A growing number of Hindu social media influencers in India have cultivated large audiences by spreading false demographic data about Muslims. Claims that India is being refashioned into an Islamic state are fuelling Islamophobia in the country.
For these influencers, last month’s announcement that India had overtaken China to become the world’s most populous nation was not a cause for celebration, but a call to action.
Muslims in India: still a small minority
India is home to 1.4 billion people, including around 210 million Muslims. However, birthrates have declined across the board over recent decades in tandem with global trends.
The country’s last National Family Health Survey in 2021 showed an overall fertility rate of 2.0 children per woman. This rose marginally to 2.3 for Muslim women.
A forecast issued the same year from the Pew Research Center said that India’s Muslim community would grow to 311 million by 2050. However, despite their growing share of the national population, by mid-century Muslims would remain a small minority in a country of 1.7 billion people.
But that hasn’t stopped the spread of viral disinformation claiming that India is soon to become a Muslim-majority country. These claims are spreading on Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms.
One Facebook post sarcastically greeted news that India’s population had overtaken China’s by thanking Muslims “for producing 5-10 children” each.
Another post on Twitter said that the Hindu faith would soon disappear from India. Meanwhile, a supposed Muslim majority would replace the country’s constitution with “Islamic law”.
Conspiracy theories that allege a Muslim plot to secure the faith’s numerical supremacy in India have been a staple of Hindu nationalist ideologues for years. Similar theories of minorities “replacing” majority populations have also been embraced by the far-right in other countries, such as the UK.
At times, PM Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has indulged these theories, too. The BJP has come to dominate national politics partly through its populist appeals to the country’s Hindu majority.
BJP lawmaker Rakesh Sinha introduced into parliament a population control bill in 2019. It proposed to limit all Indian households to two children, garnering the support of 125 other MPs.
The bill was withdrawn after critics accused Sinha of targeting Muslims. He denied the accusation, despite having given a speech on the supposedly glaring disparity between Hindu and Muslim birthrates.
The UN’s April announcement that India is now home to more people than any other country on the planet has reinvigorated these claims.
Ishwar Lal, a member of a Hindu-nationalist group affiliated with the BJP, said in a public speech after the announcement:
Hindus will get married once, and have two children… Whereas Muslims get married four times and have so many children that they can have their own cricket teams.
The same month, at a popular pilgrimage destination in the Himalayan foothills, a religious sermon exhorted a crowd of the Hindu faithful to wage their own demographic counter-offensive…