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A Rationalist’s Dilemma: Thoughts On The Future Of The Rationalism Movement

Editor’s Note: On January the 23rd, 2010, the Nirmukta team had its first web-conference. Some specific ideas were discussed during this conference, and a commitment was made towards planning to manage the future of the freethought movement. After the conference, Professor Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, prepared the below statement and had it sent to the rest of the Nirmukta team. The team was already preparing a preliminary proposal, and took Professor Nayak’s statement into consideration along with more general management strategies. What follows below is Professor Nayak’s statement. The Nirmukta team’s proposal can be found here.

At the panel discussion held on the 23rd January, Ajita and Pankaj set off some thoughts which have been in my mind for long. The motives are very selfish- to see that the movement for which we have worked so hard grows even stronger. Of course I do hope that one would not begrudge that to me. I was also thanked for having shared my three decades of experiences. It is my feeling that the thanks should be the other way round, for having provided me that opportunity to build up a stronger and younger movement by sharing my experiences with the new generation.

Though I was an atheist at the age of 11 or so, having got over the brainwashing of god at that very young age, I was not a crusading one and was even afraid to express my conviction except to close friends. But, as I grew older, I mustered the courage to speak out and also act out my convictions. After I met A.T.Kovoor in 1976 I got fully inspired by him and decided that one day I too would become a full time activist like him and spend all my time in promoting our cause.

All the time I was working for my career or even on my business, the ultimate aim was to get economic independence and devote all my time to the movement. All my activities were aimed at achieving this. Initially I had the idea of waiting to retire from my job at the age of sixty and then doing activism full-time. But a look at my assets and liabilities gave me the confidence that I could quit even earlier. After I quit my only regret was that I could have done so earlier! My needs are simple and I do not have any dependents. It was a coincidence that on the day I was relieved from my job, Premanand was diagnosed with cancer. It is just a coincidence because the timing of his visit was made so that he could come when I would be free. He must have been suffering from the disease for a while and had been neglecting his health. It was another co-incidence that in 1976, when Kovoor was in Mangalore for his program, that he was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder…… and on the same date! Perhaps some astrologer could tell us how the evil configuration or the curse of the nonexistent gods had caused these events! If I get some health problems the same logic would apply.

narendranayakAt the time when it was said that Premanand would not survive for long I had to make a decision whether I would sit in Podanur and continue the editing and publishing work or continue with my hectic travelling as I had been doing. After a lot of debate over this we came to the conclusion that the latter was more important. Premanand was of the opinion that with the advent of the e-age we could get our message across through the internet, and so it was decided to gradually close down the hard copy of Indian Sceptic. Now, Manoj has agreed to do the job of bringing it out. But, Premanand lived for three more years and this was an added bonus for us. We had him around for those crucial years.

Relieved from the duties as a teacher, I got the full freedom to go ahead with our campaign and tours. It is a rough guess that in those three years I have conducted more training programs than what I had in the decade before then. That apart, we got the opportunity to build up FIRA as a nationwide umbrella organisation for the movement. Now, after three years into this it is time for some loud-thinking and suggestions from like-minded people.

I have been concentrating on training people to demonstrate and explain so-called miracles under the impression that since all the religions are based on such, it is very important to demystify them through demonstrations and explanations. We do not want them to degenerate into third-rate magic shows or means to exploit the gullible by showing our own brand of miracles. Many of the so-called godmen and god-women claim that their  display of ‘miracles’ and ‘supernatural powers’ are not an end by themselves but are only means to an end- like the fraud of Puttaparthy Satya Narayana Raju, aka Sai Baba who claims that these third rate prestidigitations are his visiting cards. We also proclaim that exposing them is our visiting card! We do need tools to attract people to our talks and these seem to be the best. I do get a doubt many times as to whether people look upon us as just a bunch of street performers sticking tridents through our tongues, eating fire etc. We do have some characters like that in our meetings, those who seem be doing only these things and nothing else. From the perspective of media coverage some of these items are very photogenic and get good publicity. But, often a nagging doubt persists- do people look upon us as a movement confined to miracle exposure and nothing else?

We are told that media coverage is very important and we do have some of our self proclaimed ‘leaders’ on TV channels whose only connection with the movement is in the publicity they get on them. You will never see them at the grass root level. I have been  invited for panel discussions on the national level media many times, which I have had to decline because of the dates being already booked for some program in an area from where it is not possible to go to the studio of the channel. Some have advised me to scratch these fixtures and attend the panel discussions since my being on TV can help me reach thousands of homes. But the principles I have followed so far, like being committed to first-come first-served and trying not to cancel any programs, do not permit me to do that. Some times when I am invited to these panel discussions I request the inviters as to why they do not inform me well in advance and the reply has been that they do not get much time. Their topics come up on a weekly basis. It boils down this. I can go on TV shows only when I am free, and that is a very tall order as my programs get booked three months in advance.

Is it that the movement will develop when we are on the TV channels, pontificating about misdeeds of others and commenting about them? Or should we be concentrating on grass root level work reaching out to people and commmunicating to them? Should we have two sets of activists one for the media and the other for the slog work?

As I already pointed out in my pevious write-ups, we have no money at all. The whole annual budget of FIRA is few thousand. This is again because the organisations are conducting their activities on their own budgets and that does not get reflected in the FIRA balance-sheet at all. There was a suggestion from a member of the executive committee that all that should be reflected in the statment of accounts of FIRA. that would a be tall order as the member organisations are totally independent entities and their activities are in no way controlled, regulated, or even supported by FIRA, except at an academic level towards providing resource persons or know-how. When this is the case, FIRA has no moral or legal authority to ask for their accounts. Again, a nagging doubt comes up in my mind and also that of many others whom I have spoken to, that if there is money there are people to spend it! We dont want to build up a corpus which could be wasted away by a coterie which could take over the organisation and spend it off according to their whims and fancies.

Another problem is that I get a lot of invitations to conduct programs from all over. If I am free I find it difficult to refuse as every program is anbasava-premanandopportunity to reach out to and meet new people. It is not enough if we keep on conducting programs for our own people and keep preaching to the converted. We should try and reach out to others, particularly the younger generation who are our target group. So, when I get invited for programs where a large number of young people are present particularly from a wide area, I do take up the invitations and try to interact with them. We have managed to bring new people into the movement by these methods. Some times when I am not free I ask the organisers whether someone else could be sent. Many times the answer is vague and they ask for the name and contact details of the substitute and many times never contact the person at all! Am I building a personality-based movement or is it a crime to be good? Should I refuse programs? This dilemma has been mine for long. Premanand, in his last decade of life, used to refuse programs point-blank and ask people to invite me instead. He started giving the impression to people that I was going to continue his work, or in other words I was his successor! It worked well that way. When queried he would say “I have not handed over any thing to him he has taken over”. So it is my turn to ask, ‘who shall take over now?’ I am getting on to 60 now and have a feeling at the back of my mind that I may not be able to go on for long, although people try to convince me otherwise. I cannot go for long railway or road journeys as I used to go once.For quite some time, I have been not travelling North by train as I used to do before, as it involves travel for several days, which is a waste of my time. Besides it makes me very tired

Well, what are the possible solutions? We are in desperate need of national level master trainers for the miracle exposure program. Even if we dont get trainers who can speak many langugaes and travel all over, we could have region-specific people, say some for the hindi speaking areas, some for the South, etc. What is important is that these people should be fluent in English too and have the capacity to translate from English to their langauage of proficiency. We could have a corporatised setup wih funds enabling us to hire good people who can do justice to the movement by running the day to day affairs on a professional basis. These people with ideological clarity and managerial talent could bring efficiency and administrative talent. They could be compensated for their time and talent. The NCSTC has given me the carte blanche to conduct an advanced training program for those already in the field and need more training. We plan on holding a week long advanced training program at a suitable place to get more master trainers ready. We shall invite such people from all over the country, people whom I have already identified. Besides, having only one person as the national level master-trainer for the miracle exposure program is a dangerous situation as it may give ideas to some people that eliminating this person would deal such a fatal blow to the movement that it would never recover.

Again we need qualified people who are ready to take on the vested interests of various types. If it is a case of quackery, we need a medical specialist in the field who will stick his neck out and ask questions and not bother about the consequences. We need such people in the fields of engineering, sciences etc. We should identify such people and have a panel ready. For the run of the mill sort of “miracles” and events of a ‘supernatural claim we should have people, say at least two in a revenue district, with the budget to investigate and tackle such things. We need persons in each state capital and the national capital too who can go to the studios to represent our point of view. This should be done on a local grass-root level organisation and not through self-proclaimed national level leaders whose presence is only in the studios. There should be a panel to be invited whenever such cases come up. Nowadays we see only a token representation for the other side whenever such discussions take place.

We should have a database of so-called miracles and the secrets behind them. One individual had promised to build up such a museum and had generously proposed to let this work go on in a part of his residence situated in a posh area of a metropolitan city, only to renege on that later. Premanand’s plan was to build up this after the opening of his museum on methods of science, but he passed away before he could realize it. Some universities have a plan to set up a certificte course on miracle exposure and rational thinking and have invited me to propose a syllabus for the same. That would be an excellent idea provided we have the safe guards to see that people who take the training do not become miracle mongers themselves!

Having done this loud-thinking I await responces and suggestions from all of you. We have developed the movement to a level where it has reached a critical mass. We do need to reach higher levels of permeation in the Northern states for which there is an action plan. Then we propose to go to other regions where we are weak. All that will need a much larger and economically stronger set up than what we have now. With suggestions from all I hope to achieve those goals.

The Nirmukta Management Committee was formed after the January 23rd web-conference to synthesize all the ideas put forth during the discussion and to draft a response to Professor Nayak’s urgent points laid out above. The committee put together a proposal for a management-oriented freethought organization in India. This proposal can be found here.

About the author

Narendra Nayak

1 Comment

  • Professor Nayak, I’m disheartened to see that there hasn’t been any comments yet to your fine article. I hope you do find your successor. I don’t have any ideas since I am not involved in the rationalist movement. I have always wanted to be. I live in Dubai though but spend a lot of time in Bangalore. When is the next meeting and how do I join?

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