India is an overwhelming experience. The crowds, the color, the beauty, and the poverty enthrall and exhaust a visitor. The subcontinent of more than 900 million people is full of exotic sights and startling contrasts: sacred cows in the middle of eight-lane traffic jams; the gorgeous saris and jewelry worn even by street-dwellers; pilgrims ritually purifying themselves in a sacred river as it flows out of a hydroelectric dam; color televisions in rural mud-huts. One striking contrast is that India is a country saturated by religions - Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism - but is also the home of the largest and most active humanist movement in the world.
I was in India to visit its humanist groups and to gain firsthand knowledge of their internationally renowned development projects and social welfare programs. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) was holding its annual board meeting in Bombay on January 1 and 2, 1996, and several Indian humanist groups organized international conferences to coincide with this event.
The first conference I attended was organized by the Indian Radical Humanists, who also hosted the IHEU Board meeting. (The religious right in the United States may be interested to hear that the leaders of the international humanist movement were transported to their board meeting in a mobile abortion clinic.) The theme was "Integrated Human Development in South Asia," and the venue was the remarkable new Radical Humanist headquarters in Bombay, the M. N. Roy Human Development Campus. When completed in 1997, the four-story campus building will have over 200,000 square feet of floor space. It will house a women's welfare center, health clinics, conference halls, libraries, educational facilities, a hostel, an arts center, and much else besides. Part of it will become the South Asian Humanist Centre, dedicated to advancing humanism throughout the region.
The inspiration behind this magnificent center is Dr. Indumati Parikh, president of the Indian Radical Humanists. In the early 1960s Dr. Parikh moved to live in one of the worst slums in Bombay. She set up a medical center there to bring health care and basic social services to the inhabitants of the shacks and tents. She still works in the slum, but she now has over 100 co-workers. These volunteers include some of the leading doctors in Bombay, along with many women from the slums. Dr. Parikh's operating area has over 100,000 people, but her influence reaches much further as many other aid and development agencies have learned from her methods.
Dr. Parikh's humanist approach to improving social conditions emphasizes education and empowerment. For example, she has promoted family planning by giving women the means and the confidence to control their fertility. Through health, hygiene, and education programs she has drastically reduced the rate of infant mortality. Now that parents can be confident that their children will live to adulthood, they are prepared to limit their family size to the number of children they are able to adequately support.
Practical development work is also carried out by the second humanist organization I visited - the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. The Atheist Center hosted a World Atheist Congress, entitled "Positive Atheism for a Positive Future." The title neatly captures the core idea of the Atheist Centre, which was founded in 1940 by the social activists Gora and Saraswathi - a husband-and-wife team who were colleagues of Mahatma Gandhi.
Conferences are usually held in specialized conference centers completely isolated from the day-to-day work and concerns of the organizers and participants. But the Atheist Congress was held in the midst of the Atheist Centre, near the modest living quarters of the workers and their school, hospital, and training center. These surroundings gave the conference a very practical focus and a warmer, more human atmosphere. …