Atheism in India - What does the Census of India say?
What does the census of India say about the number of atheists in India or the number of people who have 'no religion'? This has been a much discussed topic among a few of us in this community on facebook. We were under the impression that the questions were so framed that it left no options for people who wished to openly state that they had no religion or were atheists.

However, it turns out that this notion is incorrect. I found a relevant pdf document on the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation website.

Read the following and it will be clear that different censuses recorded the irreligious differently. (What I found most interesting is the instruction to the census takers in the most recent censuses to not get into an argument with people over their religious beliefs!):

Quote:Religion is one of the oldest basic socio-cultural characteristics associated with the mankind and civilizations created by them over thousands of years of known history. Different communities and people perceive religion in their own unique way. For some, religion has evolved as an established set of beliefs, rituals and traditional practices and worship of one Supreme Being or deity that may be their own caste/tribe deity, village deity. At the same time, some other people worship a number of gods and goddesses. Still there are others who practice and perceive religion in their own way and these beliefs are codified in various scriptures or inherited and handed over from one generation to another. Only a handful few claim to be atheist. However, despite deviations in manifestation of their expressions of belief, people generally believe in one or the other divine power that created the universe and is taking care of all human beings. The large numbers of religion returns encountered at each census in India confirm that different people understand and express religious identity in their own way. The population census provides people collectively an opportunity to express their individual faith/ belief freely, in small or large numbers, which ultimately enter and find place in the official records.

2. 1891 Census
Quote:The religion of each person was returned as Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Zoroastrian (Parsi), Musalman, Christian, Jew, Minor Religion (including Deists, Atheists, Freethinker, Agnostics, Positivists and No Religion) etc. was recorded. Sects were also recorded for those who returned themselves as ‘Christians’. If the sect of the Christians was not reported, the entry ‘Not returned’ was made. The term Animistic was adopted comprehensively for the religions of forest tribes who do not accept of Hindu system and have not been converted to Christianity or Islam.

3. 1911 Census
Quote:The religion of each person as reported was recorded. If a person belonged to an aboriginal tribe and had no recognized religion e.g. Hindu, Musalman, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Zoroastrian, Jew etc., the name of the tribe was entered. All persons who said they were Hindus, Musalmans or Christians, etc., were recorded as such. Those who did not profess belonging to any recognized religion were entered under the name of their caste or tribe.

4. 1941 Census
Quote:The individual religion professed by each person for example being Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian, Brahmo, Agnostic, Confucian etc., was recorded. If the tribal name was given, it was also recorded.

5. 1961 Census
Quote:The instruction to enumerators on the mode of filling the question 5 (b) was:
“For Hindu -- write `H’
Muslim -- write `M’
Christian -- write `C’
Jain -- write `J’
Buddhist -- write `B’
Sikh -- write `S’
For others write the answers actually returned.”

6. 1971 Census
Quote:At the 1971 Census the enumerator had instructions to record the religion as actually returned by the respondent. For the sake of convenience of recording the responses as well the following abbreviations were prescribed for major religions as `H’ for Hinduism, `I’ for Islam, `C’ for Christianity, `S’ for Sikhism, `B’ for Buddhism and `J’ for Jainism and in respect of others the actual religion as returned was recorded. Where a person said that he had no religion it was recorded accordingly.

7. 1981 Census
Quote:Instructions to the census taker: For ‘Others’ record actual religion as returned fully. If a person says that he has no religion, it may be recorded accordingly. If a person refuses to state his religion, you may write ‘religion not stated’. You should not enter into any argument with the household for filling up this question. You are bound to record faithfully whatever religion is returned by the head of the households.

8. 1991 Census
Quote:Instructions to the census taker: For ‘others’ record the actual religion as returned fully. If the person says he has no religion the answer may be recorded accordingly.

9. 2001 Census
Quote:Instructions to the census taker: While making entry for any religion other than Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain, record fully the actual religion as returned for the person under this question. In such a case no entry needs to be made in the box meant for recording Code number. If the person says that she/he has no religion, record ‘no religion’. In this situation too, the box provided at the right of this column would be left blank for use in the office at a later stage. You should not enter into any argument with the household for recording entry under this question. You are bound to record faithfully whatever religion is returned by the respondent for herself/himself and for other members in the household.

It is not necessary that all the members in the household profess the same religion. Therefore, enquiry should be made for each member of the household independently. We should not presume that the religion of the head or the respondent is necessarily the religion of every member being enumerated in the household.

You should not mistake religion for caste names and also not try to establish any relationship between religion and mother tongue

Note: all emphasis mine.
[+] 4 users Like siddharth's post
Great find Sid. I liked the 2001 instructions especially where it asks the person to enquire upon each individual's religion and not just assume.

In a somewhat related note, I recently read an article at Richard Dawkins's site recently where he suspects that he might have been counted as an anglican as the census question was vague and the census takers might have mistaken church under which baptised, as religion.
For practical purposes and filling in govt. forms, atheists are lumped in with Hindus.

Besides deviation from established thinking apparently upsets people. I heard of one student who filled in 'humanist' instead of 'muslim' (her parents were muslim) and that threw the bureacracy into a tizzy.
[+] 1 user Likes nastikashiromani's post
I tried arguing with the census guy that I'm an atheist. I didn't find a place to enter it, and finally gave the form back to him without selecting any religion. Then he asked me my parents religion and just marked the same for me. I tried arguing with him, but walking away, he said that he was tierd already and has many other houses to visit. I did enter "Atheist" in my company's gratutity form though. smile
[+] 1 user Likes screech's post

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