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Religious demography and Census findings

Religious demography and Census findings

Author: M.V. Kamath
Publication: Organiser
Date: October 10, 2004
URL: http://www.organiser.org/dynamic/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=45&page=13

It is no matter of surprise that a controversy erupted over the statistics released by the Registrar-General and Census Commissioner, J.K. Banthia, of demographic data based on religion. Nor is it a matter of surprise that the issue has been politicised. With the Muslim community showing a higher growth rate it was inevitable that alarm bells should have been sounded. All manner of excuses have been given for the data provided both by the Census Commissioner as well as by government spokesmen. Had the data been provided when the NDA government was in power, all sorts of charges would have been conveniently levelled against the BJP. It is the Congress which is now suffering from an acute bout of embarrassment.

Shri Banthia may have messed up some figures a bit but there are other scholarly works available that provide us with a precise picture of the demographic situation in the country. One such is Religious Demography of India authored by Messers A.P. Joshi, M.B. Srinivas and J.K. Bajaj and published by Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai. It is a brilliant study but ends with the 1991 Census. It has one major shortcoming. It does not specifically mention Hindus as a religious category. Rather, it speaks of 'Indian Religionists'-a category that includes Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs as well. In that sense it is hard to make out the demographic strength of 'Hindus' as they are generally known, but if this factor is recognised, the conclusions arrived at by the authors are acceptable. What do they say?

If the Indian sub-continent (and that includes both Pakistan and Bangladesh) is taken as a whole, then, it is claimed, "the proportion of Indian Religionists is likely to fall below 50 per cent early in the latter half of the twenty-first century". Significantly, the proportion of Indian Religionists declined by 11 percentage points in the Indian sub-continent in the last 110 years. This is an extraordinarily high decline to take place in just about a century. However, according to the authors, within the Indian Union itself, the decline suffered by Indian Religionists during this period is less pronounced, their proportion declining from 86.64 per cent in 1901 to 85.09 per cent in 1991. To quote the authors: "A very large part of Indian Union, comprising all of the northwestern, western, central and southern states has seen a little decline in the proportion of Indian Religionists. They have an overwhelming dominance in this vast region that includes almost two-thirds of the geographical area and about 57 per cent of the population in1991." But where are the Indian Religionists under pressure?

Here is the need to watch out what is happening in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam-and Kerala. In Kerala, apparently, Indian Religionists have been losing ground throughout the twentieth century. But Uttar pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam, and especially the border areas of these states, constitute "a region of high Muslim presence and growth" with "the share of Indian Religionists in the region under great stress and likely to remain so in the future". Indian Religionists have already turned into a minority in "several districts" of the region. During the four decades since Independence, Indian Religionists lost almost four points of their share in these four states. As the authors note, "The decline in their presence and corresponding rise in the presence of Muslims, is concentrated in well-defined districts, several of which form contiguous belts and pockets, located mainly on the borders of Indian Union". Apparently, in some of these districts, Indian Religonists "now have a precarious majority or have already turned into a minority."

In 1941 the share of Indian Religionists in Uttar Pradesh was 84.34 per cent which has come down to 82.53 per cent in 1991. Muslim presence in Uttar Pradesh is uneven. They formed less than 1 per cent in Uttar Kashi, Tehri- Garhwal, Chamoli, Garhwal, Almora and Pithoragarh. But in the districts of Bijnor, Moradabad and Rampur their share in 1991 was as high as 40.34, 42.71 and 47.96 per cent respectively. In six towns in Uttar Pradesh, Muslims form the majority of the population. Four of these-Moradabad, Sambhal, Amroha and Rampur, all in western Uttar Pradesh-had in 1991 a Muslim population of 55, 74, 71 and again 71 per cent respectively. The highest concentration of Muslims in Bihar is in north Bihar where between 1951 and 1991 the Muslim share in the population grew from 15.81 to 19.35 per cent. Two states where the Muslim population percentage is creating disturbances are West Bengal and Assam. In West Bengal, the Muslim population in west Dinajpur, Maldah, Birbhum and Murshidabad percentagewise in 36.75, 47.49, 33.06 and 61.39 respectively. According to the authors, "Muslims have a substantial share in the population of every district of West Bengal, except the three western districts of Puruliya, Bankura and Medinapur and the northern districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri.

The most disturbed state is Assam which has recorded the "greatest decline in the proportion of Indian Religionists during the twentieth century". In Assam the share of Indian Religionists has come down from 84.55 per cent in 1901 to 69.25 per cent in 1991. During this period the share of Muslims rose from 15.03 to 28.43 per cent. According to the authors the high presence of Christians and Muslims in Assam is more a rural phenomenon and only about 5 per cent of Muslims in the state are urban. So what conclusions should one draw from the available facts? Say the authors: "Viewed in the perspective of the changes that have taken place in the religious demography of the world, Indian experience of this period is not too dismal... India, on the whole, has resisted Christianisation; proportion of Christians in India remains around 2 per cent. And India has not succumbed to the expansion of Islam like some countries of Africa. But Indian experience of the 20th century has not been nearly as robust as that of the other great non-Islamic and non-Christian civilisations of the world, China. During the course of the twentieth century, not only the proporition 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".

Things might have changed for the worse in the years between 1991 and 2001 which is why, one suspects, the report of the Census Commissioner has upset so many people who have come to think that the situation could get even worse in the decades to come, unless adequate steps are taken to control the population growth, especially among the minorities. In that sense, the Census Commissioner certainly has issued a warning, though that may not have been his intention.

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