Nirmukta was started in 2008 by Ajita Kamal. A few friends joined pretty soon. Ajita Kamal had corresponded with Meera Nanda and then Basava Premanand who directed him to Narendra Nayak about his idea of creating a Freethought community dedicated to promoting Science and Humanism in India. His idea took shape and he worked on it for long mostly by himself but ensured the involvement of like-minded people who had the inclination as well as the expertise. Like streams and rivulets many others joined this river slowly.For some of us it was because of the shout-out given by PZ Myers. Some came through Atheist Nexus and a few trickled in through Orkut. Nirmukta forums brought in a lot of volunteers even as this blog was churning out articles on themes related to superstition, rationalism, atheism etc., Nowadays Facebook brings in a number of people who are interested in connecting and interacting with fellow freethinkers. Our community keeps growing and the number of members in the Facebook groups is a fair indicator of the reach of Nirmukta.
The Story of one Regional group:
About two years back some of us in Chennai met for the first time. Our group did not even have a name then. It was just a group of curious people who had met in Facebook under the umbrella of Nirmukta. Formation of Regional groups was being encouraged then and the Delhi group had just met. Bengaluru already had an active group. And so when we met, we were cautious, measuring each other, making suggestions, listening in fascination and hoping. It felt strange to know that there are people who shared our thoughts in good old Chennai. We rarely came across such people in our day-to-day interactions in our professional/study circles. Soon, after a voting process in Facebook, we called ourselves the Chennai Freethinkers and decided to meet frequently.
We continued to meet, talk, discuss and debate among ourselves. We also invited Professors, seniors, experts and leaders in the freethought movement. As we listened to them in fascination and continued to learn and whet our appetite we started noticing a pattern. Quite often there was a casual remark, a comment, a reference about what we were doing being not that important. That it was somehow diminishing that it was Richard Dawkins who introduced atheism to some of us. That we were just a group of people who had nothing better to do other than congregate and talk about issues but finally did nothing concrete. To be fair it was not only the seniors who felt that, the same sentiment was expressed by a few members too now and then. Which was in a way good because it goaded us to do more and more. And the remark about not being aware of homegrown rationalists too hit home and we strove to learn.
So our initial response to this is ‘Guilty, as accused!’ We realize that there is a lot of truth in such sentiments. We understand that mere talking without any action is worthless. We share the derision towards arm-chair intellectuals who have an opinion on everything but do not lift a finger to contribute in any way to make the world a better place. But is it really true that what we are doing is worthless … that it matters only if you go out and talk to the public… that you have to definitely visit the villages and small towns and talk about rationalism if you want to do something useful? Well let us see what we have accomplished till now. First I will try to look back at what Nirmukta has done so far in its blog and in its Facebook groups / pages and then I will look into what the Regional groups of Nirmukta have been doing and finally into the Nirmukta forums. This exercise is a kind of stock-taking for us. A sort of consolidation with a view to gain a perspective and to chart our future road map.
A Stock – taking:
Nirmukta: Nirmukta is yet to be registered as an all India organization. Nirmukta was started as a website and since then its online presence has grown consistently. Further it now has a physical presence as well in the form of Regional groups in many Indian cities wherein regular meets are organized. Nirmukta has successfully brought together a diverse group of people from all over the world who share our passion for promoting Science and Humanism. We at Nirmukta are conscious about the importance of following systems and best practices that are in tune with the times we live in. We realize the importance of Technology and are committed to make the best use of it here. To this end our members are working on several projects which would be implemented in due course. The power and reach of social media portals was anticipated quite early by us and the Facebook groups were started to knit together a group of Freethinkers. It has proved quite successful in providing a major platform for us to coordinate, converse and coalesce into a community.
Nirmukta Blog: The Blog has been publishing articles regularly since 2008. We have a long list of esteemed authors including Narendra Nayak, Dr.Vinod Wadhawan, Dr.Srinivas Kakkaliya, Dr.Prabhakar Kamath, Ranganath R, Prof.V.Balakrishnan and Prof.P.Dayanandan. A sample list of our articles that have been quite popular and were widely shared:
Nirmukta Facebook groups / pages: The Indian Atheist page and the Nirmukta page have been quite popular and are being visited regularly by many people from all over the world. As of now the main Nirmukta Facebook group has more than 3000 members and we engage in discussion on all topics following a set of guidelines. Indian Atheists Debate Corner is the group where we engage in discussion with /religious apologists and has more than 2000 members.Apart from these groups, the specialized groups too attract a lot of traffic. We have Nirmukta Humanists, Nirmukta Skeptics, Nirmukta Science, Nirmukta Politics, Nirmukta Book Club and Nirmukta Parenting wherein we cater to specific groups / issues.
Regional groups: The Chennai Freethinkers’ group is the largest of Regional groups with more than 700 members and has been organizing regular monthly meets. Last year we held a one-day workshop called Thinkfest. We have had several interesting meets and listened to talks by a paleontologist, a documentary film maker, lessons on Logical Fallacies and a talk on what freethinkers are leaving behind and so on. The group in Bengaluru which organized Yukti in February 2011 has several new members now and continue to meet at regular intervals. The Delhi group too meets regularly, visited the museum once and has garnered some media attention. The Mumbai group organizes regular meets and hold discussions on various topics. The Pune group has met quite a few times, screens films and plans to hold a joint meet with the Mumbai group. The Kerala group has organized meetings and seminars on current topics. Kolkata group too has met once recently.
Nirmukta Net: The forums are dedicated for holding serious discussions on various topics that are grouped under related heads. We have had important and interesting conversations on a variety of issues: A sample:
Some of the conversations in the Facebook groups and Nirmukta forums have been uplifting. Educative. Emotional. We have been talking about several important issues openly and passionately. Issues that were considered taboo by our friends and families; issues about which we could not openly share our views; issues about which we wanted to debate but did not have interested companions. And all these discussions whether we actively participated in them or passively observed them were a constant learning process. Our views changed even as we argued fiercely and our opinions underwent refinement. This coming together and sharing of ideas and concerns made many of us better human beings compared to what we were before and we were proud to admit it.
That brings us to the question who exactly are these ‘we?’ In our Facebook groups, we have members from Tiruppur in Tamilnadu to Guwahati in Assam. We realize that it is important to focus on the grassroots while building an organization. But what exactly is the grassroots here? Are the Regional groups meeting in cities grassroot organizations when it is the Facebook groups which actually bring in members from diverse backgrounds and remote villages? We don’t really know but we think it is equally important to hold physical meets as well as keep the conversation going in the virtual space too.
And so is this conversation important? Quoting Arvind Iyer from this article:
“We may not yet win votes for freethought, but we seek to win voters for freethought. We seek to win over a group of thoughtful citizens, however small, who are committed to the moral progress of humanity and being the change they wish to see.
It is on each one of us that this moral progress depends, and on every conversation where we will break conspiracies of silence and every conscientious objection we will raise against arguments from tradition. To begin with, we must at least talk the talk at every opportunity, at home, in travel and in the workplace, braving the raised eyebrows and bracing for the verbal brickbats. We do not yet have a bully pulpit to make our call from, but we can continue to speak up at the coffee-machine, in ticket-queues and in drawing rooms. We cannot continue indefinitely to be deterred to walk the talk simply because the ground isn’t laid yet or is strewn with mines. We must continue to lay the ground, inch by inch, through every attempt to help freethinkers organize in local communities and build mechanisms to collaborate and campaign. We must continue to be minesweepers of discrimination in any form, detecting and destroying prejudice when it is still subterranean and subliminal, so that what was once hostile territory for some, becomes common ground for us all, where we can take a stand, together, for Reason and Compassion.”
A Rainbow of People:
To clarify, we are not offended by the remarks that we are not doing much. We take it as well meaning advice. But we also hope that our attempts are not belittled either. We are not a monolith group. Not all of the Nirmukta members want to participate in real life meets. We have members who are content to have conversations in our forums or in our Facebook groups. We have members who just follow our blog and do not want to converse with anybody. We also have members who want to be part of a community that would meet at regular intervals, organize workshops/programmes, contribute in some way to the cause of Humanism. Though we meet in metropolitan Chennai, we have members who have grown up in villages and have just landed in the city for their work. We have students, homemakers, professionals. It is an eclectic group and we bring to the table a rich and varied set of experiences. It is heartening to hear diverse stories from the group members. As we carry back this learning to our lives, we are a little more confident, a little more bold and a little more knowledgeable. We look for answers; we start our queries; we continue to learn. We hope that the snowballing effect would then work in building up a critical mass.
Narendra Nayak, President of FIRA is a member of Nirmukta too. He has been one of our most active members and tirelessly participates in our meets in whichever city he travels to. He has been instrumental in our Regional groups co-ordinating with other established rationalist organizations and keeps motivating us to organize programmes. His enthusiasm and drive is legendary. He constantly tells us that we have to do something more than sitting and talking, which is understandable and acceptable. A few of us have now decided to learn the techniques of Miracle Debunking and he has promised to organize a two-day workshop for us. Babu Gogineni, Director of IHEU, in one of our meets observed that unless we get the attention of the media, we will be ‘a small group of people sitting and talking in a hall of this size.’ We had asked him for tips about how to talk to the media and he spoke at length about handling the media before Thinkfest last year. We are thankful to Periyar for garnering visibility to the rationalists of Tamilnadu and to the Rationalist groups in Tamilnadu that reach every nook and cranny of the State and enthusiastically attack the superstitions and religions.
A Rainbow of Approaches:
We have huge respect for those who devote their time and their entire life to travel the length and breadth of our country and talk to people, expose charlatans and work hard to debunk miracles and try to get rid of superstitions. We know we cannot match you in your work. We salute you for your dedication and are proud of you. We are also proud of people who stride the international arena , work hard to solve issues affecting the humanists of the world and talk confidently to the media addressing the superstitions of the people. We are in awe of you, no doubt.
But it is also true that not all of us are ‘that’ committed to spend our lives for the cause of Rationalism or Humanism. Not all of us can devote our entire time to travel and talk to people. Not all of us are media savvy or even want to talk to the media. Not all of us are prepared to make similar sacrifices in our lives. And we think it is alright. For it is not necessary that you have to either do ‘everything’ or do ‘nothing.’ I remember Ajita Kamal writing this in a different context on adopting a pluralistic strategy.
Just as there is scope for every approach in spreading of Rationalism so is there a scope for contributing what one can in the march for spreading Humanism. Because it is not just the uneducated masses in some remote village who require a dose of Rationalism. The need is equal and urgent even in urban areas amongst the so called educated people. It is required to be spread among our family members, friends, colleagues, neighbours and everyone we come across in our day to day interactions.
When a member expresses his unwillingness to be named or identified in the world wide web as an atheist or a humanist we try to understand the social milieu in which he is living that makes him uncomfortable to come out as an atheist. And we realize that we need to make ourselves more and more visible which would ultimately help him. Babu Gogineni made an impassioned plea to Indian Atheists to come out and we shared it in our Facebook groups and pages hoping that it would inspire some of our reticent members to come out.
While we hope for a future when the word ‘Atheist’ would not carry a stigma, we also realize that we are not satisfied in being ‘just atheists.’ Our philosophy is the positive life stance of Humanism. We wonder hard how we can give back to this society considering the privileges that we enjoy. An immediately feasible thing we can all do as secular humanists is to try to be good at whatever it is we do in our life. That would have an impact far beyond what would be evident or measurable. Neil deGrasse Tyson in this interview talked about the time when he used to worry about whether being an astrophysicist was the right choice for him, or whether he should work more directly in helping the black community in the US. Simply put it is important to do what we do well.
Babu Gogineni echoed our mind when he said in one of our recent meets, “Of course none of us in this hall have any delusion that we are changing civilization.” That very thought would be overwhelming and incapacitating. Instead what we try to do is to talk the talk initially and then walk the talk. Some of us may go on to do more. But that would in no way lessen what the rest of us are doing – sitting and talking amongst ourselves. For those of us who take part in these conversations, carry the message to our family, friends and colleagues and raise consciousness whenever a casteist or gender insensitive remark is made in our presence and thereby make others around us sit up and take notice. It is thanks to this community that we don’t feel suffocated by bottling up our thoughts. For with that act of speaking up comes a sense of empowerment and a whiff of freedom. We may not be changing civilization yet but we are creating a small impact in our lives and in the lives of those about whom we care and that is pretty much everybody. We speak up to make sure our voices are heard and stand up to be counted. We realize that we are privileged and fortunate in so many ways and with that recognition comes responsibility and humility. Ultimately we dream of a world where Reason rules and Humanism prevails. That may be far-fetched but if only we could make the world a slightly better place, if only we could make some people think, if only we could make a few people aware of their privileges and a few friends gender-sensitive then our lives would not have been in vain.