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Political lesson of demography
By Sandhya Jain
August 26 2003

The tasteless offensive by certain groups in London against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the motivated uproar against the release of the accused in the Best Bakery carnage following perjury by a series of witnesses from one community, the studied silence against the massacre of Hindu fishermen in Marad, the demonisation of those who object to evangelical activities in their communities, and numerous such daily occurrences draw attention to what we must honestly concede are communal fault lines. We must also admit that, in recent times, inter-community relations have been marked more by irritability and suspicion than by harmony. 

This growing communal tension merits serious introspection from academics and analysts alike. When a culture as famously tolerant and inclusivist as India's native tradition has been through centuries, begins to show stress and anguish in its modern dealings with exclusivist traditions that nonetheless claim to be peaceful and secular, there is need to examine how things have come to this pass. Obviously, there cannot be an easy answer to the question, but an honest inquiry will throw up interesting variables. 

Changing demography in specifically targeted regions is one possible answer. It would be dishonest to deny that sharp changes in the demographic patterns of certain areas is not perceived as alarming by ordinary citizens, or even administrators. Given the fact that this is also a politically sensitive issue, the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) deserves kudos for daring to fund a study on the changing religious profile of India by the Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai. Titled 'Religious Demography of India', this voluminous work is the fruit of the academic courage of Drs AP Joshi, MD Srinivas and JK Bajaj. 

Striding terrain over which angels fear to tread, the trio has attempted to trace the rise and decline of religious populations in undivided India, as also present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and make projections for the future. Understandably, they have raised hackles in our effete and 'secular' groves of academia. While their methodology and statistical projections are a matter for subject experts, I feel they have drawn attention to issues of immense significance, which have hitherto been ignored in public discourse. For this reason alone, their effort deserves to be commended. 

The authors have chosen to be straightforward, without being offensive, in stating the fundamentals of the matter. Simply put, their argument is that India has had a unique culture and civilisation for millennia, anchored in its native sanatan dharma, which was accepted even by foreign invaders until the advent of monotheistic creeds disrupted this ancient inclusivity and catholicity. 

What is more, for all its apparent diversity and variety, Indian culture was homogenous. This is a point that deserves to be emphasised as it has been studiously effaced from public consciousness in the decades since Independence. Yet as the renowned demographer Kingsley Davis perceptively observed (1951): "Indian ideas and institutions ... resemble those of no other people. They have a peculiar shape and flavour of their own ... This peculiar culture has to some degree penetrated and pervaded nearly every part of what is geographically India. It has everywhere been affected by local, indigenous variations ... But neither the geographical nor the social barriers inside the subcontinent have been sufficient to prevent the widespread diffusion of a common, basic culture, which despite great variation is peculiar to India." 

This common basic culture received its first serious rupture when Islam reached the heartland of India towards the end of the 12th century AD, with the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan. Given the nature of the study, the authors have wisely avoided the contentious issue of forcible conversions. They have, however, observed that all Islamic rulers were unswerving in their commitment to maintain a distinct Islamic identity. Acculturation into the spiritual milieu of India was stubbornly resisted; the rulers for the first time professed a faith different (indeed, it was also opposed) to that of the populace. And with time, they sponsored the growth of a community that was similarly at variance with the native cultural ethos. 

The British added a chapter to this religious heterogeneity by their systematic patronage and propagation of Christianity. But their abiding, and far more dangerous legacy, was the negation of India's civilisational homogeneity and de-legitimisation of its hoary civilisational principles. 

What is equally pertinent is that Christian evangelisation has been extremely aggressive and unapologetic in the post-Independence period, as witnessed in the North-east under the patronage of Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors, and in other parts of the country. That there is a design behind conversions can be readily gauged from Pope John Paul II's acerbic remarks against the Tamil Nadu Government's recent legislation against change of faith through force, fraud or inducement.

Given the statistical parameters of the study, the authors have refrained from commenting on some of the interesting socio-economic and cultural issues that arise as a result of their projections. They have avoided the issue of India's failure to assert its ancient civilisational ethos after Independence. They have, however, candidly pointed out that religion, particularly the large presence of a religious community in compact border regions, was the cause of Partition less than six decades ago. And they have graphically established the current build-up of such religious concentrations along sensitive borders, which any police station in-charge could tell you is the result of design, not accident. 

Much of the information is not new. Yet, when presented with a map and statistics, only a cynic can be unaffected by the alarming growth of Muslim presence in the border belt comprising Bahraich, Gonda, Basti, Gorakhpur and Deoria of eastern UP; Champaran, Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Saharsa, Purnia and Santhal Pargana districts of Bihar; West Dinajpur, Malda, Birbhum and Murshidabad of West Bengal; Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang and Nagaon of Assam. Muslim population of this belt is said to touch 28 per cent, an increase of seven per cent in just four decades. Other pockets of high Muslim growth include western UP, Cachar (Assam) and Kolkata (West Bengal). 

Among other sensitive border regions, Kerala has 23 per cent Muslims and 19 per cent Christians. The Lakshadweep Islands are predominantly Muslim (approximately 94 per cent). The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are largely Christian, as is the Northeast. Tripura has resisted evangelisation and Christians comprise less than two percent of the population (1991 figures). In Arunachal Pradesh, there is cause for alarm. Though there were no Christians in 1961, they now constitute 10 per cent of the population. Meghalaya also had a sprinkling of Christians in 1901, but by 1931 both Meghalaya and Nagaland had 10 to 15 per cent Christians. By 1951, Mizoram was almost completely Christian, as was half of Nagaland. In Manipur, Christians form 34 per cent of the population, but most outer districts are Christian. 

Clearly, there is a message in the statistics which we can ignore at our own peril. In recent years, East Timor has separated from Indonesia because of religious demography. Thus, the lesson of history is that monotheistic creeds have difficulty coexisting even with sister monotheisms, let alone gentler traditions like the sanatan dharma. Barring this reality from public discourse would be a destructive ostrich-like attitude. We need to recognise the gravity of the situation, defend our civilisational presence on our borders and interiors, and take pride in our national genius. 

(source: dailypioneer.com - August 26 2003  http://dailypioneer.com/indexn12.asp?main_variable=EDITS&file_name=edit3%2Etxt&counter_img=3 ).




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