Religious Demography Of India

- A theory of religious demography blissfully ignorant of social science


The author is professor of political science and director, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta

Spectres of demographic pollution and inundation inhabit all modern right-wing ideologies. They kindle fears of conversion, miscegenation, the blurring of identities and, above all, in a democratic age where numbers matter in politics, the swamping of native populations by barbarian others. The Indian subcontinent has seen many such inflammatory campaigns in the 20th century, most notably, and with devastating consequences, by both Hindu and Muslim fanatical groups. Most of the demographic “facts” cited by these campaigners are in the nature of half-truths, conjectures, innuendoes and, more often than not, plain lies. This was shown during the recent communal violence in Gujarat where many Hindus apparently believed that in many parts of the state Muslims had become a majority of the population.

The advocates of Hindutva politics have now given us a study of the Religious Demography of India (Chennai, Centre for Policy Studies, Rs 800), with a foreword by L.K. Advani commending the book “to all Indians”, that claims to bear the insignia of social science. The authors have academic backgrounds in the physical sciences and were once engaged in a project to reclaim the indigenous traditions of science in India. In recent years, they have clubbed together in the Centre for Policy Studies in Chennai to write books such as Ayodhya and the Future India (1993) and Timeless India: Resurgent India (2001). Their latest book on religious demography is neatly organized and argued, packed with statistical tables and maps, and is rarely tendentious or strident. But the social science theory underlying the study is shockingly crude and naïve.

Working with census figures from 1881 to 1991, A.P. Joshi, M.D. Srinivas and J.K. Bajaj find that Indian Religionists have declined by 11 per cent in the Indian subcontinent. Based on current trends, they estimate that Indian Religionists will turn into a minority in the subcontinent by 2061. Within present-day India, Indian Religionists have declined by two per cent between 1951 and 1991. This in itself, the authors say, is “not too remarkable”. But there is a belt of districts stretching from Bahraich in eastern Uttar Pradesh, through north Bihar and north Bengal, to Nagaon in Assam, where the Muslim population has grown by seven per cent since 1951, and “Indian Religionists have already turned into a minority in several districts of the region”. In Kerala, Indian Religionists have declined by 12 per cent through the 20th century. Most strikingly, in the northeastern states and in the Nicobar Islands, the number of Indian Religionists has declined precipitously, especially after independence, owing to the spread of Christianity. While the overall balance of religious blocs within the Indian Union may be considered relatively stable, these pockets of Muslim and Christian concentration in the border regions must cause, the authors say, serious concern. “Existence of such distinct pockets,” they remind us, “formed the demographic basis of Partition of the country in 1947.”

But what, we must ask, is this category called “Indian Religionists”? It turns out that this is simply a residual category obtained by subtracting Muslims and Christians from the total population. Anyone who is not a Muslim or Christian is an Indian Religionist, including Zoroastrians and Jews. True, the authors add a separate chapter in which they analyse the population trends of the less numerous religions, including Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc., but these do not affect their basic conclusions about Indian Religionists. They defend their ludicrously simple tripartite classification of the population of the subcontinent (the whole of which they call India, as distinct from present-day India which is called the Indian Union) by citing a historical theory. This theory states that until the coming of Islam, India had an entirely homogeneous religious civilization based on the sanatana dharma, “the timeless discipline that forms the core of all religious doctrines of Indian origin”. Indeed, even today, “Islam and Christianity are the only heterogeneous faiths present in India.” Thus, from anti-Vedic and nastika religions like Buddhism and Jainism, to the deeply anti-Brahminical sects built around saintly figures such as Vasavanna, Nanak or Kabir, to the religions of the adivasi peoples of central India or the Tibeto-Burman or Khmer peoples of the Northeast, everything is homogenized into the timeless essence of sanatana dharma. The theory makes nonsense of all accumulated textual, historical and anthropological scholarship on Indian religions.

Historical demography is a distinguished and sophisticated discipline in India that has attempted to explain population trends in terms of underlying social dynamics. Unfortunately, Joshi, Srinivas and Bajaj do not even attempt to relate the changes in religious demography to other social or economic factors for which plenty of information is available in the very census reports they have used. As far as one can discern, they have four simple explanations for the trends they have discovered. One, they think that the religion of the rulers has something to do with the religious composition of the people. Thus, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the “heartland” of India and “critical to its civilizational identity”, “bore the brunt of the wrath of both the Mughals and the British” and are still suffering from the effects of demographic decline. For the same reason, Indian Religions have recovered lost ground in Goa and Jammu and Kashmir after independence. Second, migrations across the border following the partition of India continue to affect the religious demography of the eastern and northeastern states. The authors do not even ask if the demography of Bihar and UP is affected by migrations from those states to other parts of India and if there might be differential pressures and opportunities for such migration among different religious groups. Third, the authors frequently remind us that both Islam and Christianity are vigorously proselytising religions. Fourth, they suggest that since the number of children per Muslim woman was 12 percent higher than that for Hindu women in censuses before 1941, the same trend continues today. (One must say that this argument is at least better than the absurd canard that deduces Muslim overpopulation from Muslim polygamy.)

Underlying all this is a global theory of religious demography. There are actually, the authors say, three religious blocs in the whole world: Christianity, Islam and Native Religions. There is a titanic struggle going on between them for demographic supremacy. One person added to one bloc is one person lost to the others. There are no in-betweens, no people who fall into none of the categories. Those who declare themselves to be non-religious or atheists are victims either of repressive Marxist states or of the individualizing pressures of modernity and are not “serious converts from Christianity”. Once again, the category “Native Religions” is assumed to be transparently clear. We are not told why Islam in Indonesia and Christianity in the Philippines are foreign religions while Buddhism in Thailand or Laos is native to those countries. The Social Darwinism implicit in many of these assumptions is so crude that they would have embarrassed even 19th-century advocates of race theory. And their understanding of religion and religious communities is so blissfully ignorant of all social science that one can only attribute it to the intellectual innocence of former physical scientists.

Their global analysis shows that Christianity has swept Africa in the 20th century, while Muslims have increased their share of the world population by seven per cent. India has done relatively well in the last century in resisting both Islam and Christianity. But the most exemplary defence of Native Religions, according to Joshi, Srinivas and Bajaj, has been put up by China. “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 influences.” They do not, of course, suggest that India needs a Maoist revolution; that is a spectre they would rather not think about.