Through the decade of the noughties, the country lost its religious plurality somewhat, although absolute numbers of Indians professing religious persuasions other than the six major faiths continued to rise.
Recently released data from Census 2011 show 82 faiths under the head “Other Religions and Persuasion” (ORP) in India. These religions are those other than the six dominant faiths of India: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain. They are essentially minor local religious faiths whose number was recorded at 108 in the 2001 Census, 45 more than what was recorded 10 years later.
The adherents of the six major faiths make up nearly 99.4% of India’s 121 crore population.
Adherents of ORP include followers of local religious practices, tribal religions and well known but numerically small faiths such as Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and the Baha’i faith. Among the 45 ORP that were listed in 2001 but are not a part of the 2011 Census data are the Ausho Commune International and several tribal religions, which were dropped after no individual said they followed them. There are, however, 19 new entrants in the ORP list for 2011, including Dera Sarsa and Atheism.
According to Professor Sachidanand Sinha of the Centre for the Study of Regional Development at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India’s disappearing ORPs could also be the result of the refusal or inability of Census enumerators to recognise their existence.
“The numbers of (ORP) faiths fluctuate in every Census. Many of the enumerators have a very Sanskritised way of looking at faith and have no understanding of tribal religions or culture. Enumerators are at a loss to understand (the uniqueness of ORP) and include people in the dominant faiths. The 2011 numbers do not necessarily mean that people are getting converted (to the dominant faiths); they only point to our ignorance in identifying these (smaller) faiths,” Professor Sinha said.
In absolute numbers, however, the total number of individuals who identified themselves as followers of ORP rose nearly 20% from 66.39 lakh in 2001 to 79.38 lakh in 2011. The growth from 1991 to 2001 had been several times sharper, zooming 103% from the 32.69 lakh in 1991.
Among the ORP faiths, six dominate. On top are the 49.57 lakh-strong Sarna, who mostly live in Jharkhand and Odisha, followed by the 10.26 lakh-strong Gond, who live in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, and whose numbers have increased from 5.86 lakh in the 2001 Census.
The 5.06 lakh-strong Sari mostly live in West Bengal. Their numbers have fallen from 6.38 lakh in 2001. The Doni Polo (3.02 lakh) live in Arunachal Pradesh, the Sanamahi (2.22 lakh) in Manipur, and the Khasi (1.38 lakh) in Meghalaya.
These six religions account for 90% of all ORP followers, according to the Census. Of the other ORP religions, nearly half have fewer than 1,500 followers; the smallest has only 103 followers.
Some scholars have asked whether these small, local belief systems should be counted as separate “religions”.
“The analysis of changing numbers of ORPs does point to the need for systematic documentation of the diverse religious practices of the Indian people and an intense sociological and philosophical reflection on which practices need to be counted as separate religions and which are to be seen as distinct paths that have always flourished within the vast umbrella of Hinduism,” Dr J K Bajaj of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Studies wrote in an article on ORPs.