka was one of earliest materialist philosophers. Two religions, Buddhism and Jainism, have originated in India which are basically atheistic.  The Upanishads and Darshans encourage questioning. The Shad Darshanas are an example of this. Again the term ‘Hindu’ is a vague one with a legal definition as ‘one who is not a Christian, Muslim, Jew or a Parsi’ which means that all rationalist/atheists come under that ambit!

So, it is quite difficult for the rightist forces to attack us on logic and reason. So, they tend to label us as ‘sickulars’ (mockery of secular), ‘Commies’, ‘anti-nationals’ etc. But the common people are remarkably receptive to our point of view when properly presented.

What have been the most emotionally moving experiences in your professional rationalist work?

They are too many to be cited here. We have supported inter-caste, inter-religious marriages, helped the so-called untouchables, HIV-positive children shunned by the society and so on. One of these is here

What are some of the demographics of FIRA? Who is most likely to join it?

FIRA does not take memberships from individuals. We are a federation who affiliates organisations who have members. We have organisations with thousands of members who are registered societies and trusts having a few members. One of the strongest is Punjab Tarksheel Society with thousands of members. Kerala Yuktivadi Sangham has a very systematic setup with an organised membership. Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti has hundreds of branches in villages. As already said, we do not take individuals as members. Those likely to join us are like-minded organisations – atheist, rationalist, secular, humanist- all are welcome who are interested in development of rational thinking.

What have been the largest activist and educational initiatives provided by FIRA (and you, individually)? Out of these, what have been honest failures and successes?

We have made a systematic effort to have activists in every district of the country and organised national and state level programs which were funded by the government of India. Some of them worked. Many did not. Two times we have organised marches to the parliament to demand the enactment of a bill to separate religion from politics but nothing has happened on that front.

We have tried for anti-superstition acts in many states but have succeeded in only one state. Another of our failures has been our inability to attract younger people to join us actively. The younger generation has no significant presence in our movement. Though many of them agree with our point of view, they do not want to take an active part. We have to work hard to bring them in.

Who/what are the main threats to rationalism as a movement?

The religious bigots, who now have the official support from the government ruling at the centre. The so-called minority pressure groups also target us. We are attacked from every side. Three of our people have been murdered so far. Dr. Narendra Dhabolkar was the first one to be killed, and he was a very active member of FIRA. I am forced to go around with an armed bodyguard appointed by the government because threats to my life have been perceived.

How can people get involved with FIRA, even donate to it? How can people further rationalism in India?

We are more in need of participation than funds. My appeal to people is start an organisation of rationalists in your locality and join us as a member. We shall provide resources in terms of inputs and training.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Nayak.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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