Research Seminar: Adivasis (original dwellers), animists or…? Hindu nationalists and the counting of Hindus

Adivasis (original dwellers), animists or…? Hindu nationalists and the counting of Hindus

Gwilym Beckerlegge, Professor of Modern Religions. He has a particular interest in the religions of South Asia and Japan from the nineteenth century to the present.

13 January 2015, Meeting Rooms 1-3, 14:00-16:00

The population of India has been categorised in various ways during the British colonial era and subsequently. The counting by the British of India’s population and its classification under religious and other headings undoubtedly sharpened senses of religious identity in late nineteenth-century India and the growing sense of competition between groups defined for governmental purposes by religion. By the late 19th century, some prominent Hindu leaders were expressing concern about the future security and even survival of ‘Hinduism’ in India, in spite of the fact that this complex of traditions was understood to encompass the beliefs and practices of the bulk of India’s population. This sense of unease has been inherited in the 21st century by supporters of the Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) ideological position. For them, the counting and classification of those recognised as Hindus raise questions about the motives of those responsible for the conduct of the decennial census in India, and the selection of classifications that have been used in the census and in some cases adopted by post-Independence Indian administrations. Particularly contentious has been the classification of communities under headings such as adivasi (‘original dwellers’) and the incorporation of the category of ‘animist’ within the census, because Hindu nationalists hold that these categorisations diminish the standing of Hinduism and fragment India’s underlying cultural unity rooted in the Hindu tradition.

In this paper Prof Beckerlegge examines why the counting of Hindus has come to be a contentious issue in India over the last two centuries and why Hindu nationalist groups have advocated the use of a terminology different from that adopted in the census. He also considers the way in which ‘animism’, a category central at that time to the technical vocabulary of the nascent discipline of the study of religions in nineteenth-century Western Europe and North America, became embedded in the debate that now surrounds the counting of Hindus.

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