While a recent article claims that nearly 4 million Indians converted to Christianity over the past 20 years, Hindu nationalist activists have made pronouncements that they want a purely Hindu country by 2020. Currently, more than 80 percent of 1.27 billion Indians are Hindu. Hardline Hindu groups feel encouraged by the accession to power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014, writes Friedmann Eissler in Materialdienst der EZW (September). The leader of Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Ashok Singhal, made the grandiose statement that India would become a purely Hindu nation in mid-July. Non-Hindu religions are seen as foreign in this perspective. While calls to make India entirely Hindu within five years should be seen as rhetorical rather than as a practical possibility, Eissler remarks that assaults against Muslims and Christians have risen by 50 percent since Modi came to power—600 reported assaults (ranging from threats to destruction of places of worship), with three-quarters of these incidents targeting Muslims and one-quarter Christians. Police are reported to be reluctant to intervene and witnesses are intimidated.
A constant issue of debate for decades has been the conversions of Hindus as a consequence of missionary efforts. Missionaries are seen with suspicion and frequently accused of using unethical methods for drawing converts to Christian churches. Thus, statistical data regarding conversions became a hotly contested issue. On August 29, a senior Indian analyst at the Observatory Group, Surjit S. Bhalla, who is a columnist in the Indian Express, published an article suggesting that some 4 million Hindus had been converted to Christianity over the past 20 years. After analyzing recently released census figures, Bhalla explains that he was intrigued by the fact the Christian population growth rate was the same as that of the average Indian, despite having the highest level of female education and the lowest fertility rate; the rise of the percentage of Muslims to 14.2 percent in 2011 (from 11.7 percent 20 years earlier) is explained primarily by fertility rates, but Bhalla notes that it’s declining and slowly coming closer to Hindu fertility rates.
The Sikhs have fallen from a 2 percent share in 1991 to 1.7 percent in 2011, which could be expected, Bhalla observes, since Sikh women have the second-highest educational attainment after Christians, something that usually impacts on fertility rates. But then, why did the Christian population stay at 2.3 percent, while they have approximately the same fertility rate as Sikhs, merely slightly lower? The most likely explanation, according to Bhalla’s calculation, is that the 3.7 million “excess” Christian population is the result of missionary work and conversions. Quite expectedly, Christians have reacted. Responding in the Indian Express (Sept. 1), the former editor of Businessworld, Tony Joseph, suggests that Bhalla “has tortured his data to make it say what he wants to hear;” the fertility rates may be similar, but, “among Christians, there are 1,023 females for every 1,000 males, while among Sikhs, there are only 903 females for every 1,000 males.” In another response (Sept. 4), the former spokesperson of Delhi Archdiocese, now living in Vienna, Dominic Emmanuel, accuses Bhalla of ignoring not only this, but other significant variables, such as the possible role of emigration in the decline of the percentage of Sikhs (Sikhs and Gujaratis being known as the largest contingents of Indian emigrants). Moreover, Emmanuel points that the Christian population remains modest in India despite centuries of missionary presence. While the statistical data certainly deserves attention of scholars and demographers, the whole controversy shows once again how demographics and religious statistics can become hot-button issues.