Myths and reality

Print edition : October 08, 2004

The socio-economic conditions of a majority of Muslims are worse than those of Hindus: Some 59 per cent of Muslim women have not attended school; 60 per cent were married by the age of 17 and hardly 14 per cent registered work participation. - G.R.N. SOMASEKAR

The changing demographic patterns of the Muslim population ought to be studied in the context of their poor socio-economic conditions.

A CONSTANT refrain of the Sangh Parivar outfits has been that the population of Muslims is growing at a much higher rate than that of Hindus and that this would eventually pose a threat to the latter's majority status. This charade is being played out yet again, with the release of the First Report on Religion by the Census of India, 2001, which presented a distorted picture of the growth rates of population across religious groups without making adjustments for the non-inclusion of data on Jammu and Kashmir in the 1991 Census and of Assam in the 1981 Census. The picture changed dramatically when adjustments were made to make the data comparable across the years.

Contrary to the initial figures, which showed an accelerated growth rate (36 per cent) in the Muslim population between 1991 and 2001, the adjusted data showed that there had, in fact, been a deceleration from 32.9 per cent in 1981-91 to 29.3 per cent in 1991-2001. More significantly, the deceleration was the highest among Muslims compared to any other religious group.

Census officials also point to the fact that the Hindu population has, in fact, not fallen as is made out because many communities earlier classified as Hindu - Jains, Sarnas and Lingayats - have been recognised independently in the latest counting. Also some population groups such as tribal people, hitherto counted as Hindu, are now registered as "other religions". In fact, officials point out that the population of "other religions", under which category several sections that have broken away from the Hindu fold are grouped, has recorded a 103 per cent increase from the last Census.

Yet the Sangh Parivar does not want to see the new reality but continues to claim that "the situation is alarming as the Muslim community is conspiring to convert Hindu Rajya into a Muslim country"; that "the situation is of grave concern"; that "in order to appease the Muslims, they are allowed to marry many times, a practise now disallowed even in Muslim countries"; and that "the Hindu population is on the decline owing to religious conversion and family planning while the Muslim population is rising at a demonic pace because of infiltration and because they are encouraged by their leaders to have several children".

WHAT do the data reveal? According to the adjusted figures (excluding Assam and Jammu and Kashmir to make the data comparable), Hindus account for 81.4 per cent and Muslims 12.4 per cent of the total population. If Hindus formed 82.3 per cent of the rural and 75.6 per cent of the urban population, the figures for Muslims were 12 per cent and 17.3 per cent. Of the total Hindu population, 74 per cent lives in the rural areas and 26 per cent in the urban areas; the corresponding figures for Muslims are 64 per cent and 36 per cent respectively. Muslims are thus concentrated in the urban areas.

The decadal rise (1991-2001) in population is 20 per cent for Hindus and 29.3 per cent for Muslims. But the growth rate is decelerating, much faster for Muslims (by 3.6 percentage points since 1981-91) than for Hindus (2.8 percentage points). This is in line with the accepted demography theory that population growth will fall with development and ultimately stagnate.

Given these figures, there is not the remotest possibility of Muslims becoming the majority community in India in the foreseeable future. In fact, the earliest that Muslims can outnumber Hindus is three centuries from now and that too if the two communities continue to grow at the same rate as in 1991-2001. In the near term, say, the next three decades, Muslims will account for no more than 14 per cent of India's population.

Even the projections for three centuries are mathematical, not realistic. For, it is nothing short of the ridiculous to assume that Hindus and Muslims will keep growing at the same rate as in 1991-2001. In that eventuality, the country's population would be roughly 5,000 times today's numbers.

According to standard demography theory, the birth rate will decline and the population growth will eventually stop. Demographers estimate that India will reach this situation in the first half of this next century; even at that time, Muslims will account for around 14 per cent of the population. This is only slightly higher than the percentage (11 to 12) of Muslims in the population all through the past century.

The population growth rate of Muslims is higher compared to Hindus because of the higher fertility rate among them. Why is the fertility rate higher among Muslims? Is it because of their religion, or because of their socio-economic conditions?

Demographers have come to accept that religion does not have any major influence on fertility behaviour. Crucial is the socio-economic condition of the population. Hence R.H. Cassen, a respected social scientist in his book India: Population, Economy, Society writes: "It is virtually impossible to assess the part played by the content of religion in fertility. Even if we could state what is the net impact of encouragements and discouragements to procreation in scripture and teachings, we would not know how influential they are, and whether that influence is wanting."

R.H. Chaudhury, a well-known sociologist and an expert on demography, in his book Social Aspects of Fertility: With Special Reference to Developing Countries says: "The observed differences in fertility are mostly due to socio-economic differences between Muslims and other religious groups. Once these differences are accounted for, the fertility differentials between Muslims and other religious groups will largely disappear."

In the last Census, the lowest fertility rate for Muslims was in rural Tamil Nadu; Hindus in 12 States had a fertility rate higher than this. If indeed religion is the sole or the most important determinant of fertility, this is improbable.

A curious reversal of the pattern was observed in Jammu and Kashmir. The fertility rate of Hindus there was almost twice that of Muslims. This raises an important question: Does minority status, by inducing a sense of insecurity in a community, lead to higher fertility levels for the community? If so, is this one of the factors responsible for the higher fertility levels among Muslims in the country?

THE importance of socio-economic conditions in population growth is borne out by the population figures across States between 1991 and 2001: While the population growth rate across all communities in prosperous (in terms of socio-economic indices) States such as Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Maharashtra is much below the national average, in the poorer States of Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan it is substantially higher than the national average across all communities. The Muslim population is rising faster in the poorer States of Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh than in the developed Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka. In fact, in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the Muslim population growth is lower than the national average.

This suggests that socio-economic backwardness leads to higher fertility. This is borne out by the data on population growth and education levels. For example, Bihar has among the highest fertility rates, the lowest overall literacy rate and one of the poorest employment rates across all communities. In contrast, Kerala has one of the highest literacy levels, including among women, and the lowest fertility rates among all communities. Little wonder that Bihar's population grew at a much faster rate than Kerala's. Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Delhi, Mizoram, Goa, Pondicherry, Chandigarh, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands have high female literacy levels (over 70 per cent) for all communities. They also have low fertility rates.

Overall, Muslims have a literacy rate of 59.1 per cent, 5.7 percentage points lower than the national average. Hardly half the Muslim women are literate. While in Haryana, just about one-fifth of Muslim women are literate, the figure is about one third in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Nagaland and Jammu and Kashmir. In 15 States, the literacy level among Muslim women is less than 50 per cent. These States also have a high fertility rate among Muslims. This confirms that the higher fertility level among Muslims is because of their backward socio-economic conditions, particularly educational backwardness.

R.H. Chaudhury writes: "The higher fertility of Muslims is found to be associated with less economic activity and the scant education of Muslim women... One may, therefore, say that it is not mere affiliation with Islam, but one's socio-economic status that determines fertility behaviour."

That the socio-economic conditions of Muslims is worse than that of Hindus - particularly in the urban areas - is borne out by all available facts: some 59 per cent of Muslim women have not attended school; 60 per cent were married by the age of 17 and hardly 14 per cent registered work participation.

Cassen brings out the importance of education in reducing fertility: "The contribution of education to fertility decline is not just by the alteration of parents' aspirations, but by the spread of rationality itself. The basic differentiator of those for whom babies just come and those for whom the number that come as a result of more or less deliberate choice seems so often to be education."

The level of education for every 1,000 persons in every age group is lower for Muslims when compared to Hindus both in the rural and urban areas, particularly among women. This is an important reason for the high fertility rates among them.

According to Dr. K. Nagaraj, Senior Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, two such aspects that are important in relation to fertility levels are education - particularly of women - and the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR, defined as the number of infant deaths for 1,000 children born alive in a year).

Cassen discusses the relationship between IMR and fertility rate: "The basic ground for postulating a relationship between mortality and fertility is that what people want is not just children but surviving children. When children are known to be likely to die... the whole psychological nature of child-bearing is likely to be far removed from the careful consideration of supportable numbers... The gradual decline in mortality might have played a part in inducing parents to have fewer children - not probably because they consciously perceived that their children were more likely to survive and they therefore did not need to have so many, but rather because it was gradually found that more of them were surviving and were thus harder to support."

The IMR is higher for Muslims than for Hindus in the urban areas, where they are much more concentrated. This, according to Nagaraj, is a strong causative factor for high fertility of Muslims compared to Hindus in the urban areas.

The lowest work participation rate of 31.3 per cent is of Muslims at the national level; just about 14 per cent of Muslim women are registered to participate in work. Surprisingly, even in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which have high literacy rates among all communities, including Muslims, the work participation rate of Muslims is low - about 14 percentage points lower than that of Hindus.

But these scientific explanations for higher fertility among Muslims are overshadowed by the stereotype image that is projected to perpetuate the myths about their social and cultural behaviour. One of the common myths used to explain the higher fertility rates among Muslims is that "Muslims could marry four times and there is a religious proclivity to reproduce more number of children". That there is no basis for such myths is clear from the 1911 Census report, which stated that a Muhammadan may have four wives but usually he practises monogamy. According to the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (1975, pages 66-67), during the decades 1941-51 and 1951-61, the percentage of polygamous marriages (where a man has more than one wife) among Hindus was 7.15 and 5.06 respectively while the corresponding figures for Muslims were lower at 7.06 and 4.31 respectively. Moreover, according to Kanti Pakrasi's paper, "Marriage Systems and its Impact on Family Formation and Family Planning" (presented at the conference "Recent Population Trends in South Asia", New Delhi, 1983), polygamous couples in general had lower rates of live births than the corresponding rates for all couples surveyed in urban India. He further reiterates that polygamy cannot lead to higher fertility as more than one female marrying one male is not likely to raise fertility; on the contrary, it is likely to lower fertility.

Clearly, the poor socio-economic conditions - key to the study of demographic patterns and change - of the Muslim population are responsible for the rise in their population. Doubtless, if their socio-economic conditions improve, their fertility rate will decline and their population growth rate will fall. Thus, the prescription to stabilise the population: raise literacy levels, particularly of women, enhance economic growth and distributive justice and make basic health care facilities accessible to all.

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