A well-intentioned study and a demographic myth

The Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council appears to have revived the debate about the Muslim population growth, but the facts need to stand out

Updated - May 13, 2024 09:16 am IST

Published - May 13, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘If we are really keen to reduce the Muslim population in the country, we must pay special attention to the Muslim girl’s education and work towards the educational and economic empowerment of Muslims’

‘If we are really keen to reduce the Muslim population in the country, we must pay special attention to the Muslim girl’s education and work towards the educational and economic empowerment of Muslims’ | Photo Credit: The Hindu

All is well with the religious minorities in India is the short conclusion of the report of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (PM-EAC), that has also revived the debate about Muslim population growth. Though the report is well intentioned and has been prepared to demonstrate how India’s minorities in general and Muslims in particular are absolutely safe and face no discrimination or persecution at all, it has caused a stir.

The timing of the report, its use of almost a decade-old data, its not highlighting the nearly 1,520% increase in share in the total population of Buddhists, and, further, that for every one Muslim, five Hindus were born during this period, that the Hindu population (320 million in 1950) has tripled, and that the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of Muslim women saw a drop by 2.05 as against Hindu women’s TFR by 1.36, have all made it controversial.

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The report is being used to substantiate the old Hindutva myth of Hindus being in danger of becoming a minority in a country of their own. When Hindus could retain their majority status during the 800 years of so-called Muslim rule, how can they be in danger today? It was in 2015 that the Member of Parliament from Unna had said that Hindus should produce at least four children. With Hindus constituting 79.80% of India’s population and Muslims at 14.23%, should Hindus really fear losing their majority status? Demographers see no such danger.

The rhetoric, veiled and otherwise

Some leaders of today, who have mastered the art of polarising voters, have presented it as proof of the so-called ‘population jihad’, with India in danger of becoming an Islamic state. Let us not entirely blame them. More than 115 years ago, a book authored by Upendra Nath Mukerji, A Dying Race, had argued that Hindu numbers were dwindling and might just disappear like the indigenous population of New Zealand. Mukerji was honest enough to admit that there was no actual decrease in number. But then can the higher fertility rate of any group be the only yardstick to determine its status? In fact, higher fertility rates are proof of illiteracy and poor economic conditions. Ideally, we need to look at a group’s educational, social and economic conditions to find out its share in the national pie. How the group is represented in the power structure of the state is the real test of its well-being.

Last year, the Union Finance Minister spoke at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), U.S. In response to a question by PIIE President Adam S. Posen about reports in the western media about Indian Muslims, she also used the increase in population as proof of all being well with Indian Muslims. She said, “India has the second largest Muslim population in the world and that population is only growing in numbers. If there is perception,.. their lives are difficult or made difficult with the support of the state…, will the Muslim population be growing than what it was in 1947?”

There is some merit in the statement as, factually speaking, India is indeed the second largest Muslim country after Indonesia in the world — as the President of India said in 2023 — and by 2050, it would be the home of the largest Hindu population as well as Muslim population. Indeed, Indian Muslims have much greater rights than the religious minorities in Muslim countries particularly in South Asia. The Finance Minister was right in asserting that “Muslims in India are doing better than those in Pakistan”.

A look at population data

But population growth is not the right parameter to judge the group’s status in the body polity of the country. In fact, high fertility rates are indicative of educational, social and economic backwardness. Moreover, with literacy rates increasing amongst Muslims, there has been the steepest decline in the fertility rates of Muslims. The most authentic data on population is the Census.

If the Census of 2001 and 2011 are kept in view, the Muslim population’s decadal growth declined from 36.02% to 24.04%. In these two decades, Hindu population decadal growth saw a decline from 20.35% to 16.76%. Muslim TFR is 2.36, which is very close to the replacement rate of 2.1. It has seen the sharpest decline from the high of 3.59 in 1998-99 to 2.36 in 2019-21. The Hindu TFR is 1.94 and, therefore, demographers are optimistic of the Muslim population eventually stabilising by the end of the century at 18.8% of India’s population. Hindus would retain their majority status by a huge margin at 74.7%.

Even the United Nations Population Fund observed, in 2022, that “the good news is that India’s population growth appears to be stabilizing… a total of 31 states and union territories have achieved fertility rates below the replacement level of 2.1.” In fact, some studies have predicted (The Lancet 2024) that in a matter of the next three years, replacement level may go as low as 1.75. Bihar with its poverty has the highest fertility rate in India. Thus, Hindu fertility rate of Bihar (2.88) and Uttar Pradesh (2.29). is much higher than the Muslim fertility rate in Kerala (2.25), Tamil Nadu (1.93), Andhra Pradesh (1.97) and Telangana (2.01).

Even the propaganda about the alarming increase in Muslim population in Assam has not been substantiated by hard facts. Between the last two Census of 2001 and 2011, Assam’s population increased by 17.07% as against the whole country’s population increase of 17.7%. In fact, if we take the 1981 Census and 2011 Census, Assam’s population has decreased from 23.36% to 17.07%. Illegal Muslim infiltration from Bangladesh is generally said to be responsible for the demographic change in Assam. But here again, as against Assam’s 2.91% growth in the first 20 years after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, Muslims in several other States during those two decades have registered higher growth rates, i.e., Nagaland (10.13%), Punjab (3.79%), Haryana (3.22%) and Madhya Pradesh (3.00%). Indeed, we live in the post-truth era.

A private member’s Bill (The Population Regulation Bill, 2019) to regulate the country’s population was introduced by a Member of Parliament in the in the Rajya Sabha — it was withdrawn. Rajendra Agrawal came up with his Bill, The Population (Control) Bill, 2021. But the Narendra Modi government rightly did not favour the coercive route.

In spite of an over 50%, and welcome, drop in the TFR in Uttar Pradesh, the Yogi Adityanath government did propose a population control bill in 2021, i.e., the Uttar Pradesh Population Policy 2021-2030 or Uttar Pradesh (Control, Stabilization, and Welfare) Bill, 2021. Assam came up with a similar policy in 2021. Can we control the population by enacting a law? Demographers oppose all such measures.

‘Coercion is counterproductive’

Even the National Population Policy, 2000 of the first National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee focused on more relevant socio-cultural factors such as age at marriage, age at birth, girl education, maternal and child health and voluntary and informed consent over coercive methods. Being a signatory to international covenants such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), India has to abide by the international norms on population control. The United Nations’ Human Rights Committee has categorically mandated that state parties to ICCPR cannot adopt policies that are compulsory, coercive or discriminatory. The Narendra Modi government itself in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court of India in December 2020 had admitted that ‘the international experience shows that any coercion to have a certain number of children is counter-productive and leads to demographic distortions’.

If we are really keen to reduce the Muslim population in the country, we must pay special attention to the Muslim girl’s education and work towards the educational and economic empowerment of Muslims. If such policies are criticised as ‘appeasement of Muslims’ and Muslim educational backwardness is not removed we should have no grievance against their higher TFR.

Faizan Mustafa is a constitutional law expert. The views expressed are personal

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