The Pew survey on religion and religious attitudes in India raises more questions than answers. While media attention has focused on two aspects — that the majority of Indians are okay living in a multi-religious country but prefer to stay segregated — the really intriguing aspects of the survey relate to religious conversions.
The claim in the report, that “Religious conversion is rare in India; to the extent it is occurring, Hindus gain as many people as they lose”, is manifestly wrong if one converts the percentages into absolute numbers.
For example, when asked whether their current religion is different from the one they were born in, 0.4 per cent of the sample said they were earlier non-Christians. When extrapolated to India’s current population of 1.38 billion, gross conversions to Christianity would be at least 5.52 million.
Some 0.1 per cent Christians also moved over to other religions, but this adds up to just 1.38 million, giving the movement into Christianity a net gain of 4.14 million. Just for perspective, note that this number would make it bigger than more than 100 countries in the world.
The figure given for Muslims — 0.3 per cent conversions into Islam and the same number leaving it — also sounds suspicious since census surveys over the past 100 years have shown no such drop anywhere. In fact, for the past 120 years, every census has shown a rise in Muslim percentages of the population, both in pre-independence India and after 1947.
This figure clearly seems dubious, even if we assume that Muslim percentages grow largely through demographic accretions driven by higher birth rates.
Or take the numbers shown as conversions to Hinduism and out of it. The conversions to Hinduism are shown at 0.8 per cent and away at 0.7 per cent. This implies a massive 11 million conversions to Hinduism — which no one seems to have heard of or documented.
Either the Sangh Parivar’s ghar wapsi is pretty successful, or something is happening at the subterranean level that we don’t know about. But with Hindus losing 0.7 per cent — which works out to 9.66 million in absolute numbers when projected across the whole population — clearly the churn is not easy to explain. Nor too the 0.1 per cent moving in an out of Buddhism or Sikhism.
The chances are a lot of the answers given are partial fibs, for religion is a sensitive subject, and a significant number of converts may not give correct answers for various reasons. One reason obviously is the fear that if they reveal their true religious affiliation, they may lose reservation benefits.
The net conversions to Christianity are also likely to be an underestimate. One extrapolation by Surendranath C for Swarajya, based on the claims made by various Christian denominations in Andhra Pradesh and the sheer number of new churches built, shows that the actual Christian population could be anywhere between 12-25 per cent.
On a population base of 54 million, this means the actual numbers of Christians in Andhra Pradesh, which has a Christian chief minister, could be anywhere between 6-11 million, as against the official Census 2011 figure of barely 6.8 lakh people (in the districts now part of the truncated state of Andhra Pradesh).
If this is the divergence between official figures and reality as estimated by more rational means in one state, clearly the 0.4 per cent conversions to Christianity indicated in the Pew study is wrong by a huge margin.
As for the claim that religious conversions are rare in India, if we add up conversions both into and out of a religious group, we see the total numbers at 0.17 per cent who entered their current religion from some others, and 0.18 per cent moving away from their previous religion.
If we assume that not all the entrants into one religion are exits from another, we are talking about 0.35 per cent of the Indian population has changed its religious affiliation. That’s 48 million people changing religions. While there is surely an element of double counting here, the magnitude of conversion activity is huge by any standard.
If all the people who converted, either into or away from any one religion, are put in one country, that country would be the thirtieth most populated one in the world. So much for conversions not being a big phenomenon in India.
The absolute numbers are significant enough to cause social disruptions on a large scale. The case for laws to prevent aggressive conversion activities has never been stronger, but one does not expect Pew to make a case for it. The answer is in their numbers and weak efforts to deny there is a problem.
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