On 9 October 2015, noted Mangalorean rationalist Narendra Nayak gave a talk at the Indian Institute of Science’s (IISc) department of materials engineering, titled “The silence of the scientists: A boon to scamsters.” The event was organised by Concern, a student organisation at IISc that works to further discourse on socio-politico-economic issues in the scientific and academic community. During his talk, Nayak aimed to debunk the notion of “midbrain activation”—a popular theory that proposes that through certain techniques, the midbrain in human beings can be activated to allow them to perform hitherto impossible tasks, such as reading through a blindfold and can convert children to geniuses. In 2006, Nayak had quit his job as an assistant professor of biochemistry at the Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, to pursue rationalist activism full-time. He is now the president of the Federation of Indian Rationalists Association (FIRA), an apex body of rationalist organisations that promote scientific approaches and rational thought.
Nayak concluded his lecture by saying, “Some rationalists stay silent and don’t die. I won’t stay silent and don’t mind dying.” Rahul M, an independent journalist and former photo-coordinator at The Caravan, met Nayak after the lecture and spoke to him about his beliefs, his thoughts on the recent murders of rationalists in India and on dissent in the current political climate.
Rahul M: Why and when did you decide to investigate and debunk the paranormal?
Narendra Nayak: That was may be in the 1970s when I was around 20-years-old. Whenever I used to see something paranormal, I used to think that we should investigate it, and so I used to do that. In 1976, after we arranged the programme of [Dr Abraham] Kovoor—the foremost rationalist and paranormal investigator of independent India and Sri Lanka—we even started an organisation called Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association, just to invite Kovoor in Mangalore. I decided very strongly that I will do the work of investigating these things for the rest of my life.
RM: Could you tell us about the Federation of Indian Rational Association (FIRA) and your role in the organisation?
NN: It [FIRA] was started in 1995 or so by [the rationalist] B. Premanand. That is because the Indian Rationalist Association [IRA] had become a family affair; it became the organisation of the Edamaruku family [the writer Sanal Edamuruku is the current president of the IRA]. Premanand wanted to have another umbrella organisation at the national level. So we started our Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations with our first meeting at Palakkad [in Kerela]. Now, we have about 85 organisations with us: various rationalist, atheist groups have joined together to build up this organisation, which takes up issues of common interest.
RM: Earlier this month, FIRA launched a campaign against "midbrain activation" programmes.
NN: The midbrain activation is a so-called process by which they claim that the midbrain of children—and now they say even adults—can be activated. This is pure nonsense, because anatomically, the midbrain of the person lies between the forebrain and the hindbrain and it has to be active if a person is alive. These people are doing bogus claims. And they are saying that the children can read blindfolded, while actually children are peeking through the gaps. And we have given them as challenge; that if they are going to do it with the type of blindfolding we do, we will be glad to give them [Rs] five lakh. But they have not come forward to take it. This is a multi-crore scam. There are hundreds of centres all over the country doing this and they are collecting anywhere between Rs 15,000 to Rs 50,000 rupees from parents saying that they will activate the midbrain of their kids.
RM: Do you see any changes in the way people are responding to your workshops and meetings?
NN: They have been responding as the same way they have been responding since years: always with great enthusiasm. Of course, there are a few dissenters; there are a few people who want to disagree. But that’s okay; it’s all a part of it. The majority of those who come for training, they do agree with what we have to say and they join us in our movements. The enthusiasm has increased because the people who have taken our training before tell others and new people want to come for these training programmes.
RM: Rationalist MM Kalburgi's assassination last month was the third killing of a rationalist over the past two years. Do you think the atmosphere in India has become increasingly intolerant towards those who express dissent?
NN: It is not that the atmosphere of India has become intolerant, but those intolerant people have got ways of eliminating us, probably with tacit support from people above. That’s why they are doing it. The support of the people at the top is emboldening such people to kill rationalists; that's what I want to say, because doing lip service and saying that we sympathise with them leads us nowhere.
RM: Have you been threatened as well? How do you cope with these threats?
NN: Many, many times. It just doesn’t matter. I have been physically assaulted. The rear break cable of my scooter has been cut—not totally cut—but left with a few turns, so that when I break hard, it will get cut and I crash into something and die. Then, I have been physically attacked in programs. Threatening letters used to come. Threatening calls used to come. But nowadays, they have stopped.
I cope with these threats by not remaining silent. I watch my back a little bit. I don’t go to programmes unless I am invited by known people.
RM: You recently said in a news report that police officers in coastal Karnataka ought to be transferred, with reference to the prevalence of cultural vigilantism in the area.
NN: These so-called cultural police—the moral police—always get support of the real police who are supposed to look after the law and order. So these thugs are being supported by the keepers of law and order, which means they were hand in glove. And probably, these police used to get their dirty work done also. That’s why they are so close to each other. That’s why I was saying that many of them have vested interests, so they need to be transferred.
RM: The recent killing of a 50-year-old man in Dadri has evoked strong reactions for the heinous nature of the murder. How would you evaluate the government's response to this incident?
NN: I think the government’s response to this incident was expected of them. Because the [culture] minister said that killing their cow caused people to murder them. That is sheer nonsense. And then, they took the meat for analysis, as if the murder would be justified if they slaughtered a cow. People have the right to eat what they want; that cannot be governed by governments or by other people. As long as it doesn’t interfere with the human rights of others, whatever it is that you want to take is your call.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Rahul M is an independent journalist and a 2017 People’s Archive of Rural India fellow based in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh.