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Why The Myth Of Muslim Population Overtaking Hindus Is Unfounded

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.

Holy Call, verses of the Quran encourage adoption of quality over quantity when forming a family
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In February this year, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) mouthpiece Organiser 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.

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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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Myth 1: Muslim population will overtake Hindus

Despite repeated outcries by the Hindutva brigade about “Hindu Khatrey Mein Hain”, demographers and population experts have often dispelled this myth as nothing but “propaganda”. Experts say that there is not a grain of truth in these canards and that recent mathematical models also prove there is no way in a thousand years that Muslims can overtake Hindus.

Former Delhi University Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh and Ajay Kumar came up with two mathematical models to test the theory of Muslims overtaking Hindus. As per the Polynomial Growth model, the population of Hindus (30.36 crore in 1951) is projected to increase to 115.9 crore by 2021, the year when the latest census was supposed to be held prior to Covid-19 delays. The model projected that the population of Muslims from 3.58 crore in 1951 will increase to 21.3 crore in 2021. The model which plotted the data on a graph proved that the lines depicting two communities’ populations never intersect. 

As per the Exponential Growth model, Hindus have grown to 120.6 crore by 2021, while the population of Muslim has increased to 22.6 crore by 2021. Both models conclusively prove that Muslims can never overtake the Hindus.

Myth 2: Islam is against family planning

While population control policies in India have been of a secular nature, religious identity and cultural customs have historically played a role in shaping every community’s attitudes toward birth control. 

It is also true that large sections of Muslims who remain uneducated and marginalised feel that Islam is against family planning, due to lack of awareness and religious misinterpretations sometimes imposed by local religious bodies. But nowhere in the Quran is family planning prohibited. In fact, some verses of Quran and the Hadees even encourage adoption of quality over quantity when forming a family. What is needed is effort into awareness and information campaigns. 

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Right Move, The success of population control policies depends on education and empowerment of women Photo: Getty Images

Myth 3: Muslims don’t accept family planning

The falling fertility rate among the Muslim population points towards the success of family planning among Muslims. In fact, Population analyst Devendra Kothari says, “The biggest obstacle to population control is the non-fulfilment of the demand for family planning services. Despite poverty and illiteracy, modern family planning services are in demand among Muslims as well, but they are as inadequate as other communities.”

Myth 4: Muslims give birth to more children

The TFR or Total Fertility Rate refers to the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime. Muslims, at present, have the highest TFR at 2.3. Hindus, however, have a TFR of 2.0, which isn’t far behind. Additionally, NFHS data shows that TFR among Muslims have recorded the sharpest decline among all religious communities in India. Between 1992 and 2015, the fertility gap between Hindus and Muslims fell from 1.1 to 0.5 children. TFR among Muslims dropped by almost 10 per cent between NFHS-4 and NFHS-5.

Myth 5: Polygamy causes population growth among Muslims

Polygamy is also often blamed as the reason for Muslims having larger families. This is intrinsically erroneous as number of children depends on the total number of women of childbearing age. The arguments ignore sex ratios, which have for over a century has favoured males. Additionally, polygamy is practiced among several section of Hindu and Adivasi communities as well as other religions like Jains and Buddhists.

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Population explosion not a ‘Hindu vs Muslim’ problem

Amid growing reports of attacks and discrimination against Muslims in a sharply polarising Hindu-majoritarian nation, Devendra Kothari feels that how India manages its communal harmony and balance will also impact the future of population growth. 

“At present, Muslim fertility rates are in decline, but in the future, there are chances that TFR among Muslims may increase due to the ‘demographic security dilemma’. It is because demographic behaviour takes into consideration the ongoing socio-cultural-political conditions, which, in turn, affect the fertility and composition of the family,” says Kothari.

Lastly, the success of population control policies depends on education and empowerment of women. As far as Muslim women are concerned, feminists and activists working with reproductive and education rights argue that state policies are not only ignoring the lived realities of Muslim women, but are also pushing them further into vulnerability.

While the Indian State advocates population control and even increased age of marriage for women, policies like the hijab ban are proving to be counterintuitive when it comes to education of Muslim women. The recent ban on hijab in Karnataka, for instance, has had a disastrous impact on Muslim women’s education across the state with numbers of Muslim girls in class dropping in public educational institutions, as a 2022 report by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) showed. 

“The hijab ban is intrinsically against women’s education and empowerment. Several students not only see it as a necessity, but a right to their autonomy,” says PUCL member Aishwarya Ravikumar.

In the coming years, India’s changing religious demographics may upend politics as we know it. Larger policies like the NRC and the CAA have also been supported by narratives of growing “illegal” populations. It is perhaps pertinent for India to find a way to talk about religious demographics as other nations do — without fuss, rancor or wild policy suggestions. It has to come out of the ‘Hindu vs Muslim’ binary to focus on factors that impact populations across communities. 

“In India, there is no clash of civilisations. Indian Muslims as well as other minorities are a part of Indian culture. This is because of both India’s culture and its historical legacy. Muslim heritage is part of our larger tradition of multiculturalism and mutual tolerance and our demographic policies need to reflect that ethos,” says Singh.

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