Religious Demography Of India

Demographic changes cause alarm in India

Does it matter if the population of Hindus in India rises or falls in proportion to the population of, say, Muslims, who form the largest minority in the country? We may hear the liberal voice saying, plaintively: ``May be not’’. May be not? What if in some states the percentage of Hindu population falls precipitously? What effect will that have on the politics and peace of the country? Few intellectuals in India have really given much thought to this aspect of demography.

The general attitude is: ``We are in a majority in the country, aren’t we? So what’s the problem?’’ As the Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai, points out in a remarkable study entitled Religious Demography of India, after achieving independence, we have lost the spirit and determination that Mahatma Gandhi had evoked in us and slipped once again into the debilitating habits of mental sloth and mechanical imitation acquired during the long years of bondage’’. No effort is made to understand the nature of society, the demographic forces in operation until some calamity overtakes us and we are left voiceless and fumbling. That is precisely what happened in 1947 when partition of India took place.

Some such thing, but not on the same scale, can happen tomorrow if there is no awareness of development trends today. It is that awareness that this study wants to encourage. An interesting observation made by this study is that while practically all parts of the world have experienced a great resurgence in population, the number of persons per unit of cultivated land in India remains below that of Europe or China.

But the other timeless fact about India is that, besides the extraordinary fertility of its land and the sheer size of its population is the homogeneity of its civilisation and culture. Only, the sad part of it is that, that cultural homogeneity had come under stress, especially during the last two hundred years and more. What this study does is to provide a demographic picture, religion- wise, of India that puts the stress under perspective.

For the sake of clarity the authors have clubbed together Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism under the umbrella title of Indian Religion (IR). So, when they speak about Indian Religionists they refer to all four religions indigenous to the country. One point made is that from about the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century the non-European people of the world came under great pressures.

During this period the share of people of European origin in the population of the world actually rose by about 10 percentage points, while the share of other people correspondingly declined. In the 1930s the share of European people in the population of the world reached its peak of nearly 40 per cent. The proportion of Indian Religionists in the population of the Indian sub-continent declined by 11 percentage points during the last 110 years. That was an extraordinarily high decline to the place in just about a century.

At the peak of Mughal rule at the time of Akbar, after nearly four hundred years of Islamic domination, the proportion of Muslims in India was said to be no more than one sixth of the population. Says this study: ``If the trend of decline seen during 1881-1991 continues, then the proportion of Indian Religionists in the Indian subcontinent is likely to fall below 50 per cent early in the latter half of the twenty first century’’. Which means that post-2050 there may be more Muslims in the Indian sub-continent than Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs et al. A situation pregnant with dangerous possibilities. Within the Indian Union itself there has been a decline in the percentage of Indian Religionists from 79.32 per cent in 1881 to 68.03 per cent in 1991.

In 1901, in the area now known as Pakistan, Indian Religionists formed 15.93 per cent of the population but following partition, that percentage figure has come down to a miserable 1.60. So while the percentage of Indian Religionists has drastically come down in Pakistan, the percentage of Muslims has risen considerably in what is now the Indian Union. What is even more significant and alarming, in the heartland and eastern regions of the Indian Union, comprising Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam, Indian Religions are under great pressure.

The regionencompasses the most fertile lands in India and accommodates about 37 per cent of the population. Says the study: ``Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam, and especially the border areas of these states constitute a region of high Muslim presence and growth. The share of Indian Religionists in this region is under great stress and is likely to remain so in the future. Indian Religionists have already turned into a minority in several districts of the region’’. If that comes as a shock and a surprise, the situation in Kerala should give cause for alarm to Indian Religionists.

Here, in Kerala, Indian Religionists have been losing ground through out the twentieth century. They have a share of 69 per cent in the population in 1901. In 1991 this came down to 57 per cent a loss of 12 per cent. Says the Study: ``This loss of about 12 percentage points in the course of the twentieth century has occurred on top of the substantial losses that Indian Religionists in Kerala suffered due to largescale conversions to Islam during the later part of the eighteenth century and to Christianity during the nineteenth.

Thus,in the course of the last three centuries, Indian Religionists have comprehensively lost their dominance in this coastal state’’. But the most dramatic story of the twentieth century is that of the north-eastern states, not including Assam. In 1901 Indian Religionists formed more than 90 per cent of the population of these states, while Christians formed less than 2 per cent. In 1991, the proportion of Indian Religionists was reduced to less than 60 per cent, while that of Christians has risen to nearly 40 per cent.

Interestingly, the study says that most of this change occurred during the period following independence! It speaks volumes for the freedom given by the Indian Government to Christian missionaries. In 1941 Indian Religionists in the north east still formed nearly 90 per cent of the population and even in 1931 the year for which census figures for converts to Christianity are said to be more reliable, proportion of Indian Religionists in the population was more than 80 per cent. But this was partly due to the fact that Indian Religionists were in power in Tripura and the central districts of Manipur.

In other parts of the region, notably Nagaland, Mizoram and much of Meghalaya, Indian Religionists have been reduced to an insignificant minority. And worse, these areas have become zones of rebellion against the Indian State. In contrast, says the Study, ``during the course of the twentieth century, not only the proportion, but also the absolute number of Muslims in China has declined, and Christianity has failed to find any foothold there. India has not responded like China. Consequently India has suffered partition, and several border areas of the post-partition Indian Union have become vulnerable to non-Indian Religionist influences’’. A point to remember.

It is interesting to note that the early invaders of India the Greeks, Bactrians, Parthians, Kushans ad others, instead of disrupting the cultural homogeneity of the sub-continent became the carriers of Indian civilisational values and principles far and wide. The study notes that vast areas, stretching from northwestern India through Afghanistan to Xinjiang in China and much of Central Asia beyond, became suffused with Indian cultural influence. But that was not the case with Islamic rulers. These rulers, consciously and perhaps conscientiously, resisted acculturation into the timeless civilisational and religious milieu of India and thus became, says the study indulgently, ``the first source of heterogeneity in India’’. It was this demographic heterogeneity that was to lead to the partition of the country.

The study comes down heavily on the British, maintaining that the British ``were perhaps even more contemptuous of the fundamental civilisational and religious principles of India than the Turko-Afghans and Mughals’’ because ``through their patronage and propagation of Christianity’’ they contributed ``to the increase in heterogeneity by systematically negating and suppressing the civilisational homogeneity of India.’’

But how come the percentage of Muslims rose steadily from 1901 onwards incomparison to Indian Religionists? According to a British Census report, this was because of the prevalence of famines in Hindu-majority regions an excuse that does not at all carry conviction. Says the study: ``The data seems to indicate that during the British times, there was a premium on a community being alien from the mainstream of India and the more a community asserted such alienness, the more it flourished’’.

A little noticed fact is about the position in Maharashtra. According to the study, in Maharashtra, Indian Religionists have been suffering “a slow and steady decline in their proportion of the population since 1951’’ their share having come down from 91.04 in 1951 to 89.21 per cent in 1991. The fall has not been because of any rise in Christian population.

Actually says the study, the share of Christian population has declined from 1.35 per cent in 1951 to 1.12 per cent in 1991. The fall in the percentage of Hindu population in Maharashtra is attributed to the rise of the Muslim population from 7.61 per cent in 1951 to 9,66 per cent in 1991.

In conclusion, the study says that while Indian Religionists have by and large maintained their dominant position in the country, ``such vitality has not helped them in defending their presence on the borders of the country where the efforts of the society, to be effective, necessarily need the vigilance and support of a state committed to protecting and preserving the civilisational identity, pride and genius of the nation’’. And the study adds: ``We have so far failed to fashion such a state for ourselves’’. Words to ponder over.