Colonial Proselytizing
By Maxwell Pereira

I was intrigued when a venerable oldie who appeared knowledgeable once told me that linking the word Hindu with religion was a British creation. That, this was during the first Census the British conducted in India, when their sole purpose was to determine the extent of proselytizing they had managed in their colony of lands in the Indian sub-continent.

Prior to that, the gentleman claimed, the word Hindu meant merely another form of Sindhu, which the people of other lands found convenient to pronounce as Hindu - referred to denote a resident of the lands Sindhu, or Sindhustan and Hindustan as successive forays of invading Mohammedans preferred to call. On this, I do remember reading somewhere that the credit for coining the word Hindu goes back to the famous historical figure in the 6th century BC - to Cyrus the Great. As my grand 'oldie' stated, Hindu was indeed derived from Sindhu, since other communities had a phonetic difficulty with 'S' and Cyrus merely simplified it.

It was common for all sea-route exploratory forays to include missionaries, the oldie further told me, firstly as chaplains to the ship crews and to the troops that accompanied to consolidate to the crown the territories and the commerce gained in the exercise. And then to carry on The Lord's work by propagating His Word to the natives with a view to win souls for His heaven through their sacred and saintly mission.

The argument this oldie presented me was, that the British were keen to know through this first census exercise, how many had converted to Christianity - which, among other thrust areas of the census, was a focus. While Christians and Mohammedans could easily be classified as individual religious categories, the rest, he claimed, were clubbed together for purposes of the census under one single religious category of 'Hindu'. That till then, the actual religious groups and beliefs known to this now clubbed together 'Hindu' world, were as Shaivites of Shaivism, Vaishnavaite of Vaishnavism, Jains of Jainism, Sikhs of Sikhism, Buddhists of Buddhism, and so on… but this was too cumbersome for the British to comprehend! There did appear to be some convincing logic in the argument put forth.
Since this aspect had indeed excited my knowledge-buds, I looked up the 1871 Report of the first ever Census the British held in India. In the process, I had opportunity to educate myself that census operations were not unknown in ancient times, especially for purposes of recruitment to the army, and for taxation - known as early as in 3000 BC in parts of Babylon, China and Egypt, with mentions thereof in the Bible and our own Arthashastra of Chanakya. That modern census began in Sweden in 1749, and the decennial census, since 1790 in the US and 1801 in England. Census exercise commenced in India since 1865-75 with the first report coming out in 1871 followed by the decennial reports thereafter in 1881 and every synchronous ten years since.
Nowhere in the 1871 Census Report could I find though, anything supporting the contention that its purpose was for assessing the achievement at proselytizing by the colonial powers. The first thing that strikes you in most such old reports is that the British preferred to spell the word as 'Hindoo' and not 'Hindu'. And then in "An Introduction to the Indian Census" Adam Bowles candidly states that while the "movement for a census and the accumulation of social statistics had the administrative purpose of more efficiently matching state resources to social needs, in the colonial context its manifestation in the early Indian Censuses can not be divorced from Britain's colonization of India". Nowhere any reference to proselytizing or conversions.

Bowles further points out that the process of classifying social institutions and structures in the early Indian Censuses led to the creation of an authoritative representation of Indian Society. That these Censuses - a product of the colonial encounter, do reflect a proliferation of ethnographic essays not seen in modern day dry statistics laden censuses, presenting not merely statistical accounts of early modern India, but also documentation of the British encounter with its colonized other; as documentation of the colonizer's attempts to come to an understanding of its colonial subjects and integrate India - at least from an administrative perspective - within the British Empire.
The 1871 Report classifies Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains separately in addition to Mohammedans and Hindus as the major religious communities. It points out that at least 19 in every 20 persons of the day in India are either of the Hindoo or of the Mohammedan religion, and there are 7 of the former to 2 of the latter. That the Hindoo element preponderates especially in the south. In Mysore, it comprises 95 per cent, of the whole population, and in Coorg and Madras about 92 per cent. In Oude, the North-West Provinces, Ajmere, and Berar, it forms between 80 and 90 per cent of the people. Bombay contains 79½ per cent of Hindoos and the Central Provinces 7l½ per cent. In Bengal and Assam the percentage is about 64½, and in the Punjab 34¾ without, or 41¼ with, the Sikhs. That in British Burma, the stronghold of Buddhism, there are only 1-1/3 per cent of Hindoos.
Christians are accounted for in the 1871 census tables, and pegged for the period at 896,658 against 140½ million Hindoos and 40¾ million Mohamedans. That this negligible figure perhaps included the vast chunk of Christians in the lands of the then Travancore and Cochin (now Kerala) who embraced Christianity as early as and since 52 AD following the arrival in India of St Thomas - one of Jesus Christ's 12 apostles, makes one wonder at the British achievement at proselytising, if at all there was any ….and enough to make it a focus areas listed for the first ever Indian census!


850 words: dated 24.08.2004.
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