Assam’s Muslim population was recorded as about 34% of the state’s total population in 2011 Census. It was about 31% in 2001 and over 28% in 1991. That’s not much of an increase. Yet insidious political propaganda about rising Muslim population has swamped the minds of people, both in the state and elsewhere in the country. When coupled with the so-called illegal immigration from Bangladesh, this acquires fiery connotations, as was reflected in BJP President Amit Shah’s press conference on 31 July, a day after the final draft of the National Citizen’s Register (NCR) was released. The draft omitted names of over 40 lakh persons implying thereby that they are not citizens of India.
There have been numerous reports on how various families have been divided – some members are in the NRC list, others not. These point to various failures of the survey and recording system which will hopefully get corrected. But Shah’s linking of the NRC exercise to national security revealed the other agenda at work. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – by implication, Muslim immigrants – are posing a threat to national security and hence they should be deported. This segue from illegal immigrants to national security is part of the larger narrative of exploding Muslim population in Assam, and for the hard-core BJP/RSS supporters, even for the whole country.
However, facts about Assam show that the flooding of the state by illegal immigrants is largely a myth, especially in the past two decades. Population growth rates of different religious communities (as recorded in various Censuses) show that the increase in Assam’s Muslim population is nowhere extraordinary.
During the 20 years from 1991 to 2011, Assam’s Muslim population increased by 68% in this period while Hindus increased by 27%. The Muslim growth in Assam is in fact slightly less than the whole country’s average growth rate of Muslim population, which stands at 70%!
Note that, many states which usually have serious out-migration due to poverty, like Bihar and UP, and even Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, have high growth rates for Muslims. So, it is not Muslims migrating into these states that are causing high population growth. Assam’s Muslim population does not appear to be growing because of immigration into the state.
So, why is the Muslim population growing faster than Hindus? The answer, well-settled internationally, lies in the social and economic conditions of this community. Fertility rates, that is number of children born per woman, are higher in communities that are poorer, less educated and more deprived.
According to a study of age-specific fertility rates (ASFR) and total fertility rates (TFR) of Muslims are higher in Assam than the Hindus. The TFR for Muslims is 4.36 compared to 2.59 for Hindus. This means that for every 1000 women, Muslim women have 1.7 times more children. This explains the higher growth rate of population among Muslims. The same logic applies to other states where Muslim population growth is higher, like Bihar, UP, Rajasthan etc.
The fact that better economic conditions and education, especially women’s education, are crucial factors in determining the population growth rate is validated if one looks at the example of Kerala. With very high literacy and rates and mean years of education, and a higher per capita income, Muslim growth rate is down to 31% between 1991 and 2011. That’s half of what it is in poorer states, including Assam.
Finally, it should be noted that despite the high population growth rates of Muslims, there is no possibility of Muslims overtaking Hindus in numbers, as another favourite myth propagated by Hindutva supporting groups holds. The sheer difference in population sizes is such that this will never take place in the real world. In any case, all communities in India, including Muslims, are exhibiting a declining fertility rate. In other words, population growth is slowing down amongst all. Even in Assam.
In short, Assam is not facing an illegal immigrant problem now of the scale made out by Shah and others. Rather, it is a searing indictment of policies that have kept large sections of people, all communities included but especially Muslims, in abject poverty and illiteracy. All this gnashing of teeth – and the hand -wringing – is misdirected, and political chicanery.