The data on religious affiliation from the 2011 population census was released last month. Some information from the count – like the decline in Parsi-Zoroastrians numbers by a fifth since 2001 – has been received with gloom, but the statistic on Ahmadiyyas, a sect which is persecuted in many countries because of beliefs that are seen as renegade, has evoked resentment among some Muslim clerics.
According to Ahmadiyya organisations, they number around 100,000 in India and 60 million worldwide. Their population in India is an estimate as the census has never counted them separately, but the 2011 population count has identified 119 members, including 99 in Punjab where the birthplace of the sect, Qadian, is located. This means that only one of every thousand Ahmadiyya has used the option in the census form to identify their sect; the others have marked themselves only as Muslim. Other groups like Bohras, too, have opted not to fill the question about their sect – only 33,460 did, though this group has several lakh members in India. Members of some mainstream sects have not approved of the inclusion of Ahmadiyyas as Muslims. Recent reports in Urdu newspapers that the latest census has not counted the sect separately have annoyed clerics.
The sect was founded in the nineteenth century by a religious teacher named Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who proclaimed himself as the messiah prophesised in the Semitic religions. He also added figures from other religions, like Krishna, Zoroaster, Lao Tzu – founder of Taoism, Guru Nanak, to the list of teachers. His followers are also called Qadianis. Pakistan, which has the largest population of this sect, has declared them non-Muslims. The country does not allow members of the sect to list ‘Islam’ as their religion in their passports, thus restricting them from going on the Haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
“Muslims share some fundamental beliefs: one is the belief in Allah and that Mohammad is the last prophet. There are many Muslim sects and they have a lot of differences, but all of them believe in these two fundamental principles,” said Mehmood Daryabadi, a cleric from the orthodox Tablighi sect. “But they (Ahmadiyyas) say that another prophet was born in Qadian.”
Mehmood Ahmed, an Ahmadiyya from Mumbai, said that their beliefs are not different from the mainstream sects. “We also believe in Allah and that Mohammad is the last prophet, but we interpret the Koran differently,” said Ahmed. “When we translated the Koran from Arabic we referred every ayat (sentence) with a supporting phrase. This is different from the literal translation that other sects do.”
Daryabadi said that a meeting of Islamic scholars held in Mecca in 1972 it was agreed that the sect is not Muslim. “All Muslim sects do the Haj (pilgrimage). There are no restrictions on any sect, but the Qadianis are not allowed,” said Daryabadi. “If Muslims all over the world do not consider them as Muslims why is the government of India identifying them as such?”
The Indian census enumerates six main religious groups; the others are listed in the ‘other religions and persuasions’. This category includes Parsi-Zoroastrians, Jews, Bahais, Animists and nature worshippers. About 7.9 million people out of 1210 million Indians who were counted in the last census are from this classification which includes 33,304 atheists. An official from the directorate of census operations, Maharashtra, said that citizens have the freedom to not report their sect and most have chosen not to do so. For instance, the census counts only 374 Shias though the community is estimated to form 15-20% of India’s Muslim population of 172 million.
Daryabadi suggested that Ahmadiyyas should list themselves in the ‘other religions and persuasions’ category. “India has many other religious minorities; Ahmadiyyas can be recognised as a minority.”
It is unlikely that India, where the Ahmadiyyas enjoy religious freedom, will take away their religious identity and force them to be identified as a separate group.