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Why Votaries of Population Imbalance are Wrong About Muslim Growth Rate

Politics, not facts, have weaponised demographic claims in India, but the population is still heading for a decline, and that’s true for all communities.
World Population Day

For decades, Indian politics has revolved around the bogey of ‘explosive’ population growth. Population is routinely blamed for virtually every socio-economic problem in the country. Until the 1990s, governments actively pursued population ‘control’ measures through means fair and foul. What few mention is that effectively, India’s TFR or Total Fertility Ratio, has reduced to a level where the new births will simply replace an ageing population. Still, the bogey of population explosion persists in Indian politics. 

During the 1990s, the decade of liberalisation and privatisation, governments focused on reducing the “burden” of a growing population by selling off Public Sector Enterprises. Most social service sectors, including education and health, were privatised as a ‘solution’ to rising demand for public services. It only created new problems for citizens, as resources concentrated in the hands of an ever-smaller segment of the public, while the majority struggled for a decent livelihood. The tumultuous scenario allowed communalism to capture central space, giving capitalist forces a freer hand. 

Population figures are still used as an excuse to avoid economic management. Consider the sporadic chaos in India since Prime Minister Narendra Modi cited “population explosion” in his 2019 Independence Day speech. Soon it took on a communal twist, and the same old rhetoric of higher birth rates for Muslims and fears of their demographic dominance followed. Almost ritualistically, this debate is reignited every year by the mainstream media and the political dispensation. Recently, a leading Hindi news channel ‘debated’ whether there is a population explosion in a particular community, and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, said a population “imbalance” would lead to “anarchy”. 

Muslim Population Bogey in History

Historian Prabhu Bapu’s work, ‘Hindu Mahasabha in Colonial North India 1915-1930’, cites an interesting fact. He writes, “A crucial rationale for the emergence of a ‘Hindu politics’ was the colonial state’s census enumeration introduced in 1871, which had an enormous significance for the birth of the Hindu Sabha movement in the Punjab.” This census blamed large-scale religious conversion for the declining share of the Hindu population. The 1911 Census said 40,000 Hindus had converted to Islam since 1901, and another 1,20,000 had converted to Christianity. It created panic among Hindu activists. While they could not counter the religion of the British ruling power, anti-Islamism became the plank of their politics. 

Population numbers were important for both sides to make political claims before the electorate. When Muslim leaders demanded a separate electorate, in a representation to the Viceroy in 1906, they sought that caste Hindus be counted as Hindus and the ‘Untouchables’ enumerated as a distinct religious identity. The proposal of EA Gait, the Census Commissioner during the 1910 Census, echoed their sentiment. And from the British crushing the 1857 revolt, the Muslim elite drew the lesson that loyalty to the Raj was crucial for survival. The colonial dispensation was more than happy to cultivate their ambitions, for it helped create a rift between Hindus and Muslims. 

The caste Hindus saw in the British encouragement to communal elements a threat of losing their powerful status and activated the Hindu Mahasabha. The Arya Samaj and Sanatan Dharm Sabha opposed any attempt to delink the erstwhile ‘Untouchables’ from the Hindu fold, with Lala Lajpat Rai as their foremost leader. Bapu notes, “Crucially, the Hindu outcry and high caste protests didn’t focus on caste reform, but contained an argument of ‘Hindu unity’ despite institutional existence of Varna system.” The Gait circular was withdrawn in 1912, but not before it sowed a rift between the subcontinent’s two major religious communities and a seed of apprehension over ‘declining Hindu population’. 

This rhetoric has become a permanent feature of Hindu right-wing politics. It started with claims about the extinction of the Hindu population in a few millennia and predictions of Muslim numerical dominance in decades. An all-India Hindu Mahasabha was constituted in 1921, led by Manindra Chandra Nandy, the maharaja of Cossimbazar Raj. An overreaching, all-embracing idea of ‘Hindu unity’ based on an hostility toward Muslims was reinforced. The phobia of Muslim demographic dominance remains the basis of Hindu right-wing politics. Recent events prove it is a potent weapon to create apprehensions and polarises voters; a favourable situation to pursue narrow political ambitions. 

Muslim Dominance: Data or Illusion?

Claims of higher population growth of Muslims are primarily based on heresy, rhetoric and communalised analysis. The aim is to present religious communities as monoliths, disregarding social, economic and linguistic diversity. Demographers have established a direct link between female education and population growth rates. Population—TFR—is influenced by social conditions, economic disparities, the availability of prenatal care, and related factors. 

Former Chief Election Commissioner Dr SY Quraishi brilliantly busted the myth of the Muslim population boom in his celebrated work, ‘The Population Myth’, which elaborates on the connection between socio-economic factors and TFR. He found that the relative fertility levels of India’s Hindus and Muslims disappear when people (regardless of religion) are clubbed in their relevant socio-economic classes. Citing the demographers RB Bhagat and Purujit Pukhraj, he writes, “Although a Hindu-Muslim differential in fertility has persisted in India, it is no more than one child, and even this gap is not likely to endure as fertility among Muslims declines with increasing levels of education and standards of living.” 

Quraishi writes that lower contraceptive use among Muslims is the most important factor for the fertility differential, but contraceptive use has increased faster among Muslims in recent times, narrowing this gap. He emphasised that relatively higher Muslim fertility rates among “cannot be understood independent of its socio-economic and political contexts”. 

The Sachar Committee report also illustrates the grim economic situation of Indian Muslims, their lack of education and health facilities, lack of access to government services and other factors responsible for their socio-economic backwardness. This is what had the Muslim demographic indicators compare unfavourably with national trends in the past, along with other deprived social groups, such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. However, each social group has displayed a declining population growth rate with socio-economic improvements—a decline apparent in all recent data. 

Is Population Really a Problem?

The population growth saga started in 1798 with Malthus, who, based on pre-industrial revolution conditions of his time, spoke of exponential population growth rates versus arithmetic growth rates of food supplies. It was then impossible to imagine today’s technological advancements that have pushed production capacity up, other than the impact of vastly improved education and health facilities. His analysis was based on European conditions, but Europe today has a sharp population fall problem, especially in the east and south. In 2015, the European Union experienced the first natural population decline—more deaths than births and its population is expected to decrease significantly in the long run

The Malthusian theory was criticised by sociologists and economists from the beginning. It is considered pessimistic, and it has proved to be so. Fertility rates radically changed the world over after 1963, the year it peaked at two per cent (per year growth rate). Ever since, fertility has rapidly declined, while world food production has massively increased. Thus, both pillars of Malthus’ theory collapsed. 

In India, the population growth rate has declined since the eighties. In fact, the decline has been more than projected consistently in the last four decades, from 1.02% in 2018-19 to 0.99% in 2019-20, to 0.97% in 2020-21 and then to 0.95%, according to the United Nations World Population Prospects report. 

TFR is an essential indicator of population growth, defined as the “average number of children a hypothetical cohort of women would have at the end of their reproductive period” given certain conditions, such as their surviving through the reproductive age. It is expressed as children per woman, and 2.1 is the replacement rate: 1 for the mother, 1 for the father and 0.1 to compensate the children who die in infancy or women who die before reaching childbearing age. The UN says, “If replacement-level fertility is sustained over a sufficiently long period, each generation will exactly replace itself without any need for the country to balance the population by international migration.”

India’s TFR is already below the replacement rate. The report of the Technical Group on Population projects a further decline (to 1.73) in the next decade. Therefore, India is set to have, effectively, no population growth: The population will soon stagnate and by 2040-50, start declining.

We also know that persistent poverty and hunger in India and elsewhere are not due to the lack of food supplies or the rise in population but due to the vast income disparity and uneven distribution of resources. The capitalist development model tends to increase the concentration of income and wealth, therefore widening the gap between the rich and the poor. This disparity is apparent in every walk of socio-economic life, where the less privileged are squeezed for the luxuries of the wealthy. Estimates support the assumption that the world can support good education, healthcare, sanitisation and food if available resources are distributed uniformly.

Muslim Question 

Are Muslims in India defying global population trends? Take Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir. The Technical Group report says J&K achieved replacement TFR in 2010. Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar—Hindu-dominated states—will reach this level by 2025, 2024, 2028 and 2039, respectively. Relatively well-off Gujarat achieved this target only in 2020, while Kerala reached replacement TFR in 1988! Kerala, too, has a 25.56% Muslim population. Therefore, demographic trends have almost no connection with religion. States that missed the TFR bus are the poorest, whilst early achievers are known for prosperity and development. The fifth and latest National Family Health Survey confirms this connection, reporting TFR falls in almost all states and the national average of 2.0, or below the replacement rate. The first NFHS in 1992-93 and the 2019-21 data show the sharpest fall in the Muslim fertility rate, from 4.41 to 2.3. At this rate, the Muslim population would reach replacement TFR very soon. 

Quraishi compared population growth trends to find the gap between them and Hindus narrowing—rapidly—for almost all demographic indicators. Since 2011, the population growth rate in the Hindu community has also fallen to 17.75% from 19.92%. The growth rate of the Muslim population fell sharply to 24.6% from 29.52%. This entirely busts popular communitarian myths about population.

The median age at which Hindu and Muslim women marry after adulthood is the same (18.7 years). Further, 16% of Muslim women married within the family, against the 11% national average, which matches that of Hindus. Quraishi has also shown polygamy was the lowest among the Muslims during 1951-60. The NFHS for 2004-05 found that overall, the percentage of polygamous families was about two per cent, with Hindus having 1.77 partners, Muslims 2.55 partners, Christians 2.35 partners, and Buddhists 3.41. Compared with the 1951-60 data, it is evident polygamy is falling in all communities, including Muslims. 

Current demographic trends do not threaten national well-being, nor is the Muslim population exploding. A substantial section of Indian Muslims belongs to deprived classes—and this is what demographic trends of previous decades prove. They were late starters but are doing well as education and awareness spread. The annual gung-ho about population explosion is political, not factual. It is a ploy to shroud the failure of the governments on the socio-economic front. 

Ashok Kumar Pandey is the author of several books and a political commentator. The views are personal

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