Though the union ministry of statistics and programme implementation had asked enumerators to record 'no religion' for the respondents who said so, yet technically, only the coded answers in the Indian census form were tabulated as classifiable data. In this scheme of things, a lot of minor or tribal religions as well as atheists and agnostics got lumped together in an unclassifiable category of 'Others'. In the 2001 Census, 0.1% (727,588 people) were reported as 'Religion not stated' and 0.6% as 'Others'. Neither categories logically accommodate atheists.
As far as administrative data goes, the state requires an enumeration of people born under certain communities and does not concern itself with individual beliefs. However, the complete lack of any official data regarding the number of atheists poses a larger concern. As Akshat Rathi, a doctoral student at Oxford University, UK, asks, "Given that the government doesn't do the job of counting atheists, who does?"
In most other countries, academic research and government funded social surveys is what estimates the number of atheists. "Unlike other countries, religion has a great political and social bearing in India," said Raghu De Souza, an atheist.
Tarika Seth, a student of sociology at Lady Sri Ram College says, "As a secular country, India ought to officially recognize its atheists . But the lack of data can be a hurdle for sociologists who want to do a demographic survey or carry out any research on atheists."
Legally, atheism is a grey area. Recently, Shrirang Balwant Khambete, a practicing advocate, pleaded in a Thane sessions court that he wished to abandon all religious beliefs and be declared non-religious. His plea was struck down by Justice SS Todkar who said that though being non- religious is a personal choice, should the court sanction it legally, it could complicate matters for his family members as after his death, they would be caught in a legal trap on several issues like heir to the property or rituals etc.
While apostasy (renouncing religion) is allowed under the right to freedom of religion and the Special Marriages Act of 1954 allows the marriage of people with no religious beliefs and non-religious and non-ritualistic marriages, there are no specific laws catering to atheists and they are largely considered as belonging to their religion of birth and caste for administrative purposes.
This casual approach of the state, atheists say, is deplorable. Most of them feel very uncomfortable filling official forms, like hospital and gratuity forms, that require them to mention their religion. "Part of this discomfort stems from not being considered a 'serious category' in a country that celebrates religion like no other. Official recognition would go a long way in letting society know that atheism is not a 'phase' but an alternative way of life," said Debarati Roy, a research scholar and sociologist.