"I don't want to tell people what to think. I just want to provide them with the tools to think, and we will find something together," says Babu Gogineni, at the end of an almost three-hour long conversation.
The 49-year-old man, who identifies as a humanist, rationalist, and human rights activist, has become a household name among people in the Telugu states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh over the last few years, due to his ability to dispel myths and 'bust ghosts'.
Recently, he helped a village get rid of their ‘ghost’ problem, with an innovative campaign called ‘Selfie with Ghost’.
Babu was also the host of 'The Big Question with Babu Gogineni', a popular weekly TV show in Telangana and Andhra. "Around three years ago, there were talks to do a show on the line of Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos', but I felt that we could do a more detailed job. I discussed the idea with the Managing Director of 10TV, and he agreed to give me a primetime slot, even if no one would watch it," Babu narrates.
"The show dealt with civilisation, science and ideas as they developed through history, and topped the list of TRP ratings for three weeks in a row. Even if it wasn't on top, it was still one of the most watched programs. We proved several critics wrong," he adds.
So who exactly is this anti-superstition warrior and champion of science? What is his story with the Dalai Lama? And what are his future plans? In an interview with TNM, Babu talks about his life, his career, busting spirituality, superstition and the necessity of scientific temper in India.
The young humanist
Born in 1968, Rajaji Ramanadha Babu Gogineni started off his career as a teacher. He moved to the United Kingdom in 1997, where he was associated with the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), following which he returned to Hyderabad and has been donning the role of a science populariser, on the lines of Carl Sagan.
"I was born in Hyderabad and had a fairly decent humanist upbringing, with the ability to think for myself,” he narrates.
Babu also quips about how his father, who was a farmer, would sit down and read his son political arguments made by the likes of MN Roy, Minoo Masani and go all the way to Socrates and Buddha.
(A young Babu Gogineni with his family)
"He was very politically conscious and I grew up with ideas of liberalism. In fact, he was inspired by C Rajagopalachari too, which is how I got 'Rajaji' in my name. My father being a non-believer himself, laid the seeds for my atheism, but he never imposed it on me," Babu adds.
At the age of 17, Babu became the youngest certified French language teacher in India, after a diploma course with the Alliance Française. He later graduated from Nizam College in Microbiology, Botany and Chemistry.
By this time, Babu had also picked up a little bit of German, and began reviewing French and German films for a newspaper.
Joining the movement
"It was in 1987 that I got my first direct exposure to the humanist movement. I was well versed with several writers, and there was an event to mark the birth centenary of MN Roy. My father bought me an air ticket to go to Dehradun when I was 18," Babu says.
He then narrates how he challenged Justice Tarkunde's opinion on MK Gandhi in public, following which the retired judge, who was more than 70 years old, asked the 18-year-old to chair one of the sessions.
"There was so much openness to dissent. Once I got involved, I saw that there was a different side to life, than a career in medicine," Babu says.
For the next 11 years, Babu taught French, even taking up administrative positions for several events organised in India.
In 1989-90, Babu's work took him to several places in Europe, where he discovered several things.
"I realised that humanism was a more powerful movement than I thought. It was a way of life. More than 50% of people in the Netherlands are without religion, along with several people in areas like Scandinavia," he says.
"Unlike India, where humanists are fighting for democracy and human rights, and are always pitted against the powerful, humanists there are cooperating with their government within the country, and even get funding," he adds.
By then, Babu had already been associated with several rationalist associations in Hyderabad and Mumbai. In 1997, Babu Gogineni was appointed Executive Director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). In time, Babu also managed to get consultative status for the IHEU at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), UNICEF and UNESCO.
Taslima Nasreen and Dr Younus Shaikh
Babu was also actively involved in campaigns for the protection of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, and bringing Pakistani freethinker Younus Shaikh to safety in Europe.
Taslima's story is better documented, and Babu had helped raise funds to support her and make sure that she was safe. Later, Taslima became a representative of the IHEU at UNESCO in Paris.
Dr Younus Shaikh on the other hand, was charged with 'blasphemy' in 2000, by authorities in Pakistan.
"Dr Younus was a strange and extraordinary man. We had been in touch before, and met a few times. In 2000, a man mailed me and said that Younus had met him in a Pakistani court, and given him my email id on a cigarette pack. When someone is in such danger, and thinks of only one person, I didn't think I could have any other commitment, but to ensure his safety," Babu says.
He then narrates all that it took, from building a website and trying to stimulate international resolutions, to chairing an online campaign.
"The campaign for Dr Shaikh involved in street demonstrations and lobbying behind the scenes, with governments and ambassadors," he says.
Shaikh was finally acquitted in 2003, following which he escaped to Europe. Following all this, Babu returned to India, but continued his role at the IHEU until 2015.
Babu also set up the Humanist Centre for Bioethics at the UN in New York before he moved back to India.
Taking on Dalai Lama
"I moved back mostly for personal reasons, and realised that the work needed to be done in India was cultural, not political. Our problem is one to do with belief, thought, and inadequate preparation to be a modern democracy," says Babu.
He also talks about how untouchability as a concept was present in Bangladesh, Nepal, Yemen, Korea, Japan, Nigeria, and even Sweden, France and Spain until the 1700s, and was not unique to India.
"Only in India did it get associated to caste. Great intellectuals like Dr Ambedkar have pointed this out already," says Babu, who also organized two World Conferences on Untouchability, in London and in Kathmandu.
It was also in India that Babu came across Sambhavi, who was projected and hailed as a child goddess, and a friend of the Dalai Lama in an earlier incarnation.
“An infant had been handed over to the Dalai Lama, because he saw something 'divine' in the child. This had to be fought, but it was not going to be easy, as my adversary had a Noble Peace Prize in his pocket," says Babu.
"There were threats and accusations for exposing the Lama for the little leader of a small sect of Buddhism that he is. He had been preparing a child to be his successor, but I demanded to know why the child was in a temple, when she should be in school. They pushed the child around like a circus animal," he adds.
Following this, Babu moved the Andhra Pradesh State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) , which ruled that the 8-year-old child's Right to Education was violated, and ordered that the child must go to school.
Superstition and religion
"In India, what do you do when government sponsored departments in institutes spread pseudo-science and myths?" Babu asks.
"Religion in India is an untaxed, unmonitored business venture, and a big disaster and an emergency. An enlightenment needs to be brought in," he rues.
Babu has done his part, inviting astrologers on live debates in Telugu channels, to predict election results accurately for a reward of Rs 1 crore.
Several astrologers took up the challenge in 2009, and 2014, only to fail miserably on live Television.
"Nonsense is growing, and all the 'woo woo' of spirituality has changed. They no longer do magic tricks, but resort to science and pseudoscience itself. From Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to Jaggi Vasudev, their business model of pyramid marketing is illegal in India and so are their operations," Babu says. "They have all managed to build business empires with this," he adds.
Babu is also a regular myth-buster on Telugu TV channels, and participates in debates, that debunk astrology and other pseudo-sciences.
As far as the future is concerned, Babu is focused on building the South Asian Humanist Association that he founded.
"I'm keen on promoting a scientific culture, which is why I'm also working with Science for Society. I'm also working to set up a Virtual University for Humanism and also a media channel." he says.
"We also plan to relaunch the Big Question, to change the perspective of telling the story of humanity itself," he adds.
Babu is presently the founder of Skillguru, an organisation which provides soft skills training.