Religious Demography Of India

India Today, May 12, 2003

Future Tension: A handy guide to religious strife in India
by Swapan Dasgupta

Religious Demography of India
by A. P. Joshi, M. D. Srinivas and J. K. Bajaj
Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai
Price: 800 Pages: 358

When it comes to documentation, there were few who were as obsessive and fastidious as the British. Almost everything, from the flora and fauna to the complex ethnography of territories in their charge, was analysed threadbare. Administrative convenience was the prime motivation but Vicotrian Britons were also motivated by knowledge for its own sake. The sheer scale of detailing involved in projects like The Imperial Gazetteer went far beyond the call of duty.

The Census of India, first conducted in 1881, was such a project. Its primary purpose was, naturally, a head count of India. But equally important was the attempt to define India in terms of religious, caste and community. Coinciding with the first moves towards representative government, the Census became an intensely political exercise. For example, the realisation that Muslims made up a majority in undivided Bengal gave a fillip to cultural separatism and created the conditions for Partition of 1947.

Nominally, the communal numbers game came to an end in 1947. Yet, by the early 1980s, India witnessed another bout of Hindu insecurity, this time triggered by Muslim migration from Bangladesh, Christian evangelism in Northeast and the emergence of assertive minority vote banks.

Were these misgivings real? Or were they imaginary fears fuelled by sectarian politics? The political class and scholars shied away from confronting the evidence. It reminded them too much of the rancour surrounding the Census operations from 1911 to 1941. This book is not governed by such squeamishness. In analysing India’s religious demography, authors have explicitly stated that there is much Indian Religionists – the term is used as a euphemism for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains – need to fear.

“The proportion of Indian Religionists,” they write, “in the population of India has declined by 11 percentage points during the period of 110 years… Indian Religionists formed 79.32 percent of the population in 1881 and 68.03 percent in 1991 …If the trend… continues, then the proportion of Indian Religionists in India is likely to fall below 50 percent early in the latter half of the 21st century.”

A caveat is necessary: India here means undivided India. For the present Indian Union, the decline is more nominal, from 86.4 per cent in 1901 to 85.09 in 1991. But, according to the study, “a pocket of high Muslim influence seems to be now developing in the northern border belt covering Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. And a border pocket of even more intense Christian influence has developed in the north-eastern states”. To cap it all, most of the changes have taken place since 1947.

The data is startling. In fact so startling that there is a chance this book, with its rich district-level data, will become a ready reckoner for the Hindu backlash against secularism. Releasing the book, Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani called it a “landmark”. It may become so if, like yesterday’s Census, the numbers game translates into political strife.