The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

More the number, stronger in politics

By Sandhya Jain
November 27, 2005

For some time now, India’s famously tolerant and inclusivist tradition has been fraying at the edges due to constant pressure, indeed harassment, at the hands of evangelical and exclusivist traditions that claim to be peaceful and secular. The issue has become serious enough to merit examination by academics, especially as the systematic unconcern of successive governments has permitted exponential changes in religious demography in strategically sensitive regions.

Among the few who have dared to study India’s changing religious profile, rank A. P. Joshi, M.D. Srinivas and J.K. Bajaj of the Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai. The trio has now updated their seminal “Religious Demography of India” to cover data from the controversial Census 2001 that vindicated the projections made in the first edition of their path-breaking study.

Census 2001, the findings of which were released in September 2004, stimulated steep interest in religion-wise data, and simultaneously provided a detailed database of disaggregated data up to district level. The data revealed a sharp upward rise in population of Muslims and Christians, and the controversy it generated unseated the then Registrar General of India. Yet the data was largely consistent with demographic trends revealed by previous censuses from 1881 to 1991.

At the same time, as Dr. Bajaj and his colleagues analysed, Census 2001 showed an unmistakable intensification of certain demographic trends. Thus, the combined data for undivided India (i.e. contemporary India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) showed the disturbing possibility that by the second half of the 21st century Muslims and Christians could jointly constitute the majority in the Indian region. Within India itself, the decline in the proportion of adherents of Indic religions corresponds to the rise in Muslim and Christian numbers, and has registered a marked increase since 1981.

Thus, the difference between the decadal growth of Indian religionists and Muslims rose from about 10 per cent in the decades after Independence to about 45 per cent after 1981. Similarly, Christians, whose decadal growth declined from the very high level of around 33 per cent in 1961-1971 to about 17 per cent during the previous two decades, showed a sudden spurt in their growth to 23 per cent during the last decade of 1991-2001. These are not normal growth patterns, and owe much to the intervention and monitoring of foreign agencies that have a political and strategic interest in India.

Much of the difference in growth of Muslims and Christians vis-à-vis Indian Religionists is attributable to established belts and pockets of high Muslim or Christian presence. Thus the eastern border belt from eastern Uttar Pradesh to the borders of Nepal and Bangladesh and the districts of lower Assam and Cachar saw rapid Muslim growth from 1981, especially in the eastern part from Purnia in Bihar upto Nagaon in Assam. Today, Muslims comprise over 45 percent of the population here, and the significant Christian presence in lower Assam and parts of Santhal Pargana has already put Indian Religionists at a distinct disadvantage in this region. Muslims constitute the majority in nine districts here and a near majority in another two.

In the strategically sensitive North-East, the population is already over 45 per cent Christian. Barring Assam, Christians increased by six percentage points in the north-eastern states in just the last decade; registering the steepest increase in Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. Native Indian religions are in a minority in a region that is strategically the most sensitive piece of real estate in India. What is worse, there is great pressure on Indian Religionists to convert or leave the region, and the analysis of the Census data clearly reveals both large-scale conversions and large-scale out-migration.

Census 2001 also reveals alarming (though not surprising) changes in the religious demography of the Kashmir Valley. From the last Census in J&K in 1981, even the absolute number of Indian Religionists in the Valley has fallen, though the Valley’s total population has grown by nearly 75 per cent. Detailed census data shows few Hindu families remain and that the Valley has been effectively cleansed of a meaningful Hindu presence.

In many other regions of the country also, the religious profile of the population has undergone sharp and sudden change. Karnataka’s coastal districts, for instance, have in the last two decades shown a creeping growth of Muslims and to a lesser extent of Christians, and this is being manipulated from Kerala’s northern districts. In this manner, this coastal belt appears to be joining an older pocket of Muslim concentration, namely, the territory of the former Hyderabad Nizamate that includes the northern districts of Karnataka.

From 1991, there have been sweeping changes even in states like Haryana, Maharashtra and Orissa, where Indian Religionists were hitherto dominant. Haryana has witnessed a steep rise in Muslim presence in several districts and even has a separate Muslim majority district. In Maharashtra, Muslim population is growing in districts where they were hitherto insignificant. Orissa is witnessing a distinct belt of rising Christian presence, from Sundargarh in the north to Gajapati and Ganjam in the South. In Tamil Nadu, where Christians have been powerful in the southern and western districts for several decades, they are suddenly registering a rise in some northern districts such as Kanchipuram and Thiruvallur.

The Centre for Policy Studies has done a sterling service by providing scholars and analysts with a comprehensive picture of India’s changing religious demography. Given the fact that the strategic interests of the former imperialist nations have led them to carve out three countries on the basis of religion in the post-World War II period alone, namely Israel, Pakistan, and East Timor, we would be guilty of ignoring the loudly delivered lessons of history if we did not draw correct inferences and take remedial action while it is still possible.

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