In the 2011 Indian census, Christians are the second largest minority in India representing 2.3 per cent of the country’s population. Due to India’s large population, the absolute number of Christians total 29 million.(See Table 1) The Pew Research Center estimates that India ranks 22nd globally in absolute number of Christians. For obvious reasons, the number of Christians continues to rise in absolute terms, but their share of the population has been stagnant hovering between 2.3-2.6 per cent since the 1960s. (Table 1)
Interestingly, between 2001 and 2011, the decadal growth of Christians dramatically fell from 24.4 per cent to 15.5 per cent. The decadal growth, in fact, has shown a steep decline since the 1960s when it was 31 per cent between 1961 and 71. (Table 2) This goes against claims that Christians are a rapidly growing community with the intent to make India a Christian nation – a frequent claim of Hindu Nationalist groups to rally support against missionary activities.
Table 2: Growth Rate (in percentages) of Religious Communities Living in India (Based on the 2011 Census)
In absolute terms, the number of Christians in the country should potentially give them a greater influence politically. Their dispersion around the country works to their disadvantage. They are located in three pockets scattered around the country. 60 per cent of India’s Christians reside in the south and south-west region (the first pocket) which include the two states with the largest number of Christians- Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However, even here where they are large in absolute numbers they form only a smaller part of the state’s population. For instance, Christians form only 18 per cent of Kerala’s population, 6.2 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population and 1.87 per cent of Karnataka’s population.
It is the opposite in the north-east (the second pocket), where Christians are in small numbers but form the majority in four states – Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. Manipur also has a significant Christian population of 41 per cent. The third pocket lies in the central part, known as the Chhota Nagpur region, (the third pocket) where Christians are strong in certain districts but on a whole they comprise a small fraction of the states’ population. For example, they make up 4.30 per cent of Jharkhand and 1.87 per cent of Orissa.
Christians are not prominent in the north and north-west which has forty percent of India’s population but has only 1.4 per cent of the country’s Christians. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state Christians comprise less than .20 per cent of the state’s population and .14 per cent of Rajasthan’s population
Thus, the small share of the total population and the dispersal of Christians has a negative impact on their standing and influence. Even if Christians were to vote en-masse, they would have an impact in only a few states; but not nationally.
Let us now consider the diversity that exists within the Christian community The presence of Syrian (Orthodox) Christians in Kerala can be traced between the first and third century A.D. Catholic presence in the West (Goa and Karnataka) has been recorded for at least 400 years. While in the central and north- east India, European missionaries have been present since the mid-nineteenth century.
This is not to suggest that these are the only Christian traditions that flourish in these regions. For instance, Catholics, who comprise more than 1.7 per cent of the country’s 2.3 per cent of Christians are spread across these regions including Kerala and the north-east. However, what these origins tell us is the duration of time these pockets have had a Christian presence.
Therefore, due to their long presence and significant influence in terms of educational institutions and hospitals, and their relative affluence, the Christians in the South are often well-respected and wield a relatively high degree of influence. Christians in the north-east derive their strength from their comparatively higher numbers and their affluence. However, Christians in other parts of the country tend to be poorer.
Abreau, Kumar and Robinson identify other significant aspects of where and how they live. The urban- rural divide is 33-66. 23.5 per cent of urban Christians are in salaried employment. While a significant proportion of Christians living in rural areas work with agriculture, Christians have the smallest land holdings compared to other religious groups.
The census shows us the picture of a community that varies greatly. However, complications arise when trying to crystallise the identity of an entire community into one. For the state, homogenising a community grossly misrepresents its diversity and denies access to state services to those who need it (I will write a subsequent piece on Dalit Christians and Tribal Christians in the future). Nationalist groups find advantages in reducing a community to a single identity. As elaborated in my previous article, this project of homogenization through defining ‘us’ and ‘them’ is very dangerous. India has always been a land of plurality. Preserving it seems more daunting with each passing day. However, it is essential to preserving the security of Christians in the country.