Demography and Communalism in India

By DeVotta, Neil | Journal of International Affairs, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Demography and Communalism in India


DeVotta, Neil, Journal of International Affairs


"In India ... radical Hindus claim that they are heading for minority status despite current estimates placing the Hindu population at 830 million and the Muslim population at 130 million."

When India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947 amidst the subcontinent's dismemberment, their combined populations stood at around 400 million. If Mohammed Ali Jinnah's two-nation theory, which claimed that Hindus and Muslims were different nations by any definition and that the subcontinent's 100 million Muslims were therefore entitled to a Muslim state, had justified creating Pakistan, the Indian elites' determination to fashion a secular democracy also enabled many Muslims to stay in India. Consequently, India's first post-independence census in 1951 showed 304 million Hindus, 35 million Muslims and 8.3 million Christians. (1)

In May 2000, just 53 years after independence, India's overall population reached one billion. This figure was 2 1/2 times the European Union's (EU) population. Furthermore, while 343,000 people were born within the EU states in 2000, India added as many to its population during the first week of 2000. When birth rates were combined with immigration, the EU's population in 2000 grew by approximately 1.2 million; the Indian population grew as much in just the first three weeks of that year. (2) Demographers claim that at this growth rate the country's population will reach 1.5 billion by 2050.

This population bulge not only creates economic and environmental challenges for the Indian state, but it also has political ramifications for parties and elites determined to attain and maintain power. Indeed, population growth rates, when disaggregated along religious lines, provide fodder for religious extremists, who may use the figures to fan communalism. This, however, is to be expected in polyethnic societies where each group's growth rate is scrutinized for how it may affect politics. As Howard Wriggins and James Guyot have noted, demographic changes can cause competing ethnic elites to worry that their groups' reduced numbers would cost them political clout and thereby "precipitate ethnic group conflict." (3)

To examine how these observations apply in India, it is useful to analyze (i) the genesis of the numbers game in India (ii) the Hindu-Muslim demographic differential in India and the possible reasons for it and (iii) how the subcontinent's partition combined with Hindu fundamentalism have enabled Hindu extremists to manipulate fear of the supposedly philoprogenitive urge of the Muslims and threaten India's secular credentials.

GENESIS OF THE NUMBERS GAME

While it is debatable whether Hindus and Muslims were concerned about their groups' numbers prior to colonization, it is indisputable that they became overly interested in each other's populations after the British sought to classify those living in the subcontinent. India's Mughal rulers had mapped the areas they controlled for taxing purposes, but they did no head count. (4) The British, on the other hand, introduced the first all-India census in 1871 and from the very beginning displayed an obsession with population figures. The British and subsequent Indian governments have since held a decennial census that has yielded a wealth of data (5) that has in turn influenced ethno-religious rhetoric and politicking.

The British were most responsible for emphasizing religion in the census. While the very first census conducted in Britain in 1801 eschewed focusing on religion, British authorities in India, according to one scholar, "were fascinated by religion and every thing related to it." (6) Indeed, "religion in the minds of the [British] census officials was not merely a basic category but a factor which cut across nearly all of human existence." (7) This infatuation consequently led them to try to tabulate population growth, population distribution, education and literacy rates using religion as the primary identification marker. …

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