Dispelling population myths triggered by a working paper

The working paper put out by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister makes a flawed assertion about the growth in the Muslim population  

Updated - May 30, 2024 12:46 am IST

Published - May 30, 2024 12:08 am IST

‘Such interpretations fuel a divisive political narrative’

‘Such interpretations fuel a divisive political narrative’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Many media reports and politicians have tended to misinterpret and sensationalise findings from a working paper put out by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM), titled “Share of Religious Minorities: A Cross-Country Analysis (1950-2015)”. These reports have inaccurately tried to create an impression that the Muslim population in India is growing rapidly and that this threatens the Hindu population. Unfortunately, such interpretations fuel a divisive political narrative that is often misinformed about population issues and further obscures the truth from the public.

The working paper states: “the actual reasons for the change in the religious demography of a country is a multivariate phenomenon in a complex system and the depth of analysis required to pinpoint the exact variable responsible for change in religious demography is beyond the scope of the paper.” Despite acknowledging its limitations, the paper makes a flawed assertion that the growth in the Muslim population indicates that minorities are thriving in India. There is no evidence to suggest that an increase in fertility alone indicates a flourishing population.

Data and socio-economic development

Interpreting population data within the context of socio-economic development is crucial. The number of children a family chooses to have is influenced more by socio-economic factors such as education and economic conditions than by religion. Communities with better access to education, health care, and economic opportunities tend to have lower fertility rates.

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A high population growth rate does not indicate that people are necessarily doing well. It often highlights the shortcomings in levels of human development. The higher growth rate of India’s Muslim population compared to the Hindu population is a result of the Muslim community lagging behind on many human development indicators. Conversely, a low growth rate or decline in population does not imply persecution or hostility but can reflect improved socio-economic conditions, lower fertility rates, and higher emigration rates.

The EAC-PM study uses the Religious Characteristics of States-Demographic (RCS-DEM) dataset to conduct a cross-country analysis of 167 countries. The RCS-DEM database provides detailed information on the demographic characteristics of various religious groups across countries. The paper analyses population data from 1950 to 2015.

Explaining the changes

There are three ways in which the changes in the composition of the population of various communities can be explained. One way is to examine the absolute increase in population across religious communities. In that case, between 1950-2015, India’s Hindu population grew by 701 million — almost five times more than the increase in the Muslim population of 146 million.

The second way is to look at the changes in the proportion of different religious groups in the population. We find that whereas the proportion of Hindu population fell by 6.64 percentage points from 84.7% in 1950 to 78.06% in 2015, the proportion of Muslim population increased by 4.25 percentage points from 9.84% in 1950 to 14.09% in 2015. Both the marginal decline in the proportion of Hindus in the population or the marginal increase in the proportion of Muslims should not be a cause for concern given that, to start with in 1950, there were 306 million Hindus as against 35.5 million Muslims. Clearly, the increase is relatively small, and there is no threat of Muslims overtaking Hindus in population numbers.

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The third way is what the EAC-PM study has done, namely, highlight the rate of change in individual shares. Between 1950-2015, there was a decline of 7.8% in the share of the Hindu population and an increase by 43.2% in the share of the Muslim population.

This is only to be expected in a statistical sense, given that in 1950, the proportion of Hindus (84.7%) was relatively large compared to the Muslims (9.8%). Examining the rate of change in the shares of other religious communities further underscores the misleading nature of these figures. For instance, the rate of change in share shows an increase of 1519.6% for Buddhists, and 49.2% for Sikhs. This does not imply that Buddhists and Sikhs are conspiring towards re-shaping India’s demographic profile. Similarly, the decline in the rate of change for Parsis’ share, by 86.7%, does not mean they have been specifically targeted and persecuted in society. These numbers can be misinterpreted easily without proper context.

Need for data

According to a 2021 report published by the Pew Research Center titled “Religious Composition of India”, which analysed Census data between 1951 and 2011, the proportion of India’s six largest religious groups has remained “relatively stable” since Partition. A study by the distinguished Indian demographers P.N. Mari Bhat and Francis Zavier (2005) projected that the Muslim population’s proportion to India’s total population would peak at around 18.8% by 2101. As the Population Foundation of India’s earlier statement on this issue mentioned, there have been significant declines in Muslim fertility rates recently, as reported in the last few rounds of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS). This indicates that the projection of the peak of the proportion of Muslim population might be even smaller if a similar study were conducted now.

The delayed figures of the next Census, when they finally come out, will ultimately confirm these trends.

Poonam Muttreja is Executive Director at the Population Foundation of India. Martand Kaushik is Senior Specialist, Media and Communications at the Population Foundation of India

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