Those who question or do not conform to dominant local religious tradition(s) and/or religion as such have, of course, faced serious problems in a number of different historical periods and locations. This project examines the forms in which individuals and communities raise, in the open or in more hidden transcripts, questions over the dominant religious norms in South Asia. This project is also interested in how such people are being targeted as distinct minorities by various religious and political groups. However, the effects of these encounters extend beyond this region: a significant number of community members now seek asylum in European countries. In consequence, these countries are now debating whether, or to what extent, varieties of religious non-conformism can be legitimate reasons for granting asylum.
While much recent academic work has focused on religious revivalism and reformist movements, critical engagement and skeptical attitudes towards dominant religious norms in South Asia are so far under-researched. A key aim of this study is to correct this absence and thereby to transform our understanding of the kinds of positions, individuals and communities that flourish but also, and critically, face challenges and provoke social contentions in South Asia. It will provide three national ‘deep contextualisations’ of debates and criticism faced by secularists and religious sceptics in South Asia, asking: What are the specific circumstances in which criticism targeting these communities and positions evolve? This study also investigates the assumptions that inform European countries’ responses to cases in which asylum is sought on the basis of claimants’ religious nonconformism, and also those informing advocacy work performed by global secular networks on their behalf. Thus, while this project is ethnographically grounded in South Asia, it also extends beyond this region to examine global implications of critical debates and actions that are taking place there.