Former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi has delved into census data and other government statistics to dismiss the carefully-nurtured myth that Muslims will one day overwhelm Hindus numerically in India. This, he says, is a right-wing fixation, which has gone practically unchallenged for decades, penetrating deep into the psyche of many Hindus. And he marshals statistics to unveil the truth of India’s population story.
Quraishi’s seminal and well-documented study, ‘The Population Myth; Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India’, maintains that no country, India included, will have its population growing forever. With socioeconomic advancement, a country’s birth and death rates decline continuously till growth becomes stable. Every country will reach a state of population stability although the pace may differ.
The so-called popular opinion in India holds that Muslim men have more than one wife and that Muslims keep having children so as to reduce Hindus to a minority. Quraishi calls this ridiculous. In 2020, India had 924 females for 1,000 males. In this scenario, polygamy is just not possible. Even if there are such marriages, the impact on population growth will be negative as there will be a corresponding number of unmarried men. Indeed, all communities in India are polygamous and Muslims, insists Quraishi, are the least so.
True, the birth rate among Muslims has continued to be the highest among all communities in India. But it has been sliding at a rate faster than that of Hindus for almost three decades. Also, Muslims have the lowest level (45.3%) of family planning practice but Hindus are at the second lowest level (54.4%) compared with other communities. Muslims, particularly the new generation, are taking to family planning fast – faster than Hindus.
Contraceptive usage among Muslims in 1998 was 37%, which is not small. And despite Islamic scholars asserting that sterilisation is forbidden, it is quite high among Muslims (20.8% in 2015-16). There is also no evidence of organised resistance to family planning among Indian Muslims.
India is currently in the third stage of the demographic transition, says the book. This is when the birth rates fall but still the population will continue to grow as there is a large number (53%) in the reproductive age. So, even though couples have fewer children now, the overall growth in numbers still appears high. India will take some time to stabilise its population.
While the percentage decadal growth since 1981 saw a decline for the Hindu population, a similar picture began emerging among Muslims since 1991. From 1991 to 2000, the Indian Muslim population grew by 29.3%. But in the subsequent decades, it grew by 24.2% – a fall of almost 5 percentage points in comparison with a 1.5 percentage point fall among Hindus.
Region, not religion, influences fertility levels in India, says Quraishi. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) among Muslims varied from 1.74 in Tamil Nadu to nearly 4.15 in Haryana in 2015-16. Muslims fertility in the southern States is much lower than Hindu fertility in any of the three largest States: undivided Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Muslims are actually closer to Hindus in their socioeconomic and demographic behaviour within each region in the country.
Quraishi says India’s population will stabilise at about 1.7 billion with 1.27 billion Hindus and 320 million Muslims by 2101. The TFR of both Hindus and Muslims will converge to 2.1 in 2031-41. The Hindu population will stabilise four decades ahead of Muslims due to the lag in demographic transition. The Muslim population will stabilise at between 17% and 21% of the population by 2100 – “a far cry from Muslims becoming the majority in the country”.
Muslims in India face many problems. Lack of representation or negative representation in school texts lead to an atmosphere of marginalisation and discrimination. Muslims face bias when buying or renting property. Quraishi quotes the Sachar Committee report to say that Muslims have poor access to bank credit, leading to financial exclusion. Lack of access to capital and regular paid jobs forces many Muslims to undertake petty residual jobs that offer meagre earnings. High illiteracy and low education ensure that Muslims are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. And there are strong links between literacy and smaller families.
Quraishi blames Hindutva politics for propagating that Hindus are victims in secular India and that Muslims have been appeased in the name of secularism. The aim is to polarise the population and demonise Muslims. The claim that Muslims will overtake Hindus and capture political power is overwhelming. Hindu hardliners even tell Hindus to have more children!
The real factors holding Indian Muslims back from family planning on a larger scale are their socioeconomic backwardness. Quraishi says there is hardly any attempt to address these problems. “The government’s apathy – if not tacit or explicit support to these offenders (who spread disinformation) – is helping them in their vitriolic campaign.”
Muslims, the author says, should adopt family planning pro-actively. While Muslim fears about their identity and survival have to be allayed, Muslims must remove the apprehension among Hindus who have fallen prey to the right-wing propaganda. On its part, the government must communicate to Muslims in the language they understand, if needed in Urdu.
Finally, Muslim opinion leaders must be exposed to the successful family planning efforts in major Muslim countries like Indonesia, Egypt, Iran and Bangladesh. India has a success story in its polio eradication programme among Muslims by engaging with the community and religious leaders. This, Quraishi says, must be done vis-à-vis family planning also.
(The author is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi)
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