Religious Demography Of India

PDR Book Reviews, Feb, 27, 2004

Religious Demography of India
Chennai, India: Centre for Policy Studies, 2003. xxii + 358 p. $45.00.

India of the title encompasses modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In an impressive statistical exercise requiring adjustments for numerous changes in administrative boundaries, the authors compile time series of census estimates of population by religious affiliation from 1881 to 1991. For most of the book’s statistical profiles, Hindus are grouped together with the proportionately small numbers of Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Tribal religionists, Zoroastrians, and Bahais in a category termed Indian religionists. The authors’ principal interest is to display the changing size and population share of this group in comparison to Muslims and Christians.

In the subcontinent as a whole, Indian religionists have declined from 79 percent of the population in 1881 to 68 percent in 1991. Muslims have increased from 20 percent to 30 percent, and Christians from 0.7 percent to 2.0 percent. Detailed tables disaggregate these changes for the provinces of Pakistan, the divisions of Bangladesh, and the states and districts of modern India, for the census years from 1901 to 1991.

A final chapter departs from the topic of the title to treat the religious demography of the world. One of the few efforts to estimate worldwide levels and trends in religious affiliation is presented in the World Christian Encyclopedia, edited by David B. Barrett et al. (2nd ed., 2001). Joshi and his co-authors see this work as prone to exaggerate the number of Christians in non-Western countries and of atheists in currently or formerly Communist countries, and they offer a region by region revision of the figures. In both sources, however, the implied precision of the estimates is extravagant, and when rounded to more defensible numbers of significant digits the differences between them are small vanishingly so given the likely deficiencies in the underlying censuses and the conceptual difficulties with the categories. For their part, Joshi et al. take a frankly Hindu-centric position. Indian religionists are a diminishing minority in the states of the northeast periphery of modern India, and find themselves under pressure in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, and Sikkim; shadings on a map identify areas of high Muslim presence.

More generally, modern India’s change in religious composition over the twentieth century is described as not too dismal in that it has resisted Christianization and has not succumbed to the expansion of Islam. But India, we are told, has not been as robust in this respect as China, where not only the proportion but the absolute number of Muslims has declined, and Christianity has failed to find any foothold.