By Moin Qazi
Union Minister Giriraj Singh recently claimed that “social harmony gets fractured whenever Hindu population drops,” a veiled attack on the population of India’s minority communities. The minister declared that “UN said if this [population growth] isn’t brought under check, in future, 1 out of 10 people won’t have access to potable water, so it’s dangerous both to social harmony and development.” The contradiction is that the population trends show that the future demographic projections are not as skewed as it is assumed to be. In fact, the Muslim population appears to be on a stabilisation curve and should catch up with national averages.
The paranoia, solely based on misperception and fear, fuels anti-Muslim hysteria that undermines a multi-cultural society. Instead of putting a negative spin on demographic patterns, there should be a focus on leveraging dividends from some positive trends. In several regions, the youth bulge, defined by the high percentage of teenagers or young adults, especially in many Muslim dominated areas have probably peaked and now levelled or will decline.
Putting things into perspective
First, the rate of Muslim population growth dropped from 29 percent between 1991-2001 to 24 percent between 2001-2011. Although it is still higher than the national average of 18 percent, the Muslim community’s share of the total population grew by a much smaller 0.8 percent than in previous decades. The growth would have been even less but for an unusually sharp, though not entirely surprising, spike in West Bengal and Assam, attributed to allegedly illegal migration from Bangladesh.
Second, the Muslim population has increased from 13.4 percent of the population to 14.2 percent, which is 0.8 percentage points higher, but the rate of growth is considerably lower than in previous decades. Muslims are expected to grow faster than Hindus for a couple of more decades because they have the youngest median age and relatively high fertility among the major religious groups in India.
Third, in 2011, Hindus constituted 79.8 percent of the population, compared to 80.5 percent in 2001, a 3.5 percentage points decline over a decade. The difference lies in the decadal growth rate of 20.3 percent Hindus in 2001 to 16.8 percent between 2001 and 2011. Compared with the ratios for Muslims, who had a decadal growth rate of 29.5 percent in 2001 then declined steeply to 24.6 percent, resulting in a higher 4.9 percentage point decline.
Fourth, when percentage point declines are compared between Hindus and Muslims, Muslims have shown a 50 percent higher decline in growth rate than Hindus. However, it is true that fertility rate of Muslim women is still higher than the Hindu women. Which according to the data collected by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) shows a positive higher decline of Muslims compared to Hindus, a trend that has been occurring since 1981 and is expected to continue in a manner such that eventually, the Muslim growth rate will soon be similar to that of the Hindus. The fast pace of decline in Muslim women’s fertility rate, while retaining at a much lower mean child-bearing age, is evidence that falling Muslim fertility is choice based.
Finally, since the mid-1980s the prevalence rate of contraceptives among Muslims has been increasing faster than among Hindus and is likely to catch up with the national average earlier than expected. The rate of increase in contraception among the Muslim community, even in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, has been high. This finding debunks the myth that Muslims loathe birth control and family planning.
Population growth and poverty
Poverty has a direct bearing on family demographics. Those living in extreme poverty feel they cannot afford the expenses of their children who are more vulnerable to sickness, therefore to offset the fear of losing them, they hedge this risk by producing a larger number of children. There is a direct relationship between poverty and fertility and inverse relationship between fertility and higher per capita income. The new economic programs are slowly delivering results and improvement in living conditions are bound to transform the mindset of this segment of the population.
Rural women, particularly amongst Muslim families, live in the stranglehold of harsh customs. They are mostly unempowered and are often unable to act on their own behalf to obtain family planning services to regulate their childbearing. They are also the group most likely to believe that bearing many children will provide a bulwark against poverty in their old age. The financially better off have easy access to so many financial security programs for planning for a peaceful and hassle-free old age, while the poor carry a wrong perception that having more children would provide an additional source of earnings and thus they would have a better kitty to cope with life’s eventualities.
Rise in awareness of the Muslim women
Fortunately, there is a growing awareness among the new generation of women. Muslim women are also challenging patriarchy just like all women who experience unequal power hierarchies in society. Muslim women’s activism around education and equal opportunities are often underpinned by their emancipatory readings of foundational Islamic texts. The new wave of priority of education has catapulted Muslim women from the hearth to leadership positions in various fields. The ripple benefits are bound to impact their thinking ultimately influencing the demographic profiles.
The current decline is also directly related to the fact that the younger generation of educated and aspirational Muslim women who are as careful about family planning as their Hindu counterparts. The Muslim population growth is still out of sync the national trend but if the latest findings are believed that should change. Therefore, propagandist agendas spread despair on the population front or conjure fantasies of Muslims hegemony can be disproven. Currently, a shift from the dividing political lens to an economic prism would further refine the demographic equation and correct the skewed profile.
Commentators seem more focused on ringing false alarm bells than on presenting facts. The reality is there are no threats of a takeover by Muslims but in fact an intolerance that threatens the very fabric of society. Instead of analysing facts what is drowning is the impatient currents by bellicose rhetoric. This isn’t a clash of civilizations rather a clash of cultures fostered by those who portray Islam as a monolith, these people see religious and cultural diversity solely as a threat rather than as a potential source of strength and enrichment. The liberal democratic heritage and fabric of India must be safeguarded against fear mongering, religious and racial discrimination along with marginalization of minorities, such measures should be countered so that the future can be based on facts, not fiction.
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