Dialogue  January-March, 2007, Volume 8  No. 3

Asymmetrical Religious Profile of West Bengal: A districts level analysis

Ashok Kumar


On account of the Partition of India in 1947, refugees moved from Pakistan, without much interruption, to various parts of India, especially to West Bengal, till 1971, when political boundaries in South Asia were redrawn. Even after the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971, the march of refugees to West Bengal appeared to be ceaseless. Nevertheless, there is one great difference in the patterns of migration before and after 1971. In the Bangladesh era, however, in addition to the forced migration of members of minority community to West Bengal, there has been large-scale voluntary infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims to West Bengal and other parts of India. This paper examines the annual rate of religious population growth, and population estimates.


West Bengal is strategically placed with three international frontiers - Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. With a total area of 88,853 km², West Bengal is on the eastern bottle-neck of India, stretching from the Himalayas in the North to the Bay of Bengal in the south. The Darjeeling Himalayan hill region to the northern extreme of the state belongs to the eastern Himalaya. A center between the bulk of Indian territory and the north-east of the country, West Bengal is located at 21°31' and 27°14' North Latitude at the head of the Bay of Bengal and 86°35' and 89°53' East Longitude, with the Tropic of Cancer running through it.

The great Himalayas start at a distance of only 300 miles from the Bay of Bengal and the coastal tropical rain forest, Sundarbans Physiography The entire Bengal basin is that part of the great Indian shield, which approximately to the east of longitude 87°E, disappears under alluvium. West of it are a number of intracratonic Gondwana basins along the Damodar valley; a few exposures of early Tertiary Age near Baripada (in Orissa) and Durgapur and the late Mesozoic volcanics of the Rajmahal Hills.

It is only in the Shillong plateau of Meghalaya, which faces the Garo-Rajmahal gap through which the Ganga and its tributaries flow into the sea, that the Archaean and Pre-Cambrian Shield crops out again. Geophysical surveys and deep drillings have detected buried domal structures of varying dimensions below the alluvium in Medinipur, Galsi (in Burdwan) and Jangipur (in Murshidabad) areas. They are flanked by a zone of enechelon faults. Otherwise West Bengal’s shelf area is practically tectonically undistrurbed. It dips to the south-east very gently, creating the thurst for the fluvial drift in the Gangetic Delta.

A zone of flexure, which passes along the Calcutta-Ranaghat areas and below, very likely represents the huge of the Bengal basin. It is only to the east of the Calcutta region that the sea receded as late as Pleistocene times. This is perhaps one of the factors keeping West Bengal out of the recent projections of the ‘greenhouse effect’ boding more ill for Bangladesh through the warming of the entire macro region and the flooding of extensive areas of the most low-lying deltaic tracts of the south-east of the border basin, in the 21st century.

West Bengal’s natural hazards, relatively new in geohistorical terms, are more due to the problems of a moribund delta. The Bengal plain did not originate only in sedimental deposition on a shallow continental shelf by the Ganga-Brahmaputra fluvial system. In many areas, the sea and a presumably vast lacustrine or swampy area in the north have receded to be, then, raised up in a complex, physiographic way.

Basic Socio-economic and Demographic Features of the State

West Bengal is twelfth-largest state in terms of geographic size and ranks three in terms of population size of India. Kolkata is the capital of West Bengal. The state is divided into 18 districts that are distributed across three major divisions: Jalpaiguri Division, Presidency Division, and Barddhaman division. The district composition of each division is as follows:

         Ø    Jalpaiguri Division: Koch Bihar, Jalpaiguri, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur, Malda.

         Ø    Presidency Division: Murshidabad, Nadia, North Twenty-Four Parganas, South Twenty-Four Parganas, Haora, Kolkata.

         Ø    Barddhaman Division: Hugli, Medinipur, Bankura, Puruliya, Barddhaman, Birbhum.

Source : Census of India-2001

Figure 1.1 Three major divisions of West Bengal West Bengal


The specific objective of this paper is to study the religious transformation at the districts level of West Bengal.

Method and Materials

The data for the study has been obtained from “Various Indian Censuses, Bangladeshi Census Reports and different SRS bulletins. For study points of view I have apply following formula:

Natural Increase:-

(Natural increase = Birth rate – Date rate).

Net increase:-

First step:

Total Net Increase= {(Current Popn 2001)-(Previous Popn 1991)}

Second step:

Net Increase in Percentage= {(Total Net Increase/ Previous Popn 1991)*100}

Analysis and Findings

Table 1: Population in West Bengal 1941-2001

Year         Population         Increase of population in         Percentage rate of

                  (100,000)              the previous decade                 growth in the                                        (100,000)                current decade

1941              232                                 43                                      22.9

1951              263                                 31                                      13.2

1961              349                                 86                                      32.8

1971              443                                 94                                      26.9

1981              546                                103                                     23.2

1991              680                                134                                     24.6

2001              802                                122                                     21.5

Source    :               Statistical Abstract, West Bengal, 1978-89 (Combined Issue), Bureau of Applied Economics and Statistics.

In accordance with estimates prepared by the Government of West Bengal, 44.5 lakhs of refugees came from East Bengal (East Pakistan) to West Bengal during 1946-1970. The 1981 Census contained an important clue to the persistence of migration / infiltration to West Bengal. The population growth rate declined from 26.9percent in 1961-71 to 23.2percent in 1971-81. Yet, the 1981 Census recorded a population of 4,67,000 in excess of the population derived from differences in birth /death rates. If one excluded these 4,67,000 persons - who obviously moved to West Bengal from other regions inside/outside India - the population growth rate in 1971-81 would have declined from 26.9percent to 23.2percent. Actually, in West Bengal, on account of an expansion of education and family planning programme, as also of a pronounced rise in social consciousness, the population growth rate during 1981-91 should have fallen below 22percent, and demographic experts of the Government of India perceptively forecast the rate of 20.79percent for this period. Evidently, this forecast was upset by migration /infiltration from Bangladesh, for the 1991 Census puts the decadal growth rate at 24.55percent, i.e. higher than that in 1971-81. Where and how could this unexpected rate of population growth take place?

Natural Population Increase during 1991-2004

Every year the Registrar General of India conducts sample surveys, and estimates the annual rates of birth and death. Table 2 communicates these rates for West Bengal during 1981-2004.

Figure 1.2 demonstrates that the estimated natural population increase in West Bengal during 1981-04 stands at 21.2 percent. The estimate of the expert committee on population growth rate was 1.1 percent below 21.2 percent, i.e. the rate of natural increase during 1981-04. Nevertheless, the actual population growth rate exceeded the rate of natural population increase by 2.7 percent, and stood at 25.0 percent during 1981-04. This increase can largely be accounted for by the influx of people from Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and other regions of India. Thus, the number of migrants / infiltrators to West Bengal during 1981-04 can be calculated at 14,74,000, i.e. 11.0 percent of the total population increase of 1,34,00,000. The actual number of outsiders in West Bengal is likely to be much higher, because a very large number of them have presumably escaped detection by Census personnel.

It has been suggested that, during 1971-91 and 1991-2001, West Bengal has accommodated 4 million outsiders.  Actually, this number should be much larger, because, from Bangladesh alone, 3.0 million Bengali-speaking Hindus have entered into India (mainly West Bengal) during 1974-1991.

As Mohiuddin Ahmed, a renowned journalist of Bangladesh writes: “Thus, we encounter a scenario of ‘missing Hindu population’ in the successive census periods. The extent of this missing population was about 1.22 million during the period of 1974-1981, and about 1.73 million during the last intercensual period 1981-91. As many as 475 Hindus are ‘disappearing’ every day from the soil of Bangladesh on an average since 1974. How this phenomenon would be interpreted in terms of demography? The relevant parameter is obviously ‘migration’ which provides a clue to the missing link.” The following Table illustrates the rise and fall of Hindu and Muslim population in the last fifty year in Bangladesh.

Table 1.3 : Hindu and Muslim population in the last fifty year in BangladeshFigure 1.2: Birth and Death Rates of West Bengal, 1981-


Source: Sample Registration Survey (SRS, Bulletin-1981-2004) by the Registrar
General of India,
New Delhi

FFigure 1.2: Birth and Death Rates of West Bengal, 1981-2004

Source: Sample Registration Survey (SRS, Bulletin-1981-2004) by the Registrar
General of India, New Delhi
igure 1.2: Birth and Death Rates of West Bengal, 1981-2004

Figure 1.2: Birth and Death Rates of West Bengal, 1981-2004

It is noteworthy that, of the nearly 10.0 million Hindu refugees leaving East Pakistan for India in course of the 1971 liberation struggle, a large number did not return to Bangladesh. Moreover, of those who returned, a big number, failing to recover movable / immovable properties looted / misappropriated during 1971, came back to India in one or two years. These refugees have not been taken into account by the Bangladesh Census reports.

Their number soars above 3 million. After the successful conclusion of the Bangladesh liberation struggle in 1971, only 2,00,000 out of one million stranded non-Bengalis (usually called Biharis) in Bangladesh, could obtain help from International Red Cross Society in order to move over to Pakistan. The Government of Pakistan trumped up a variety of excuses to avoid the repatriation of the other 8,00,000 Biharis, who were compelled to stay on in Bangladesh. As of late 1994 - i.e. after the lapse of 23 years since 1971 - only 2,50,000 Biharis were found to be living amidst subhuman conditions at 66 camps in Bangladesh. Actually, in terms of a natural population increase, the 8,00,000 Biharis should have swelled to more than 1.3 million by 1994. To the question of where have the more than 1 million Biharis vanished from Bangladesh since 1971, the obvious answer is, they have surreptitiously moved into their ancestral places in India (notably in Bihar), and settled down. In one of his recent election utterances, Laloo Prasad Yadav, the Chief Minister of Bihar, has confessed to granting ration cards and voting rights to 100,000 Biharis from Bangladesh. It may be added that some Governments have loudly complained about infiltration of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis into such important cities as Bombay and New Delhi.

In addition, for the 1981-91 periods, Bangladesh Census authorities detect the somewhat unique phenomenon of “missing population”, and estimate the number at 8 million. As already indicated, 1.73 million Hindus are to be included in the figure of 8 million. It is, therefore, entirely plausible that the remainder of 8 million, i.e. 6.27 million Muslims, have infiltrated into various parts of India, notably West Bengal. The Government of Bangladesh naturally observes silence on this vital issue, this silence being occasionally broken by a hackneyed repetition of the announcement that there are no Bangladeshis in India.

It is, therefore, pertinent to affirm that 6 million Hindus have left Bangladesh for India during 1971-1991, and not less than 6 million Bangladeshi Muslims have infiltrated into India during 1981-1991. To this should be added 1 million stranded Biharis in Bangladesh moving to India. Since the extent of Muslim infiltration during 1971-1981 awaits appraisal, it is fair to conclude that at least - at least - 13-14 million migrants/infiltrators have crossed over from Bangladesh to India from 1971 to 1991. A large number of these outsiders have taken shelter in various parts of West Bengal, including the sensitive border areas. In order to facilitate a clear comprehension of this phenomenon, we provide below a Table recording the district wise population growth rate in West Bengal as also the categorisation of this population by religion. It is not logical to explain this growth by reference to migration from other states in India to West Bengal. For, in course of the 1981-1991 decade, West Bengal has witnessed a decrease, rather than increase, of employment in the organised sector. As to migrants from Bhutan and Nepal, they mostly reside in the districts of Koch Behar, Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, whereas their number is too insignificant in comparison to the number of migrants from Bangladesh.

The Census reports of 1981 to 2001 indicate that, in course of the 1981-2001 decade, the number of Hindus in West Bengal has decreased by 2.2 percent, whereas the number of Muslims in West Bengal has increased by 2.0 percent. Whereas the number of Hindus in West Bengal has risen by 14.3 percent, the number of Muslims in West Bengal has shot up by 26.1 percent. In every district of West Bengal, the contrast between a decline in Hindu population and an extraordinary upswing in Muslim population is indeed remarkable. Even in Calcutta itself, the Muslim population has gone up by 19.0 percent, but the Hindu population has moved up by 0.4 percent. In a number of districts, the rate of growth of Muslim population is double or more than double that of Hindu population. Fifteen such districts are highlighted through map which is given below:


Note : All figures are calculated by Author: Based on Census of India 1981-2001

Figure 1.4 Double Population Growths of Hindu and Muslim in 15 Districts of West Bengal, (1981-2001)


The above noted facts makes it quite clear that, on account of ceaseless infiltration from Bangladesh, and the tremendously high rate of growth of Muslim population, West Bengal, with 766 persons per square kilometer, has emerged as the state having the highest density of population in the whole of India. West Bengal occupies 2.77 percent of India’s land area, and accommodates 8.06 percent of its population. The actual pressure of population upon West Bengal may indeed be higher than what is estimated from Census.

It is high time that the Indian government had a proactive policy rather than a reactive policy to above issues. The need of the hour is to understand that it is no longer a humanitarian problem but a security problem which has become a hydra headed monster. Time has come to deal with it assertively but without understand the seriousness of the issues and set up time bound measures once and for all.


     Ø   Anandabazar Patrika, (1995): Bengali daily (March 8), Calcutta.

     Ø   Bangladesh Population Census 1991, Vol. 2, December, 1993; and Report of the Task Force on Bangladesh: Development Strategies for the 1990’s, Vol. 1, University Press Ltd., Dhaka, 1991, p. 20.

     Ø   Bimal Pramanik, (1990): “Interface of Migration and Inter-Religious Community Relations in Bangladesh and Eastern India” (May 12), Calcutta.

     Ø   Census of India (1981-2001): Registrar General of India, New Delhi.

     Ø   Datta, Pranati (2004): ‘Push-pull factors of undocumented migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal. ’Qualitative Report vol. 9 (June 2): 335-58.

     Ø   Economic Review, (1971-72). West Bengal.

     Ø   Ghosh. S. Partha (2003): Unwanted and Uprooted: A Political Study of Migration, Refugees, Stateless and Displaces of South Asia; New Delhi

     Ø   Ibid p.35

     Ø   Ibid., p. 22

     Ø   Mohiuddin Ahmed, (1994): “The Missing Population”, Holiday, Weekly (January 7), Dhaka.

     Ø   Population Division of the Department of the Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat (2005 a) in New York

     Ø   Sample Registration Survey Reports (SRS, Bulletin-1981-2004) by the Registrar General of India, New Delhi.

     Ø   Satchidananda Dutta Roy, op. cit., p. 23.

     Ø   Satchidananda Dutta Roy, Paschimbangabasi, K.P. Bagchi, Calcutta, 1994, p. 21 (in Bengali).

Ø   The Telegraph, (1994): English daily, (September 26) Calcutta.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

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