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The population bogey

Print edition : Oct 08, 2004 T+T-

Disregarding the well-established principles of demography, the Sangh Parivar continues to thrive on myths about the growth rate of the Muslim population.

in New Delhi

IN the first week of September, the Census Office released the First Report on Religion Data emerging from the Census of India, 2001. The comparisons made in it of "unadjusted" and "adjusted" growth rates of the population of various religious communities created confusion and a political controversy. The Bharatiya Janata Party was quick to pounce on it, raising an alarm at the growing number of Indians, particularly the minority communities. With the Maharashtra elections round the corner, the Census figures became fodder for its campaign.

In Bangalore, on September 7, after a meeting of the party's national office-bearers, BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu called for the uniform adoption of population control measures by people belonging to various communities. The findings of the Census, he said, should be a cause of concern for all those who think of India's unity and integrity in the long term. He was concerned that while the rate of growth of Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists had come down, the population of Muslims and Christians was growing at a higher rate. Any imbalance, he cautioned, was not a healthy trend. It was time for a national debate on introducing incentives and disincentives to encourage the two-child norm, irrespective of religious considerations. The party expressed its commitment to the national target of population stabilisation by 2026. It also expressed concern over the "demographic invasion" of over 1.2 crore Bangladeshi "infiltrators", especially in the northeastern region.

A day later, Census Commissioner and Registrar-General of India J.K. Banthia clarified that he had, while releasing the report, explained to the media the facts relating to "unadjusted" and "adjusted" data. The "unadjusted" growth rates of population were based on a comparison of the all-India totals of populations emerging from the periodic Censuses, without taking into consideration the fact that no enumeration was done in Assam in 1981, and in Jammu and Kashmir in 1991. In other words, they were based on comparing incomparable data. The "adjusted" figures, on the other hand, involved comparisons of population totals excluding the figures for Assam and Jammu and Kashmir. Banthia said that these revised or adjusted figures showed that the growth rate of the Muslim population had been steadily declining over the years since 1971 and that motives were being attributed to what was at best a clerical error.

While the initial reactions of the BJP are understandable given its ideological orientation, it was surprising to see the issue being resurrected on September 11-12 in a different form despite the Census Commissioner's clarification. During the two-day BJP Chief Ministers' conclave held in New Delhi, it was proposed that the Chief Ministers should push a population policy, favouring incentives and disincentives and based on a two-child norm, for all sections of the population. On September 16, the BJP president announced the setting up of a committee on "demographic invasion" to be chaired by former Union Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi. The committee was to focus on the "infiltration" from Bangladesh.

Despite clarifications, the BJP and its ideological affiliates continued to make population growth an issue. On September 19, the Web site of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) carried an article suggesting that Muslims constituted one-third of Assam's population. The report is likely to create an uproar in the State which has seen agitations on the `infiltration' issue. The facts, however, as borne out by the Census report, are that in Assam and in Tripura, the growth rate of the Muslim population is the same and not higher than the national average for the community. And in West Bengal, it is below the national average. Hence the infiltration theory is simply not corroborated by the figures.

An article by Sangh Parivar ideologue and columnist S. Gurumurthy in the same Web site says that the Census Commissioner should be congratulated on bringing out the truth. The article, titled "Congratulate him for bringing out the truth, bluntly", Gurumurthy writes: "The Census figures for 2001 have come out for the first time with statistics on religious demography in India. That the Muslim population in India is moving ahead of the rest is undeniable. Not denied in fact. Whether it is rising by 36 per cent in a decade or 29 per cent is the dispute. That all others Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists put together rise only two-thirds as fast too is undeniable." The Census-based fact that more Hindus than Muslims were added to the Indian population between 1991 and 2001 (4.8 Hindus for every one Muslim) was conveniently ignored while making such an assertion.

The September 19 issue of the RSS organ, Organiser, also carried several articles on the issue, including one titled "Census politics with Muslim numbers". The article suggests that in just two days, the Census Commissioner, under pressure from the ruling Congress, altered the figures of the rate of growth of the Muslim population by juggling statistics. The editorial titled "The Population Bomb" says: "The Census 2001 has given India a wake-up call. A Hindu majority in every region of the country is an implicit guarantee of its integrity, civilisational vitality and economic prosperity. It is a tragedy; India has no uniform civil code. In the absence of which some minority groups are given the privileges of democratic, modern, permissiveness, even as they enjoy the protections of outdated religious diktats. In such a situation all efforts of the state to have an enlightened population policy are defeated. The changing religious profile of Indian population has a strong impact on the future of India. And it continues to be amongst the major determinants of strife."

APPARENTLY, the BJP and its ideological allies have a short memory. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was in power when the National Population Policy (NPP) was approved by Parliament in 2000. The NPP embodied the spirit of the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, 1994, which laid stress on the slogan "development is the best pill". India became a signatory to the Cairo declaration and it was assumed that any population policy would be in consonance with the basic principles enshrined therein - the pursuance of population policies that are non-coercive and not based on any disincentives and incentives. The NPP, among other things, pledged to improve social indicators of women's development such as literacy, access to health and medical services and address unmet contraceptive needs. A National Population Commission was set up under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister with a corpus of Rs.100 crores to suggest ways to implement the policy. The NPP cautioned correctly that while a two-child norm was desirable, it should not be achieved by resorting to either coercion or by using incentives and disincentives.

So what explains the BJP's about-turn and the sudden emphasis on population control and the two-child norm? The only plausible reason is that the use of terms such as "demographic invasion" and the call for a national debate on population control stem from political expediency and not from a genuine concern for the health of the people. In a statement criticising the BJP's propaganda, the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), the Delhi Science Forum and the Sama (a group dealing with women's health issues) pointed out that in States that had higher indicators of social development the population growth rate for all communities had come down. "It was access to basic rights that determined the family size and not religion," it said.

Another fall-out of the controversy over the figures has been a debate within the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. While its vice-president Maulana Kalbe Sadiq declared that the Board would promote family planning, its president Maulana Rabeh Husni Nadwi rejected the idea and stated in Lucknow that family planning was "un-Islamic". It is intriguing that the socio-economic backwardness of Muslims, which has emerged as a result of the cross-tabulated data, has not been the focus of interest of any of these groups. Interestingly, the BJP welcomed the views of Maulana Sadiq on family planning.

Sughra Mehdi, vice-president of the All India Muslim Women's Forum, has a different take on the issue. She told Frontline that while there was nothing "un-Islamic" about family planning, the population problem was not that of a particular community as such. It concerned the entire country and nobody should be forced to adopt the small-family norm.

But there are other concerns as well. Sahba Farooqi, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), expressed apprehensions about the misuse of the Census data. She said: "Despite the clarification by the Census office, the BJP and others continue to focus on some selective aspects of population growth. While some of us can see the politics behind the growth rate hysteria, it is very difficult to reverse the damage done by the Census office and the manner in which sections of the media covered the issue." A little cynical about the release of such data on the eve of the Maharashtra Assembly elections, Farooqi said that it eventually reinforced stereotypes and gave an opportunity to conservative parties to attack the minorities.

Moreover, history has shown how Census figures have been manipulated. Charu Gupta, feminist historian and Reader in History in the University of Delhi, has documented several instances where the Hindu Right used such data to its advantage. In a paper titled "Censuses, Hindu Communalism, Gender and Identity: A Historical Perspective", she cites examples from Census Reports of pre-Independence India to show that historically Census data has been used not just for enumeration but also for comparison. According to her, in 1979, the Hindu Mahasabha brought out a publication, "They Count Their Gains, We Calculate Our Losses", which tried to raise a scare about rising Muslim population by using Census data in a distorted manner. Many of these debates, she says, can be linked to the present situation. With such arguments, even a religious majority can project itself as an endangered minority. The whole discourse of the Hindu Right around Census is aimed at obliterating the pluralism of identities, by provoking a fear of the "Other" and perpetrating myths about catastrophic decline of the Hindu population.

The BJP and its ideological partners are not going to stop harping on inflated growth rates or raising the bogey of minority population explosion. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, on the other hand, while not going into the merits of Census 2001, has declared its intention to conduct an inquiry into the confusion over the Muslim growth rate. This is despite the Minister of State for Home admitting that the confusion was the result of a "technical aberration".

It is surprising that neither the Congress nor the BJP has found it prudent to stress on the strengths of the data on religions - especially those relating to work participation, sex ratio and literacy - and dismiss the technical aberration.