Religious Demography Of India


INDIA is one of the only two regions of the world where a great human civilisation took birth several millennia ago and has survived more or less uninterrupted to this day. The other is China. Probably an equally great civilisation arose in the Americas and flourished for long; but the American civilisation and almost all her people were extinguished when Europe began to extend its influence to the American shores. African civilisation was also disrupted and her people decimated, though not as thoroughly as in the Americas. Europe, America and other areas of the world peopled by the Europeans, as also the Arab and other West Asian lands, are indeed centres of great and vibrant human civilisations today. But, the Christian and the Islamic civilisations that they represent are relatively new developments in human history.

Geographically, India is not as vast as China, Europe or the Americas. But in terms of natural resources essential for the flourishing of human civilisation – cultivable land, water and sunshine – India is as well if not better endowed than these. Even today, when India, along with almost all other parts of the world, has experienced a great resurgence of population, the number of persons per unit of cultivated land in India remains below that of Europe or China. It is not surprising therefore that notwithstanding the relative compactness of her geographical expanse, India has been always a land of great multitudes. India and China together have accounted for more than half the population of the world at least from the beginning of the Christian era to 1850. In the earlier centuries of the era, the combined share of India and China was considerably more than half that of the world; and Indians outnumbered the Chinese up to at least 1500.

The other timeless fact about India, besides the extraordinary fertility of her lands and numerousness of her people, is the homogeneity of her civilisation and culture. Perceptive observers of India from the earliest times have often acknowledged and commented upon the uniqueness of Indian ideas and institutions that pervade nearly every part of India. This cultural homogeneity has come under stress during the last two hundred years or so, basically under the influence of modern ideologies that tend to look upon the homogeneity of India as a source of oppression and backwardness. This ideological prejudice manifests in the public life of India in the name of protection of distinctive ways of life of religious minorities, especially those belonging to Islam and Christianity. Such influences have led to Partition of India into three separate political entities; religious heterogeneity of certain parts of India formed the sole basis for this.

This book attempts to compile and study changes in these two basic determinants of Indian demography: the share of her people in the population of the world, and the civilisational and cultural homogeneity of her people.

Indian census operations that began in 1871 have always classified the people of India according to their religious affiliation. After Independence, cross-tabulation of data on religion was discontinued, but basic data on religious affiliation has continued to be collected. The census data, covering a period of 120 years, forms the basis of our compilation and analysis. During this fairly long period, the country has been partitioned; the larger administrative units formed by the states, provinces and divisions have been extensively reorganised; and the field level administrative units comprising of the districts have been repeatedly rearranged. The census data for the previous years therefore has to be carefully reworked to make it correspond to the current administrative units. Much of this reworking has been carried out by the census organisations of Indian Union, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We have compiled the available information for India; for the three constituent units into which India has been partitioned; for the states, provinces and divisions within these units; and for the districts of Indian Union. This extensive data is presented in the Detailed Tables that form the second part of this book.

The first chapter of the book looks at the growth of total population for India as a whole, and for Indian Union, Pakistan and Bangladesh, separately, and puts this growth in the context of the changing share of different people in the population of the world. This chapter also lays down the basic definitions and assumptions employed in our study and the corrections that have to be carried out in the enumerated census data to take care of the errors of under-enumeration and under-coverage, etc.

In the second chapter, we compile and present the changing religious profile of the populations of Indian Union, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and of India, encompassing all three of these units. Since this book is concerned mainly with the heterogeneity introduced by Islam and Christianity, populations for the purpose of this study are divided into three large groups: Muslims, Christians, and the rest, who may be collectively termed as Indian Religionists. In the third chapter, we carry this analysis further to the level of the states, provinces and divisions of Indian Union, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The next three chapters go further still, to the level of the districts of Indian Union.

Indian Religionists, as defined above, of course include, besides the Hindus, many fairly large religious groups, like Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, who are important on their own, and several smaller groups, some of whom, like Parsis and Jews, may not be of Indian origin. We discuss the growth and distribution of the religious groups other than the Hindus that have been included in the category of Indian Religionists separately in the seventh chapter.

In the last chapter, we put the changing religious demography of India in the context of similar changes that have taken place in the world during the twentieth century. The chapter presents and analyses data on the growth of Christianity and Islam in all major regions and countries of the world.

Throughout our analysis, we employ the term “India” for the geographical and historical India that encompasses the three countries into which India was partitioned in the course of the twentieth century. The individual countries separately are always referred to as Indian Union, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The last census for which detailed religious composition of populations is available is that of 1991; therefore, we carry all collation of data and analysis up to that year.

From about the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century was a period of great strain for most non-European people of the world. During this period, the share of people of European origin in the population of the world rose by about 10 percentage points, while the share of other people correspondingly declined. This rapid rise in the proportion of European people, facilitated largely by the peopling of the American continent, came on top of at least two centuries of growth during which their share had risen by another about 10 percentage points. In the 1930’s, the share of European people in the population of the world reached its peak of nearly 40 percent.

By the middle of the twentieth century, most non-European people of the world began to come out of the long period of direct European rule. And with the coming of freedom, they began to experience a great blossoming of their populations. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the share of African and Asian populations in the world rose sharply to largely neutralise the gains made by European people during the previous hundred years or so. India also participated in this great revival of non-European people. The share of people of Indian origin thus rose to above 20 percent of the population of the world from about 16 percent in 1950. Indian share in the world today is about the same as in 1850. Up to the middle of the last millennium, however, and perhaps up to the middle of the eighteenth century, we used to form a much larger part of the world.

The people of Indian origin thus have improved their share in the population of the world considerably in the course of the twentieth century. The share of Indian Religionists amongst the Indians, however, is a different story.

The proportion of Indian Religionists in the population of India has declined by 11 percentage points during the period of 110 years for which census information is available. Indian Religionists formed 79.32 percent of the population in 1881 and 68.03 percent in 1991. This is an extraordinarily high decline to take 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. If the trend of decline seen during 1881-1991 continues, then the proportion of Indian Religionists in India is likely to fall below 50 percent early in the latter half of the twenty-first century.

Within Indian Union, the decline suffered by Indian Religionists during this period is less pronounced; their proportion declined from 86.64 percent in 1901 to 85.09 percent in 1991. This is largely because there was an increase of almost 3 percentage points in the proportion of Indian Religionists in Indian Union between 1941 and 1951, as a result of the forced and violent transfer of populations associated with Partition. Since 1951, the share of Indian Religionists within Indian Union has declined by more than 2 percentage points.

In the areas that form Pakistan now, the proportion of Indian Religionists rose considerably during the pre-Partition period, from 15.93 percent in 1901 to 19.69 percent in 1951. This is the only region of India, where Indian Religionists registered any gains in the course of the twentieth century. Partition immediately negated these gains; the proportion of Indian Religionists declined to 1.60 percent in 1951, and has remained around that figure since then.

In the areas that form Bangladesh now, Indian Religionists formed 33.93 percent of the population in 1901; their proportion declined to 29.61 percent by 1941 and further to 22.89 in 1951 as a consequence of Partition. Between 1951 and 1991, proportion of Indian Religionists in Bangladesh has been declining precipitously; they form only 11.37 percent of the population in 1991, less than half of their share in 1951.

As we have mentioned above, decline in the proportion of Indian Religionists within Indian Union has not been too remarkable, though they have lost about 2 percentage points off their share since Independence and Partition. But the detailed district-wise data analysed in the book shows that the decline has been fairly steep in certain geographically well-defined pockets of the country, while in most parts Indian Religionists continue to hold sway.

A very large part of Indian Union, comprising almost all of the northwestern, western, central and southern states, has seen little decline in the proportion of Indian Religionists. Indian Religionists have an overwhelming dominance in this vast region that includes almost two-thirds of the geographical area and about 57 percent of the population in 1991. They form more than 91 percent of the population of the region; their proportion has declined only marginally since 1951. Within the region there are only a few small pockets, where Christians or Muslims have any significant presence.

In the heartland and eastern regions of Indian Union, comprising Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam, however, Indian Religionists are under great pressure. This region encompasses the most fertile lands of India and accommodates about 37 percent of the population in 1991 on about 19 percent of the geographic area of Indian Union. Here, Indian Religionists have a share of only about 80 percent in the population; and, they have suffered a decline of about 4 percentage points in their share in the four decades between 1951 and 1991. The rest of the population is formed mainly of Muslims, who have a share of nearly 19 percent in the population. Christians in this region are few; they have a share of less than 1 percent of the population. Christians have a significant presence only in two limited pockets: One, the pocket formed by the undivided Ranchi district of Bihar and neighbouring districts of Raigarh in Madhya Pradesh and Sundargarh in Orissa; and two, the North Cachar Hills district of Assam.

Muslims form a significant presence in the whole of this region. But their presence is especially high in a northern border belt that starts from Bahraich district of eastern Uttar Pradesh and moves through Gonda, Basti, Gorakhpur and Deoria districts of the state; to Champaran, Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Saharsa, Purnia and Santhal Pargana districts of Bihar; West Dinajpur, Maldah, Birbhum and Murshidabad districts of West Bengal; and Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang and Nagaon districts of Assam. Muslims form about 28 percent of the population of this border belt; their growth here has been high enough to add almost 7 percentage points to their share of the population in the four decades since Partition. The districts we have counted above are undivided districts, as they existed in 1971. Since then, the districts have been divided several times. The proportion of Muslims in the new smaller border districts is even higher; available data indicates that several blocks and police-station areas along the border have recorded a very high presence and growth of Muslims.

In addition to the northern border belt, Muslims also have a high and fast-growing presence in an interior region centred on Muzaffarnagar district of western Uttar Pradesh, in the region around Calcutta in West Bengal, and in Cachar district of Assam.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam, and especially the border areas of these states, thus 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.

Finally, there is a third region of Indian Union comprising the extreme border areas – including Jammu and Kashmir in the north, Goa and Kerala in the West, Lakshadweep and Nicobar Islands off the Indian coast, and the states of the northeast – where Indian Religionists do not have a dominating presence. Indian Religionists form only about a third of the population of Jammu and Kashmir; their presence in the valley districts of the state is insignificant. Their share in the population of the state as a whole has indeed improved slightly after Partition. The valley, however, has become almost entirely Muslim, while the Jammu region has become more predominantly Indian Religionist in the period following 1951. In Goa, Indian Religionists constitute about two-thirds of the population; of the rest about 30 percent are Christians and 5 percent Muslims. This is one of the rare states, where Indian Religionists have considerably improved their share; the state seems likely to acquire a religious profile similar to the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Maharashtra in the near future.

In Kerala, Indian Religionists have been losing ground throughout the twentieth century. They have a share of 57 percent in the population in 1991; this is about 12 percentage points less than their share in 1901. They have lost about 6 percentage points to Christians and about the same to Muslims; the gains of Christians occurred largely during the pre-Partition period of 1901-1941 and those of Muslims during the post-Partition period of 1951-1991. 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 large-scale conversions to Islam during the later part of 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.

Lakshadweep Islands off the Kerala coast have been predominantly Muslim throughout the twentieth century. Nicobar Islands that form the southernmost outpost of India have turned almost 70 percent Christian in the recent past.

The most dramatic story of the twentieth century is that of the northeastern states, not including Assam which we have already discussed above. In 1901, Indian Religionists formed more than 90 percent of the population of these states, while Christians formed less than 2 percent. In 1991 the proportion of Indian Religionists is reduced to less than 60 percent, while that of Christians has risen to nearly 40 percent. Most of this change has occurred during the period following Independence; in 1941, Indian Religionists still formed nearly 90 percent 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 percent; of the rest only about 10 percent were Christians. Share of Indian Religionists in the population of the region today seems somewhat respectable because of the persistence of Indian Religionists in Tripura and the central districts of Manipur; these areas were ruled by avowedly Vaishnava states for several centuries. In other parts of the region, especially in Nagaland, Mizoram, outer districts of Manipur and much of Meghalaya, Indian Religionists have been reduced to an insignificant minority.

Thus, Indian Religionists have suffered a loss of more than 11 percentage points between 1881 and 1991 in India as a whole, which constitutes a drastic change in the religious profile of a compact geographical region like India. It is, however, even more significant that the losses have been highly pronounced in border regions, especially after Independence. This is leading to the formation of border pockets, where Indian Religionists are in a minority or nearly so. Existence of such distinct pockets formed the demographic basis of Partition of the country in 1947. A similar pocket of high Muslim influence seems to be now developing in the northern border belt covering the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. And, a border pocket of even more intense Christian influence has developed in the northeastern states. Nicobar Islands district on the extreme southern tip of the country has been Christianised. And, Indian Religionists have lost sway in the western coastal state of Kerala. Most of these changes have taken place in the short span of time since Independence and Partition.

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. In the course of the twentieth century, Christianity has swept through the continent of Africa, where the proportion of Christians in the population has risen to nearly 45 percent from less than 10 percent in 1900. Christians have also made significant gains in several countries of Asia, especially South Korea and Indonesia. During the same period, Muslims have considerably increased their share in the world, going up from about 12 percent in 1900 to about 19 percent in 1990. Their proportion in the population has improved in almost every part of the world; the gains have been especially significant in parts of Africa, and in Indonesia in Asia.

India, on the whole, has resisted Christianisation; proportion of Christians in India remains around 2 percent. And, India has not succumbed to the expansion of Islam like some countries of Africa. But Indian experience of the twentieth century has not been nearly as robust as that of the other great non-Islamic and non-Christian civilisation of the world, 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 Religionist influences.

We dedicate this book to the memory of Shri Ram Swarupji, who made us aware of the grand dynamics of great civilisations and who always encouraged us in our work with his benign blessings.

Vasanta Panchami, Kali 5104
February 6, 2003
Chennai APJ, MDS & JKB