By Rakhi Bose 

In February this year, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) mouthpiece Observer published an article titled “Why growing population of Muslims in India should be a matter of concern?” The article highlighted several data points about growth in the number of Muslims in India since partition and portended how it could be dangerous for “Bharat” if sections of this population took up arms or “jihad”.

On April 10, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman declared at an international forum that “India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, and that population is only growing in numbers”. But experts feel that the minister’s statement only revived debunked yet familiar myths about so-called “Muslim population explosion” in India.

In the current context of religious stratification in India, former Election Commissioner of India, S Y Quraishi, author of ‘The Population Myth—Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India’, feels that the Finance Minister’s statement was “ill-informed”.

“In the initial years after independence, it is true that the rate of growth of the Muslim population was higher than other communities. But it is also true that Muslims today have the sharpest decline in fertility rates. That point is often ignored,” says Quraishi.

According to the 2011 Census, the population of Muslims was 17.2 crore, and Hindus were at 96.6 crore. The data also showed that Muslim population in 1951 was 9.8 per cent and 14.2 per cent in 2011, while Hindus constituted 79 per cent in 2011.

“There are three factors that determine fertility rates. First is education or literacy rate, especially among women. Second is income and prosperity. Third is delivery of healthcare and family welfare services. In all three, Muslims have historically been backward and despite advances, it remains so. Therefore, it is no surprise that they were backward in adopting family planning in the initial decades,” Quraishi states.

He adds that if the Finance Minister talks about population growth in Muslims, she should also address ways to increase educational and economic opportunities for the community, which continues to fare worse than Hindus in metrics like literacy, income and employment.

Sitharaman isn’t the first BJP leader to make incomplete statements about “Muslim population growth”. In 2021, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that the “root cause of economic disparities and poverty among minority Muslims” in the state is population explosion. He has also said that Muslims are no more a minority in the state as they make up “35 per cent” of Assam. In 2020, at the height of the anti-CAA/NRC protests that critics claimed unfairly targeted Muslims, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath claimed that Muslim population in India has grown manifold since partition since they were given “special rights”.

The politicians are backed by the Hindu right wing organisations like RSS, Jan Sangh and others like Akhil Bhartiya Sant Parishad whose Himachal Pradesh in-charge, Yati Satyadevanand Saraswati, has publicly asked Hindus to birth more children to save India from becoming an Islamic nation. Such statements, though not founded in data, have decades of historical background.

Colonial ‘Numbers Game’

Political scientist Neil DeVotta in his 2002 paper “Demography and communalism in India” states that the genesis of the population “numbers game” came with the British and that there is little evidence to show that Hindus and Muslims in India were interested in finding out the numbers of each of their groups pre-colonisation. The British were also chiefly responsible for emphasising religious data in the first census that they conducted in India, though they eschewed from doing so in the first census held in Britain.

The fact that in 1871, over 22.8 per cent of the Indian population was Muslim not only surprised the British, but also left Hindu nationalists and proponents of what can today be identified as Hindutva ideology anxious. Eventually, the 1909 Minto-Morley reforms and the 1919 Montague-Chelmsford reforms to institute elective representation on communal lines played a key role in the rising significance of India’s religious population and interests in their respective growth rates.

By the 1900s, several Hindu scholars and academics had written and spoken prolifically about Hindus becoming a “dying race” or a minority in their own country. The narratives were even supported by “irresponsible predictions”, made by the British, as De Votta points out, of Muslims overtaking Hindu populations in India. The partition further solidified the Hindu anxiety of numbers empowering separatism — a sentiment that is evident in the “mini-Pakistan” moniker given to several Muslim-dominated areas across Indian cities and states.

DeVotta outlines how repeated emphasis on killings of Hindus by Muslim rulers in the medieval period helped cement the narrative that Muslims in India now choose to carry out their plan for domination through contrived population expansion.

Such misinformation continues to echo today in social and digital media and the general discourse where claims that Hindus will become a minority in India by 2025 are popular. These “projections” are, in turn, propped on communalised myths that target religion as the basis of population demographics. Despite myths that Hindus are a ‘dying race’, recent mathematical models prove there is no way in a thousand years that Muslims can overtake Hindus…

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