A numbers game

Print edition : November 27, 1999

The campaign by the Sangh Parivar that there has been a disproportionately high growth in the Christian population in India relies on skilful and selective suppression of facts.

THE repeated articulation by sections of the intelligentsia of mendacious theories floated by Sangh Parivar elements goes some way towards investing these with an aura of legitimacy. The canards the Sangh Parivar spread about Muslims in India since the 1 980s (Frontline, October 25, 1991) gained currency because its propositions were repeated even by informed sections of society. This strategy is now being employed against Christians in India. While attacks against Christians have gone on across t he country, the Sangh Parivar has managed to focus on the "evil designs" of Christian missionaries indulging in "mass conversions". This shrill campaign, which grew ever louder on the eve of Pope John Paul II's visit, has however been picked up by others .

On the day the Pope arrived in India, several newspapers published (as an advertisement) an open letter to him addressed by several prominent personalities. Among those who appended their signatures to the letter, under the banner of the Citizens Committ ee of Dharma Raksha Sammelan in Chennai, were the ophthalmologist Dr. S.S. Badrinath, dancers Sonal Mansingh and Padma Subramaniam and several writers and film personalities.

They alleged that evangelisation was but a "less dignified cousin" of "conversion" and that "the Christian missionary activity in our nation is tearing apart families and communities in every strata of our society." They said that "religious conversion, which seems to be synonymous with papal work, is violence pure and simple." They blamed the "intolerance of missionaries" for the "clashes" that occurred regularly since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 1998. "We Indians are deeply hurt by the spurt in the aggressive campaigning of the Church to convert the people of India by all available means," they claimed.

On the eve of the Pope's visit, Organiser, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), published several articles attacking the Christian community in India. The Pope was obviously the main target, but there were also articles which u sed official and other statistics to back claims of a massive increase in the Christian population in India. An article titled "Christian population: Misleading figures," by Rajendra Kumar Chaddha in the October 31 issue, used "statistics" to drive home the point that the Christian population is increasing at an alarming rate.

The author provides a list of districts in India where the Christian population has grown by more than 100 per cent between the 1981 and 1991 Censuses. However, an analysis of the Census data reveals that the Organiser has abused the statistics in several cases, suppressed relevant facts in some others, and used bogus figures in still others. For instance, Organiser claims that the Christian population as a percentage of the total population increased from 2.53 per cent in 1981 to 2.61 per cent in 1991; however, Census data show that the percentage declined from 2.45 per cent to 2.32 per cent during this period. The ratio of Christians in the population increased by a little over half a percentage point between 1921 and 1991, indicating t hat conversions are an insignificant factor in the long-term demographic transition of Christians in India.

The list of districts in which the RSS claims that the Christian population increased sharply between 1981 and 1991 is interesting. The article provides just the percentage of increase of the Christian population. It ignores any mention of ratios of Chri stians in the total population, details which will indicate whether their weightage in the population is increasing. What is striking is the small numbers of Christians in many of the districts listed in the Organiser article. For instance, in Gun a district in Madhya Pradesh, the number of Christians increased from 258 to 642 over a 10-year period ending in 1991. Although this is an increase of nearly 150 per cent, the fact remains that the Christian population in Guna accounted for 0.05 per cent of the total population in 1991, up from 0.03 per cent in 1981. Obvious factors such as migration into the district over a 10-year period have not been taken into account by the author, who seems determined to attribute the increase entirely to conversi ons.

In three cases of the districts examined - Udaipur and Sirohi in Rajasthan, and Periyar (now Erode) in Tamil Nadu - Organiser's figures are false. For instance, Organiser claims that the Christian population increased by 928 per cent betwe en 1981 and 1991 in Erode district; the fact is that the Christian population here increased by only 2.28 per cent during this period. In fact, in 1991 Christians accounted for 1.86 per cent of the population of 2.32 million, having declined from 2.02 pe r cent in 1981.

In the case of Arunachal Pradesh, Organiser again makes a skilful suppression of facts about percentages and ratios. Its claim that the Christian population in Arunachal Pradesh grew by 226 per cent between 1981 and 1991 is true; however, it fails to mention that the Christian population as a percentage of the total population increased from about 4 per cent in 1981 to about 10 per cent in 1991. The Census figures show that the population of the States in the northeastern region increased at a ra te far above the national average. For instance, while the population of India increased by about 24 per cent, the population of Arunachal Pradesh increased by 37 per cent between 1981 and 1991. This was probably because of the porous nature of the borde r in these States and also because of large-scale migration within the region. Interestingly, while Organiser mentions the districts where the Christian population grew more rapidly than the Hindu population between 1981 and 1991, it fails to ment ion two other districts in the State - Upper Subansiri and Lohit - where the Hindu population grew much faster than the Christian population.

An interesting aspect of the data for the northeastern States is that there was a sharp decline in the number of people who told the enumerators that they were from "other religions and persuasions". This category would include those who maintain their t ribal identity, worshipping local deities, and whose beliefs and practices would be far-removed from mainstream Hindu practices and rituals. In Arunachal Pradesh this category accounted for more than 50 per cent of the population in 1981; in 1991, people with "other religions and persuasions" accounted for only 36 per cent. While the Hindu population increased sharply in some districts, the Christian population increased in some others. This trend in the decline of the percentage of people with such bel iefs is in line with the historical tendency of mainstream religions to make inroads into such communities.

Historian Sumit Sarkar points out that "Sanskritisation" or "cultural integration" of marginal groups and tribals were often termed "shuddhi", "reclamation" or "paravartan" (the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's preferred term for getting these group s back into Hindu society) and is not substantially different from the term "conversion" (Sumit Sarkar, Economic and Political Weekly, June 26, 1999). Sumit Sarkar also elaborates on the point made by Richard Eaton in his study of the rise of Isla m in Bengal "that in large parts of the subcontinent, certainly in medieval times and to a considerable extent even today, the great religious traditions have been expanding at the cost, not so much of each other as in relation to a multitude of local cu lts or practices." He emphasises the point that the potential for conflict in premodern times was far less because of the slow nature of the process. Moreover, the process in those times was not based on conversion of individuals but of whole groups, fam ilies, clans or local communities. This, he notes, reduced the scope for conflict. Such an explanation also contradicts the right-wing claims that the state, whether during Mughal rule or during British rule, played the major role as a facilitator in the spread of Islam or Christianity.

Data available from the National Family Health Survey conducted in 1992-93 reveal some patterns across the various religious communities. For instance, the rate of illiteracy was about 33 per cent among Christians, compared to 64 per cent among Hindus. N early 8 per cent of the Christian population had studied above the high school level, compared to 3.4 per cent among Hindus. The empowering aspect of the figures is brought out by these figures: nearly half the Christian women surveyed knew the legal min imum age for marriage, compared to 32.5 per cent among Hindu women.

At the papal Mass in New Delhi on November 7. Census data indicate that conversions are an insignificant factor in the demographic transition of Christians in India.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The results of the survey show that the Christian population in India also has better access to health care. Neonatal mortality among Hindus was estimated at 55 per thousand live births, compared to 32.6 per thousand live births among Christians. Post-ne onatal mortality rates were estimated at 35.4 per thousand live births for Hindus, compared to 17.3 per thousand for Christians, while the infant mortality rate for Hindus was 90.4 per thousand live births compared to 49.9 per thousand live births among Christians. The child mortality rate was estimated at 19.4 per thousand live births among Christians while for Hindus it was 36.9 per thousand live births. More than 60 per cent of those surveyed among Christians reported that they received antenatal car e from a doctor, compared to only 38.6 per cent among Hindus. A comparison of the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), the measure of the average number of children delivered by a woman during her reproductive life, among Hindus and Christians also indicates a ga p among the two communities. While the TFR for the Christian population was 2.87 in 1992-93, it was 3.3 for Hindus. The obvious conclusion is that the Christian population had better access to medical facilities compared to the rest of the population. Ob viously, the death rate among Christians was far lower than in the rest of the population - 8.2 per cent, compared to 12.9 per cent among Hindus (figures for 1984).

The rate of growth of the Christian population in India was high between 1921 and 1971; in fact, between 1921 and 1971, the rate of growth of the Christian population was consistently higher than that of the total population, although the gap narrowed in successive rounds of the Census. However, since 1981, this trend has been reversed. While the population of India increased by almost 24 per cent between 1981 and 1991, the Christian population grew by 17 per cent.

It is clear that the Christian population in India is well on its way towards a demographic transition. Principles of demography show that the first impact of development is on the death rate, reducing it by the delivery of modern medicine to combat the basic diseases. However, the birth rate takes longer to slow down because it is in part a function of literacy, particularly among women, and other long-term factors. It is quite plausible that the natural rate of growth of the Christian population up to 1971 was higher because of the sharper decline in the death rate among Christians when compared to the rest of the population. However, since then, exposure to literacy and other factors, particularly among women, appear to have set the birth rate on a declining trend. This would have caused the natural rate of growth of the Christian population to slow down. The unwinding of this process means that the natural rate of growth of the Christian population is likely to slow down even more in relation to t he rest of the population.

What this means in terms of the logic of the Sangh Parivar is that if the Christian population has to catch up, it has to rely increasingly on conversions. The fact that the proportion of Christians in the population has increased by just half a percenta ge point in the last 70 years shows the absurdity of such fears. The Christian population accounts for only 2.5 per cent of the total population almost 2000 years after the religion reached India.

It is obvious that much of the advancement in the living conditions of the Christian population has been because of missionary activity - not confined to conversion in the narrow sense, but also in reaching literacy, health care and other basic empowerin g resources to the poor. That the state has failed to reach these basic fruits of development to large sections of the people is the obvious corollary.

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